OCA Spotlight on Selene Sunmin Lee MPP 2010

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The Office of Career Advancement (OCA) Alumni Spotlight Series features interviews with Harvard Kennedy School Alumni who share details of their career journeys. Spotlight interviews are published almost exclusively on the school intranet site where only current students have access, but they are sometimes shared on this blog as well. In this installment of the series, Selene Sunmin Lee MPP 2010, Social Policy Officer for UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia describes how the Harvard Kennedy School helped her refine her career goals.

Tell us about your current job.

I am a Social Policy Officer in the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, which covers Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. My main job is to conduct research and analysis on social and economic policies concerning children and women in the region.

Tell us about the journey you’ve taken to get to where you are.

I was interested in international development for a very long time, so I pursued an undergraduate degree in international studies with a concentration in international development. After graduation, I worked at the headquarters of the Korea International Cooperation Agency, the bilateral donor agency of Korea, in the Office of Policy Planning and Research. After that experience, I enrolled in HKS and obtained an MPP degree with a concentration in political and economic development. My first job after graduation was as a Programme Officer in the United Nations Volunteer Programme in Mongolia, where I integrated volunteerism into various UN projects, led a network of international and national volunteer organizations to advocate for volunteerism, and supported the establishment of a law on volunteerism to create a favorable environment for the volunteer sector in Mongolia. Then last year, I was selected by the Junior Policy Officer program sponsored by the Republic of Korea to work as a Social Policy Officer in the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia.

Is what you are doing now what you thought you would be doing when you entered the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)?   

When I entered HKS, I knew I was interested in international development policy, but I was not sure where I wanted to direct my focus. During my time at HKS, I explored many different areas of international development and eventually found my interest in social policy.

Is there anything you might have done differently knowing what you know now?

If I had the chance to be a student at HKS again, I would use the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and professional network in the area of social policy. HKS is a great place to get a taste of everything, but it is also a place to delve into a specific field if you already know your area of interest. I don’t regret using my opportunity at HKS to explore different areas of international development since I was at the very beginning of my career; if I were to go back now, at this stage of my life, I would of course do things differently.

What do you think has been the greatest professional benefit to you from your time at HKS?

There was never a shortage of forum events, conferences, and students and faculty sharing their research and experience on a wide array of topics. Everyone was truly passionate and excited about what they were doing. The diversity of the community, and the depth of knowledge and experience that each person has to offer, are great assets for HKS.

What course(s) or HKS experience do you feel best prepared you for what you are doing now?

The Spring Exercise (of the MPP program) is very close to what I do at work, because I have to become an expert on a certain topic in a very short period of time while working in a group. My current job feels like a continuum of several overlapping Spring Exercises, so I am glad I got a taste of that at HKS. Also, the Statistics and Econometrics courses have been very helpful, because my work requires conducting data analysis using STATA.

How do you use the HKS network in your professional life?

My HKS network is very alive in my current work, because my direct supervisor was a Fellow at one of the HKS centers when I was a student. We are now trying to use our HKS network to create a partnership between our office and HKS, for example, by establishing a summer internship program for HKS students/graduates in UNICEF offices in the region.

Were there special challenges you faced as an international student? If so, how did you address those?

Sometimes I was frustrated as an international student, because many of the courses at HKS were focused on the American context. I tried to overcome this by bringing my international background into class discussions, and I think the other students appreciated that. Also, I faced some administrative challenges, such as restrictions in applying for scholarships and loans. But overall, I think HKS is very welcoming to international students, since there are so many international students as well as American students with international experience.

What specific career advice do you have for students interested in pursuing opportunities in your area? What are the most important factors to consider?

I encourage students interested in international development to gain as much on-the-ground work experience as they can in developing countries. This will allow students to understand what international development is all about and test whether international development is what they really want to do as a career, plus it will increase their chances of finding a job after graduation. Another important factor to consider is how to balance family life and work. It can be difficult to keep a happy family while working in challenging conditions all around the word, but it’s not impossible.

To all students in the beginning of their career, my advice is “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” (Theodore Roosevelt). It can be stressful to look for jobs at the beginning of your career, because many jobs require prior work experience, but you can’t get work experience without getting a job first. So start with what you can get, even if it’s not your ideal job, as long as it fits into the general direction of where you want to go.  Use that experience to get a step closer to what you want to do. (Who knew I would be promoting volunteerism in Mongolia after graduating from HKS?)