M.S. in International Communication leads to the Embassy of Sweden in Uganda

 Helene Diyabanza-Peterson

My academic journey: from Stockholm University to St. John’s University

In January 2017, I started the International Communications (ICM) Program at St. John’s University in Queens as an international student from Sweden. Prior to that, my leave request from my ordinary job at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) Headquarters in Stockholm had been accepted. Immediately when I read the description for ICM, I knew it was for me. While the Communication part was new to me as I had done my undergrad studies in Business Administration and mostly worked in Finance Departments in the Swedish public sector after that, the Global Development part of the program was more familiar since I had worked for SIDA (corresponding to USAID) in the recent years.

My interest in global development comes from my background. Having grown up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sweden with a Congolese father and a mother who was a Swedish missionary in Congo, my dream was always to work for an international organization with the goal of making the world a better place.

ICM – St. John’s University in Queens

In 2014, I followed my husband to New York as he had assumed a position as a diplomat and Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations. While living in Queens as a housewife, I took the opportunity to pursue my master studies.  A dear friend of mine, Ms. Emilia Udvareva, recommended St. John’s University and helped me prepare all the necessary applications. My first impression was my interview with Dr. Basilio Monteiro. He looked me in the eyes and said, there will be a lot of readings, 5-6 books a week. With two children at home, I thought to myself, he must be joking. It later turned that he did not. It was a lot of reading, everything from Cicero “The Republic and The Laws” to Luciano Floridi’s “The 4th Revolution”. I was very excited about my first lesson. I remember looking at my peers, they all looked so young and so confident and seemed to be from all over the world. For me, St. John’s University in Queens is diversity personified. My impression was that many of them had studied media and mass communication in their undergrad studies. I felt a little bit lost. However, the lessons soon became my favorite moments of the week. In my first year, I had Dr. Monteiro and Dr. Minna Aslama Horowitz in all my classes, and in my second year I also had Dr. Mark Juszczak and Dr. Candice D. Roberts. I was impressed by their charismatic and engaging way of teaching which made the time to fly by. I feel honored to have attended these classes. The discussions always held a high level, and I soon began to admire my peers for their maturity and relevant inputs, despite their young age.

Argentina – ICSB Academy

After my first semester, in the summer of 2017, Dr. Monteiro asked if I wanted to travel to Argentina. I said yes even before I was sure what it was about. Dr. Monteiro together with the Dean, Dr. Katja Passerini, and the Assistant Dean, Kevin James, would take 7 students from the ICM Program in Queens, and 2 students from the Global Development Program in Rome, to a competition for Small Businesses in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Buenos Aires arranged by the International Council for Small Businesses (ICSB). My best memory from this trip was the connection that I felt with the students from our University. Other dear memories were of course the beautiful city of Buenos Aires, the food, the tango, as well as the ICSB Academy where we learnt how to pitch, make a business canvas, what to think about when starting a small social business, and that was my first real contact with the UN SDGs. I got inspired by the SDGs and have since had a vision for my childhood village of Luozi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), that by 2030 there will be electricity, water, internet and proper roads. Later, I included this in one of my assignments, which became part of a paper compiled by Dr. Monteiro that we brought with us to another ICSB conference in Italy.

UNFPA Internship

During my studies in the ICM Program, I had the opportunity to do an internship at one of the UN Agencies, UNFPA Program Division. My main task was to support the Communication Team with the Interactive Strategic Plan 2018-2022. To gain as much experience as possible working with communication and with the UN, I extended my internship to 6 months, even though my credits were only counted for 4 months. I can strongly recommend ICM students to do an internship at the UN if given the opportunity, it adds an extra level of understanding to the program in a global setting.

Graduation

Another memorable moment at the ICM Program is, of course, the Graduation. I was offered to go in May 2018, which means experiencing the graduation process in its entirety. It meant so much to be able to walk with my peers, especially those I got to know so closely in Argentina. And to have my family and close friends attending the ceremony. After four challenging, in many ways, years in New York, I was more than proud of this accomplishment.

