In the latest addition to our Careers Blog, we had the privilege to ask Shea Spierings, Australia’s current Youth Representative to the United Nations, about his career thus far, his advice to other young Australians and having a positive impact on the world.
On October 7th, Shea delivered the Australian Statement on Youth Issues to the UN General Assembly. Click here to see his address.
1. For those of our readers who don’t know you, could you tell us a little about your yourself and your background? What fostered your interest in international affairs? What did you study at university and what sorts of extracurricular activities were you involved in? What other organisations (outside of DFAT) have you been involved with?
I’ve always had a passion for international affairs and events, and I’m not sure if I could highlight anything in particular that fostered my interest, but as early as I can remember I have always read widely. Even while I was still of primary school age, probably about 9, I remember watching the entire ‘The World at War’ BBC series over a period of a few weeks – still one of my favourite documentary series!
Despite my interests, my personal path wasn’t always so clear. Before attending University I worked in construction, and then security, before realizing that I wanted careers (the plural is intentional) that were more intellectually demanding. I also decided that if I was to go to University and commit myself to intensive periods of study then I needed to be passionate about whatever it was that I was studying.
Personally I knew very few people who had attended University so deciding what to study and how to approach University was initially very daunting, but it was simply a process of reflecting on my own personal interests. Also, taking a look at my bookshelf at the time helped a lot! On War by Von Clausewitz, The Art of War by Sun-Tzu, The Conquest of Gaul by Caesar, and The Prince by Machiavelli, were all there (and still are!). Then after a little bit of searching, I found the International Relations, and Peace and Conflict Studies, programs here at the University of Queensland in Brisbane and was immediately hooked.
During my time I’ve had the opportunity to work for great organisations focusing on mentoring and community development, such as AIME, and the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health.
2. What has your experience been as Australia’s Youth Representative to the United Nations? Any highlights? Any challenges?
Overall it has been the most defining move I have made in my entire life – the role has challenged me in ways I didn’t anticipate, and it also presented opportunities that I couldn’t have foreseen. Meeting youth across the country and discussing persistent social issues in their communities, and more broadly in Australian society, is very powerful and grounding experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
On my 25th Birthday this year, I was visiting some young men in Juvenile Detention and speaking with them about their future aspirations and how they arrived at this particular place in their lives. The thing that is most striking about these experiences is that all young people have dreams, and generally these are dreams that would see them having a very positive impact on society.
It doesn’t matter if a young person is in prison, or at University, everyone has a dream. The difference is that not everyone has the opportunity to realise their dream. The challenge I now face is constantly evaluating my situation to determine whether or not I am doing all that I can do, as a member of society, to assist others to realise their dreams and aspirations.
3. You’ve had a lot of success as a graduate? What do you think is the most valuable skill or experience you have gained/had that has helped you to achieve all that you have achieved?
I think emotional intelligence is a key factor in any workplace. Too many people approach a situation confident that superior technical skills alone will enable them to obtain an edge over their peers, but it is that exact attitude which contributes to a poor working. Competition can definitely be a great motivating factor, but there is a line between being someone who motivates those around you to do better, and someone who makes others look bad, and this is something to be conscious of when reflecting on our engagements with other people.
The reality is that any workplace worth working in is already aware of this, and ultimately at the end of the day when they ask you “Why should we hire you instead of X?”, I think the right response is to reaffirm your capacity to complete the task at hand while also stating that if “X” is a more appropriate and capable candidate then they should be chosen for the role over yourself. Humility is not a weakness, and it is extremely important to be able to demonstrate a capacity to conduct realistic appraisals of your own skills and knowledge in any given situation – employer’s love that because the last thing they want is someone who promises something and then doesn’t deliver. In saying that you also have to be confident in yourself and your ability.
Being able to work effectively with others, being humble, having confidence, and developing strong analytical skills, are the keys to success in any field.
4. With a CV like yours, you must have been busy at university. How did you manage to balance your course work and your other interests? How important do you think it is to have interests outside of study?
Personally, I think first and foremost our studies should be something that we are passionate about – if you are passionate about what you study then you will excel, and this in turn will make it easier for you to find time for other projects that are also of interest. Finding the balance can be difficult, especially with work, but that’s why it is important to align everything with our personal interests – this means study, and work.
That being said, I am very aware that finding a job that aligns with your area of study/personal interests is not necessarily easy - I worked the doors of nightclubs while studying at TAFE for 18 months, the two did very little to compliment each other!
5. Finally, do you have any tips for current university students looking to start their careers in international affairs or those looking to apply for your current position in the future?
Many people aspire to work in foreign policy, but I would encourage people to carefully consider what kind of impact they want to have on the world, and how best they could achieve that impact. These are important questions to ask oneself, because working to uphold the national interest of a country is not necessarily the same as following ones dreams. Of course they can align at times, but don’t expect yourself to grow accustomed to working in an environment that you don’t appreciate – just simply don’t work there in the first place. Find a place where you can express yourself and work on issues that matter to you first and foremost. Also, maybe you have a plan as to how you want to reach your ideal job – think creatively about how you can develop the skills necessary for your dream role.
Do what you can, with what you have, while you have time.