Alumni Interview with Helen Jeon
Interviewer: Emma Nijssen
Helen Jeon, a recent MDEV graduate, joined us on March 25th to tell us about her early career steps in South Korea after graduating from the Graduate Institute. In her interview we learned about the job application environment and opportunities she found in Korea, and her positive capstone experience. Read to the end for some optimistic and practical career advice! We thank Helen for her time and valuable remarks.
1) Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you studied at IHEID?
My name is Helen, I was a masters student of Development Studies at the Graduate Institute. I recently graduated last September, so I’m a new alumnus. My track was Power and Conflict, but my thesis ended up being about how the international sanctions system of the UN is affecting the humanitarian aid possibilities to the regular civilians in North Korea in times of crisis, such as during the COVID19 pandemic. There are structural loopholes to the sanction’s exemption applications within the UN sanctions committee, which essentially prevents the speedup of these applications. Especially if the humanitarian organizations are based in South Korea, the process gets even more redundant and prevents crucial and urgent medical supplies and food resources from being transported directly. As you can imagine, there are a lot of South Korean organizations that try to help in times of crisis, because we’re geographically the closest to North Korea.
2) Could you describe to us your current job at the ASEAN-KOREA Center and what you do daily?
I actually started my job here last week. I was at the Ban Ki Moon Foundation For a Better Future for about seven months since last August, and this was a very sudden shift for me because I decided not to extend my contract. There, I worked as a project assistant intern. It was a great experience because I got to work very closely with the former secretary general Mr. Ban. I was drafting his speeches for international and national conferences and for a lot of media interviews, assisting him in holding different big events in Korea, and I also had the opportunity to assist in different projects that they were doing. One of them was with the Asian Development Bank, developing an online health platform for sharing COVID information between countries.
For my recent job at the ASEAN-KOREA Center, I’m currently their project assistant. The general nature of the work that I’m given here is quite different to what I’ve been doing at the Ban Ki Moon Foundation. Because I work for a culture and tourism unit, I mainly focus on promoting tourism and cultural exchanges between Korea and the ASEAN member states. I chose this job because although ASEAN as a region is the second largest trading partner to Korea and is an essential part of Korean diplomatic relations, I didn’t have a lot of intersection, even when I was studying international relations and development throughout my academic career. So I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to not only learn the capacities and the skills to assist projects, but also to know a little bit more about the region itself and the diversity that it holds. So far it has only been a week, but I’ve been really enjoying it. Work has been very hectic, they have a lot of different projects going on at the same time. But I’m definitely seeing more of a first hand, on the ground experience.
3) What makes you feel like this is a more on the ground, first hand experience?
When I was working at the Ban Ki Moon Foundation, I was more or less helping out with the logistics of projects that are being held in partnership with these big organizations like the ADB. But here, because we’re technically organizing, developing, and drafting the proposals for these projects, you have to come up with a creative idea to plan for a new project that can go on for an annual or biannual basis for this whole unit. Also, to be able to actually implement the values you want for this project and to really see how giving birth to a project goes to successfully leading the project in the future, is what makes me feel like I’m really a part of this job, rather than just being an in-between person.
4) Could you share one of the projects you’re going to be working on?
So one of them that I was working on today and doing some background research on is called FAM Tour. A familiarization tour is essentially a tour organized either by a national travel agency, or a government that wants to attract more tourists. So what they do is they bring other countries’ foreign travel agents or experts in the tourism industry, or even influencers sometimes, into their tourism spots and destinations and give them a nice overview of what it's like to essentially have a vacation in their country. But we've been doing that and adjusting this project so that it would work even in the times of COVID, because obviously we weren't able to actually travel there to get footage. And this year, we're trying to see how the borders work in these ASEAN countries, and if there's any possibility for us to actually go to these destinations to get some footage for our FAM Tour 2022. The other project that we’re working on is a multi-century exhibition experience to promote diversity. This year's concept is on fabric textiles and traditional clothing of ten different ASEAN countries. So we would be very creative in the way that we present these goods and artwork and artifacts for the Korean public, to improve their cultural awareness and the possibilities that are out there.
5) Why did you decide not to extend your contract at the Ban Ki Moon Foundation?
That’s a question I was also asked at my interview for the ASEAN-KOREA Center. I mean, I'm so early on in my career path. I think I'm here to get a grip on how things work in this industry, but also expose myself to more challenges. What I was doing at the Ban Ki Moon Foundation was obviously amazing. I have absolutely no regrets of taking that as my first job after graduating from my master's degree, but things were getting a little redundant and I thought, I want more exposure to different projects that I can actually plan and be a part of rather than just helping with the logistics. I was up for a different kind of challenge and that's why I decided to not extend the contract with them. But I built amazing networks there and my experience at the Foundation had a reputation of its own. So when I was interviewing for my new jobs, I think it affected my results very positively, not just because of the reputation that Mr. Ban holds within the country, but also because my experiences are very unique.
6) What made you decide to move back to Korea for work? Was your decision motivated entirely by your job or did you have other reasons?
I was always planning to live abroad for my early career. Obviously COVID happened and I moved back before I could even finish my thesis. So I moved back to Korea last January when our winter break started and stayed here ever since. Looking back, I think I was just trying to step into the door of building a career somewhere, and international flights and getting different work visas abroad was almost impossible at that time. And a lot of my friends were struggling as well, especially in this industry when companies have the convenience of hiring someone European. At first it was more like, I just need something to get me started. I don't want that kind of gap of a month or a year, so that's why I applied to different jobs in Korea and ended up going for the BKM Foundation. But then the reason I decided to choose another organization that's based in Korea after the BKM Foundation, was because I got to learn that there are a variety of options for me even in Korea. Even if I were to base myself in Korea, that doesn't mean I'm closing doors for me expanding my horizons. In the spirit of my work, I always thought I’d have to be somewhere like Paris or London or Geneva to be a global and more international citizen. But being here, I really found that there is a demand for someone like me who is able to speak two different languages very fluently, but also has been educated in this kind of field and is passionate about building the bridges between our country and others. So I think that's primarily why I decided to look for options here rather than abroad. And that's what made me stay here for over a year, which is a miracle for me because I love moving around the world. I think COVID has definitely affected my choice.