Italy – Study Tour 2018

After graduating from the ICM Program I decided to apply to the MBA Program at the Tobin College of Business in order to sharpen my skills even more before returning to Sweden. The MBA was also like an unfinished business that I had started when I did my undergrad studies in Business Administration at Stockholm University many years ago.  During my first semester at the MBA Program, Dr. Monteiro reached out to me and asked if I was interested in attending an ICSB Conference in Italy. He wanted to participate with a paper that he had compiled from his own essay and three other students, which looked at communication and economic development from different countries (India, Ireland and Congo – DRC/Sweden), and I was one of the students. I said of course yes. Our Italian experience was magical. We were warmly greeted by Dr Monteiro’s colleague and friend, Dr. Roberto Parente, who is a full Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Salerno. He had arranged for us to stay in a beautiful lodge in the middle of the Cilente National Park. It was the four of us from St. John’s University; Dr. Monteiro, Monica Martre from India, Hope DeVito from the USA and I, as an International student from Sweden. Dr. Parente introduced us to his students Anna-Laura Califano from Italy and Mara Hesley from the USA who did her research in Italy with another brilliant Professor Dr. Bise Della Piana. Everything was authentic, the nature, the food, the people, and the beautiful language. We truly had an extraordinary learning experience of the Cilente National Park. We visited the Mayor of the town Morigerati Mr. Cono D’Elia and shared a delicious meal with him. We went to a museum and learned how to roll fresh pasta in a small restaurant with a fantastic warm and friendly atmosphere. We stayed there till long after they had closed, discussing marriage and relationships in the Indian culture and sharing our impressions and observations of the trip so far. One day we also made an excursion to the old caves “Grotte del Bussento” and climbed deep down to reach the source of the water. On our way up we took the cable car with a spectacular view of the nature below us. Two days later, we had to say goodbye to our lovely hosts at the lodge and to the Cilente National Park to continue our journey to the conference in Salerno.

In Salerno we were back in civilization with high speed internet, comfortable hotels, and shops and restaurants in every corner. We had a great time attending the conference, presenting our paper, enjoying some shopping in nice Italian boutiques, and especially continuing to enjoy our discussions and the Italian food. And still, we left a feeling of completeness in the Cilente National Park. The pure and authentic way of living, which made people live a long healthy life made a deep impression on me. When I asked if they had any elderly care, they answered that it was not needed because people there rarely suffered from heart diseases or dementia, which is otherwise so common in the western world. The high quality in food with, for example, pure olive oil, homemade pasta and bread, and organic fruits, vegetables and meat seemed to have led to a very healthy life. The only threat to health could be found mainly among the men who smoke cigarettes. Therefore, women tended to live longer since they did not smoke as much as men. This was of course pre-Covid, but I hope that people in Cilente have been somehow spared from the Coronavirus.

Our learning experience ended in a small village along the Amalfi coast. ICSB had arranged a bus drive up the hill on a very narrow serpentine road to a beautiful banquette with award prizes to the winners of the papers. Dr. Monteiro won the prize for his paper and our trip could not have been more successful. I am so proud and honored to have experienced this learning experience through the ICM Program. I only hope that Dr. Monteiro will soon be able to take his students to new fascinating places in the world, maybe to Uganda.

Embassy of Sweden in Uganda

A year into my MBA studies, I got my dream job as First Secretary / Controller at the Embassy of Sweden in Kampala. I believe, however, that my studies in the International Communication Program had an impact in why I was selected for this job. It certainly turned out to be the right foundation for this position. My internship at the UNFPA and the ICSB trips to Argentina and Italy gave me a great understanding of the UN and the Sustainable Development Goals, which I carry with me when I meet our UN partners in Uganda. When reading proposals from partner organizations such as NGO’s, the World Bank, International NGO’s etc. or in my interaction with Ugandan government institutions, I take with me the lessons on governance and policies that we learned from Dr. Minna Aslama Horowitz. And perhaps most importantly is the foundation that I got from the political philosophy lessons with Dr. Monteiro, which opened my mind and constantly challenging our traditional way of thinking and seeing the globalization and the western world’s way of working in developing countries. Even though I am working with global development, it is important to understand that the traditional grant system is in many cases not sustainable and in order to find sustainable solutions, we need to get corporate on board. I am therefore very proud of Sweden and Sida for changing the focus from traditional grants to also include other forms of financing such as loan and guarantees, acting as a facilitator and catalyst for the private sector, both locally and globally. Sweden’s focus on digitalization and the UN Leaving no one behind is also something that I understand and can fully relate to after my years with the ICM Program.

My takeaways from the ICM Program and advice to current and future students at St. John’s University

With the exception of the concrete impact that the ICM Program had and continues to have on my work at the Swedish Embassy in Kampala today and in my work in an international setting, I especially take with me all the fantastic lectures with my brilliant professors Dr. Basilio Monteiro, Dr. Minna Aslama Horowitz, Dr. Mark Juszczak and Dr. Candice D. Roberts, moments with my peers, the friendly and warm atmosphere at St. John’s University in Queens, the amazing trips that I made with Dr. Monteiro and his students to Argentina and Italy, another insight into how the world works, and the mechanism behind the media, political decisions, and how everything goes in waves. For my current work, I could not have had a better platform than my ICM Program. Another thing that I take with me is the interest in international communication in terms of how we can use media and social platforms to reach out, influence, communicate and share information. I will continue to be more active in working with our internal and external communication at the Embassy and develop my own social media channels to interact more with my friends and professors at St. John’s but also with other friends and colleagues around the world.

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