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Veerle Vroon (MA History) did a placement with the Mission of the UNHCR in Strasbourg

Veerle Vroon is following two degree programmes: International Relations and International Organization (IRIO) and History. As part of her Master’s programme in History, she did a placement with the Mission of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) at the European Institutions in Strasbourg. These are both the European Parliament, part of the EU, and the intergovernmental human rights organization, the Council of Europe. We asked her the following questions:

How did you go about finding a placement?

To be quite honest, I wasn’t looking for a placement. I had passed my Bachelor’s degrees in IRIO and History, and had started a Master’s programme in IRIO, for which I already had a placement. I hadn’t decided whether I wanted to study for a Master’s degree in History at that point. Finding a placement for IRIO had been quite difficult. What’s more, I’d been at university for eight years and wanted to graduate as soon as possible. The thought of another placement as part of a Master’s programme in History was anything but appealing.

However, last summer I went to Strasbourg (France) for a week to conduct some thesis interviews with staff working for the international human rights organization, the Council of Europe. I was so impressed that I decided I wanted to do a placement there. I’d hardly had time to start thinking about it before a girl I’d met in Strasbourg sent me a vacancy advert for a placement in the offices of the UNHCR in Strasbourg. The vacancy dovetailed nicely with my specialist subjects and I realized that this opportunity was too good to miss. So I applied and was selected. I was absolutely delighted that I’d been chosen and enrolled in the Master’s programme in History after all.

What did you learn from your placement?

I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in such a short time! This placement gave me a much clearer idea of how international organizations work. It was also the first time I’d taken on the role of ‘lobbyist for a good cause’, and I can only say that I enjoyed it. A project I set up with a French student on a placement gave me interesting insight into French schools in deprived areas and the problems faced by asylum seekers and migrants in France. What’s more, I learned a lot about the protection of refugees and international human rights, I improved my English and particularly my French, discovered the highs and lows of office life and got a better idea of my job prospects after graduating. For example, I now realize that although a job with an international or non-governmental organization in the area of refugees and migration would be very interesting and challenging, I would rather not work for the Council of Europe or an international agency where you don’t actually meet the people you are trying to help (as I did on my placement). Instead, I’d like to find a job where I can combine fieldwork with policy development and lobbying. The knowledge and experience I gained during this placement, together with the glowing reference I was given, should be a great help.

In many cases, I think a placement helps students to discover the nature of their capacities and work out what they want to do after they graduate (or what they don’t want to do!). It is an opportunity to gain useful knowledge, work experience and possibly a good reference, which makes it easier to find a job when you leave university. At least I hope it does…

Veerle Vroon
Veerle Vroon

What would you do differently next time?

I would ask explicitly whether the person that the organization assigns as placement supervisor will be available for the entire period. I discovered on the third day of my placement that my supervisor would be leaving to start a new job five weeks later. Another member of staff had also just found a new job, which meant that two-thirds of the people I was working with left just before or during my placement. The office manager was my official supervisor for the remaining four months, but he was so busy (finding new staff) that I was virtually unsupervised.

Do you have any useful placement tips?

·         Tell as many people as possible (friends, family and acquaintances) that you are looking for a placement

·         If possible, go to an organization that you are considering as a placement option for a thesis interview or something similar, so that you can talk to the people who work there. This gives you an impression of the work and climate within the organization, and can provide useful information about placement opportunities

·         Learn the language of the country you are living in; this will make your stay much more rewarding

·         Tell your placement supervisor about the things you are interested in, your thesis topic, your specialist subject during the degree programme. This will increase your chances of being offered challenging work that allows you to expand your specialist knowledge

·         Don’t do a research placement unless you are seriously considering a job as a researcher after you graduate. Doing a practically oriented placement will help you to acquire many more new skills and knowledge, which will help you to find a job when you leave university

·         If you are doing a policy placement, try to find a small organization or department, preferably slightly understaffed… (but check that this will not interfere with your supervision!). This will give you a better chance of varied work and a relatively high level of responsibility, enabling you to acquire new skills and a more realistic idea of the type of work involved.

Last modified:08 October 2018 4.12 p.m.
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