7) How would you say your time at IHEID helped prepare you for your current job? Did the IHEID network or career services help you find your current or previous positions?
First of all, I was really surprised when I was job hunting and being interviewed because a lot of people recognized this school, and I didn't know that the Graduate Institute was very known in Korea. A lot of people know about LSE and these big schools with big names in these big cities, but not so much about our very small graduate school. But the reputation it holds definitely works in a positive light when you're looking for a job, at least in East Asia and in this field specifically. So for me I think just the record of having studied there already proves the level and quality of education you've got. So you don't have to say much, when you say you've been to the Graduate Institute. They really do buy high once they see that record on your CV. I don’t regret having studied at the Graduate Institute and I really couldn't have imagined a better place to get my masters degree from. In terms of career resources at the Graduate Institute, I did attend one career service webinar about how to write nice cover letters because I was really struggling with writing efficient cover letters, but I ended up Googling most of the samples and tailoring it to my tastes. For me personally, getting a job here is quite tailored to the Korean system of hiring people in this industry, which is quite different, so I didn't get much help from the resources available at school.
8) You mentioned that the process of applying for jobs in Korea is a bit different. Could you elaborate on that?
The process is a little different in the sense that they require language fluency in both languages that you speak. So there's this additional step of every application process where you have to prove your English proficiency by either writing an exam or writing a short essay, or just generally conducting an interview in both languages. Your ability to be able to translate both verbally and on documents is essential. They don't want to hire you even if you've got a great degree and diploma from great universities, if you don't have that bilingual fluency, because English is such a primary language at work. But in general, I think Korean interviews also tend to be a little bit more rigid. I've done some interviews for OECD and other organizations abroad when I was looking for internships, and they ask a lot more about yourself and your personal information, but the Korean applications or interviews specifically ask a lot about your previous knowledge about the organization or just generally about international relations or affairs. And sometimes, they're not too afraid to go a little political. They'll ask very indirectly about your political stance in a national context. That's what I generally felt that was quite different when I was approaching Korean interviewers.
9) What skills that you acquired from IHEID have been the most helpful for your professional experience?
Personally, I really enjoyed my capstone project. I think the skills that I've acquired there and the product that came out of it was one of the things I’m most proud of out of everything that I've done at the Graduate Institute. I was working with the OHCHR office in Geneva, and we were drafting a report for their annual forum. For the year I participated, their general theme was poverty and inequality: the good cases, the lessons learned, and the things to improve on. So my team of three each worked on our own stream of expertise, mine was on unilateral coercive measures. I loved researching, not so much on academic texts, but on something more recent. I was reading up on national government websites, their statistics, and a lot of news articles, and really feeling like what we're producing is going to make an impact in one way or the other in our current world. And I think just having to drop such a big report made me hone my skills with general research as well, which is working very effectively in my current job, because they’re asking for so much research. I also learned from having to manage communication between multiple stakeholders, because we have stakeholders within our own Institute, and then we have the people at the OHCHR that we have to go back and forth with feedback and updates. And then the whole experience of having to hold meetings in such a professional context has really helped me prepare for the real job world. I know people say different things about their capstone project, and people definitely have very different experiences depending on their organization’s characteristics, but for me personally, I think capstones was everything that I could take out of my Graduate Institute experience.
10) A lot of students at IHEID are looking for internships/jobs now that the summer is almost here. Do you have any advice for students looking to enter your field?
For me, I think my strength is in interviews. So I always hope that I can just get through the first CV resume situation. So then I can really appeal to the interviewers that I'm the right fit for the job. I've heard so many people apply to 60 different internships just to get one. I'm a firm believer that there's this one job that's for you. I don't apply to like 60 jobs. I always wait for that right one, where you read the description of the job and you read the requirements of the job and you know it's yours. And when you have that firm belief within yourself, is when you're the most confident in these interviews. And if the interviewer can feel that you're confident and you know that you're the right fit, is when you're going to get the job. I think that's the way to go about it, to be more efficient and choose the jobs that you're going to put your effort into. Applying to a lot of jobs is going to make you have to distribute so much of your energy and time. But if you were to put so much effort on just a few of them, a handful of them that you're maybe like 80 percent sure that you're the right fit for, then it's worth trying. Your expertise is so narrow that you can't want to apply yourself to every job out there. It's like meeting the right person in your life, right love or right friends. They come at the right time. So you shouldn't stress too much about it. We're all in the beginning of the career path. You shouldn't feel like you don't deserve this job, because everyone else is just starting off here. It's really about knowing who you are, and if the organization is looking for that kind of person. And there always will be somewhere that wants someone like you.
11) How did you get so good at interviews?
Interviews are a time for you to really shine, and to show them who you are. The way you deliver a sentence and where you put the emphasis shows your characteristics, and changes how the message is being delivered. So I think having done a lot of public speaking, and working more on my interpersonal skills, have helped me be more comfortable and confident in interviews. I think it’s important to just let yourself loose a bit. When you’re really uptight and nervous, the other person can feel that too. Just act like you’re having a conversation with a friend, and you’re telling them what you’re good at and why you’d be a good friend to work with. They’re not looking for a perfect candidate, it’s really about whether they like you as a person.
We thank Helen for taking time to speak to us.