Our New Normal: Navigating Professionalism During a Pandemic

Hello! I’m Karenna, a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh and a recipient of this year’s David C. Frederick Public Service Internship Award. I am a proud first-generation American, raised by a Colombian mother and Turkish father. My experience at the intersection of three vastly different cultures has had its privileges and pitfalls. I have experienced events like Turkey’s 2013 Gezi Park protests and 2016 attempted coup d’etat in person, while witnessing the effects of the drug trade in Colombia and migration crises in both of my parents’ countries of birth. Coming into college, I knew that I wanted to pursue peace and conflict studies en route to a humanitarian career. I am majoring in Political Science (International Relations Track) and English Writing (Nonfiction Track), minoring in Turkish, and completing a certificate in Global Studies (Peace, Conflict and Security Track).

Since arriving at Pitt, my on-campus involvement has included a year-long service term with AmeriCorps’ JumpStart program for early literacy, participation in Pitt Best Buddies’ disability advocacy events, and leadership roles on the Varsity rowing team. Off-campus, I have interned with the Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management, served on PA Youth Climate Strike’s executive board, and worked part-time jobs to pay down student debt. In a bittersweet twist, I had to leave all of this behind when offered a series of overseas scholarships. My passion for Turkish and participation in the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship at Pitt contributed to my selection as a Critical Language Scholar and Boren Scholar. Through these fully-funded programs, I spent nearly a year in an intensive, Baku-based Turkish language program.

Lake Goygol, located in Western Azerbaijan

Although this past year was the most challenging one yet, I grew in every way imaginable. On weekdays, I took language courses and conducted research on violent extremism at the Center for Economic and Social Development. On weekends, I volunteered with internally displaced middle schoolers from the country’s Nagorno-Karabakh region and ventured into the countryside for rigorous, snow-laden hikes. Although I was unable to engage in protests, I was able to continue conversations around social justice as the host of a weekly forum for university students. Then March 7 came, and I was given 48 hours to leave the country in response to a State Department decision regarding the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Attending an international conference, Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, as part of my internship. The conference was hosted by the U.N. and USAID.

Coming home early was an unfortunate and abrupt change in plans. I was only able to say brief goodbyes to my host family and friends, and only virtual messages could be exchanged with my professors and program staff given school closures at the time. As I recovered from jet lag and contemplated what was next, I couldn’t help but wonder what the summer would bring. I had been awarded the Frederick in January, but began to wonder if I could even qualify for the award. Luckily, the Honors College staff was exceptional in providing awardees with application support, and I received an offer from my top choice internship at the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

I am passionate about programs that uplift conflict-affected individuals. Currently, I serve on the executive board of a non-profit that provides English tutoring and professional preparation services to over 300 Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Acknowledging the intersectionality of migration and climate change, I am also an organizer for the PA Youth Climate Strike. I started out as Pittsburgh Strike Lead in February 2019, transitioning to State Outreach Director soon after. Given my previous pursuits, I felt that the IRC was a natural fit. The organization’s motto is “From Harm to Home,” and I have always prioritized fighting for the good of society’s most marginalized. Similarly, I hope to pursue a career supporting refugee resettlement services and community-based approaches to peacemaking and peacebuilding.

In my role as an Economic Empowerment Intern, I assist with the IRC’s Refugee Social Services. My primary responsibility is to assist newly arrived refugees and asylees in becoming self-sufficient. Although the department is usually focused on employment training and job identification, COVID-19 has introduced new barriers that our office seeks to address. In my first week at the IRC, I have already learned about intake processes, met with clients, and led job trainings, while providing support for food allocation and rent alleviation initiatives. Having spent many hours focusing on refugee education programs through my executive position in Paper Airplanes, it has been an interesting and rewarding transition to facilitate employment services as a part of the IRC. Over the course of the summer, I hope to learn more about barriers to employment that conflict-affected individuals face and ways in which refugee resettlement agencies such as the IRC are able to facilitate employment placement and continued economic self-sufficiency for their clients.

Although it is difficult to offer refugee social services remotely, we are all being challenged by the current crisis. This is our new normal; a world within which we must learn to accomplish tasks and empathize with each other from afar. Even if I am unable to interact with clients in-person, I am learning self-accountability and gaining the valuable skill of trusting myself without direct supervision. COVID-19 is also teaching us lessons about appreciation, accessibility and adaptation that will effectively change the way we work, forever. Rather than running from the challenge, I am using it as an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone.

My long-term goal is to challenge and change the United States’ national security policy abroad, and improve our relationship with the Middle East by facilitating respectful dialogue and forgoing future intervention. I believe that we can create a better world, but not without considering the voices of those being harmed by our current reality. Although my time at the IRC has just started, I am already seeing my professional and personal goals take shape. Although this will be quite different from any other summer, we can all take steps towards self-betterment and societal improvement. When things get tough, don’t give up; give everything.

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