Su-Yin Lew, 23, has just completed her final semester of a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne and is a soon-to-be policy graduate with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Su-Yin recently returned from New York where she interned with UN Women and the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, where she is currently a consultant. Any views represented are in a personal capacity.
Su-Yin, thank you so much for joining us! Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and your career experience so far? What drew you to pursue a career in the field of international affairs?
Of course, it’s my absolute pleasure! I’m still very much in my early career days, but with thanks to a lot of luck and wonderful people along the way I’ve had more than my fair share of pinch-myself experiences. Born and raised in Perth, I’m now a pseudo-Melbournian having studied a Bachelor of Arts and Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Whilst I consider myself a generalist at heart (mostly thanks to a propensity to get rather distracted by new ideas!), the past few years have really developed my passion for arms control, disarmament and gender equality. This has taken me from Geneva, as an intern with the Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations’ disarmament delegation, to Hiroshima, were I was honoured to spend the 74th anniversary of the city’s atomic bombing on a youth program with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. I started 2020 in New York interning with UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance, and then the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs where I’m currently a consultant.
Following my interests rather than a specific end-goal has really been what’s paved this career path for me. A large part of what I love about international affairs is the endless potential for learning it offers – the world, in real time, truly is your oyster! I believe making sense of international affairs calls on us to live outside ourselves and do our best to understand the lives and perspectives of others. It is also often future-focussed; finding solutions for today’s problems that take steps – whether big or small – towards a better tomorrow. It may be a little revealing of my idealism but being able to ground my career in those two principles really drew me to international affairs.
You’ve had some exciting experiences, including interning for UN Women in New York and most recently interning for the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Can you share with us one or two of your main career highlights thus far?
Being able to contribute to the work of the UN at a time which has so demonstrated the need for international cooperation has been such a privilege. The shift to a practically virtual UN was very different to the experience I had envisioned (alas, like so much of 2020!) and it’s hard to narrow down highlights! This year is a really monumental one for gender equality, celebrating 10 years of UN Women, 20 years since the adoption of UNSCR 1325 on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ and 25 years since the Beijing Platform of Action. Commemorating International Women’s Day at UNHQ alongside colleagues who’ve dedicated so much to the pursuit of gender equality was really special. UN Women has also been at the forefront of advocating for a gender-sensitive COVID-19 response and supporting campaigns in this regard was really fulfilling. At UNODA, one highlight of many was facilitating a workshop on ‘responsible innovation’ for STEM university students to discuss ethical obligations that arise from the potential weaponization of emerging technology and their own design processes. Engaging with fields we might not traditionally associate with international relations should be standard practice, and I love to see people come to the realization that they too have a role to play in a global picture.
You have a particular interest in international security, including arms control and disarmament. What do you see as some of the key challenges ahead in this space? Are there any areas where you think significant progress has been made?
Hmmm… there’s no shortage of challenges and defining them is hard in a space so broad. Aside from the stalwart problems of geopolitical tensions, political will, emerging technology and the perceived ‘strategic/humanitarian’ divide, one area I see getting worse in light of the pandemic is the under-resourcing of disarmament and arms control instruments. A lack of adequate funding could undermine processes in negotiation, implementation and verification, and see disarmament and arms control fall even further down in terms of priority. In already uncertain times we need these measures more than ever for trust and confidence between countries.
As for progress, I’m glad to see growing recognition of the need for gender mainstreaming across arms control and disarmament issues and more efforts at improving diversity in what has historically been a male-dominated field. It’s really imperative to build an understanding of the role of gender and gendered norms to be able to tackle the root causes of an issue and find sustainable solutions - so I look forward to more gains in this regard. There’s still much work to be done though!
You are the recipient of an OSCE Scholarship for Peace and Security for 2020 and were also included in Young Australians in International Affairs 2020 list of twenty ’Young Women to Watch in International Affairs’ – congratulations, it sounds like 2020 has been a pretty exciting year (despite Covid-19)! What’s next for you?
Thank you, 2020 has certainly been a whirlwind in more ways than one and I’m taking it as it comes! Fingers crossed I’ll be graduating shortly. I’ll be spending my summer as a UNODA consultant in youth engagement, an area I’m both passionate about and have a personal stake in. It’s frustrating that young people are often sidelined in policy discussions despite the perspectives we bring and policy’s direct bearing on the future we inherit, so I’m glad to be able to be a part of UNODA’s efforts at fostering the meaningful participation of youth. As for what’s next, I’m thrilled to be headed to Canberra as a policy graduate with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is certainly a dynamic and demanding time for Australian foreign policy with no shortage of on-the-job learning, and I’m looking forward to contributing through whatever means I can.
For those interested in a career in international affairs or just starting out, what advice would you offer, especially given the competitive nature of the field? How valuable were your internships and volunteer experiences in developing your skills and networks?
For sure, those early and even later days require a lot of perseverance and resilience. I’d preface this by saying there is absolutely no cookie-cutter way to get into the field and that there are great opportunities that, at first glance, may not seem ‘international’ in nature. After all, international affairs is as broad as it sounds. Personally, internship and volunteer experiences were of great value for honing my skills, gaining institutional insight and having the chance to work alongside people I’ve really come to admire and appreciate as mentors. This route is not always easy; for every successful application there is always plenty more silence or rejection that went on behind the scenes! Do your research, find ways to develop transferrable skills – particularly in writing and communication - and apply widely. That said, follow what you enjoy and have a clear sense of the value that both you bring and gain. It’s a disappointing reality that a lot of entry-level work is in unpaid or volunteer roles and having this understanding can help you better assess the merits of a position and avoid being in exploitative roles. Also, imposter syndrome and uncertainty is totally, absolutely normal – just try not to let it hold you back from doing what you love and what you’re qualified for.
What books are currently on your bedside table?
Too many! My serial book hoarding has only gotten worse amidst Melbourne’s stay-at-home restrictions. Ankit Panda’s recent book ‘Kim Jong Un and the Bomb’ has been a mainstay on my bedside table as I finish off assignments – it provides an overview of North Korea’s nuclear program and asks us to reckon with the reality that a nuclear North Korea might be here to stay. I’ve also recently revisited Julia Gillard’s autobiography ‘My Story’ which I first read many moons ago whilst still in high school. Returning to it now, with a deeper understanding of the structural barriers that face women in politics all over the world, has proved equal parts insightful, saddening and inspiring. On the fiction side of my bed has been Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life, definitely one to read if you’re in need of a good cathartic cry!
Finally, who inspires you?
I always find this question tricky, there are so many people to draw inspiration from whether the grandiose or the every day. I’m inspired and motivated by people who go out of their way to make others feel valued, those that are unrelenting in their advocacy even in the face of hardship and people who are kind in the truest sense of the word. I also admire people who are good at establishing their boundaries and maintaining a healthy work-life balance – it’s something we really don’t reward enough in this field.
Updated: 14 Dec 2020