Published: April 14, 2020 By

For the past six months, Yidan Li, a senior environmental design student, has been working as an Innovation Intern for the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya. Li is the first ENVD student in over a decade to receive an internship with the U.N. After applying for the highly competitive position last April, she received notice that her application made it past the first evaluation. In August she got an interview and was accepted into the six-month internship. 

The ENVD Professional Development Services Center met with Li to learn more about the process she underwent, her expectations and experience while interning in Kenya. 

ENVD student interns with UNWhat is your position, and what are some responsibilities you are tasked with for your work?
My job is titled Innovation Intern. The position is under the Urban Lab of Planning, Finance and Economy Section of UN-Habitat. As the very first Innovation Intern of the lab, I’m working on both urban planning projects and the innovative applications and solutions in urban planning. For the past five months, I’ve done quite a wide range of work, including two urban planning projects. One is a city structural plan for Hawassa City in Ethiopia. Another is the scenario planning for a sustainable data center community in two Swedish towns–this is a project with Microsoft. 

A big part of my job is working for one of UN-Habitat’s five flagship programs: People-centered Smart City. This project focuses on how frontier technology could benefit the urban planning process as well as inclusive city development. Under the big umbrella of Smart City, I am responsible for research and analysis of Smart City technology and further applications (digital mobility, blockchain, IoT, drones for city planning, potential partnerships and products we can collaborate with and utilize). Overall, I am exposed to many different stages of project development, which is very beneficial and gives me a chance to explore what I can do aside from designing and planning.

What is Kenya like?
It’s… very different. It is a whole different world from Colorado. I had a tough time during my first week here, but once I adapted I found that it is a magical place with perfect weather and the “Famous Big Five,” lions, rhinos, cape buffalos, elephants and crocodiles. Most people are very kind, warm and outgoing. The culture is also fascinating, which is not surprising. 

The wealth gap is huge, very huge. I live in Gigiri, a neighborhood in Nairobi where most embassies and the U.N. are located. It is safe and quiet and everyone drives and there is a big, westernized shopping mall. But, Nairobi also has Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Africa. It sits right next to a fancy golf course, surrounded by a middle-class real estate cluster. Living in and coming to understand Nairobi and Kenya is like another internship. While I’m working in a well-built U.N. compound and working for “a better urban life,” being aware of Nairobi's own development gives some other perspectives on thinking about the job in the U.N.

What was the application process like?
Everything starts on Inspira, the career website of the U.N. It’s like applying for any job online. Previous working experience is not necessary. Anyone in and beyond the last year of their undergraduate degree can apply, and they do prefer graduate and postgraduate students. The cover letter is the most crucial part, as it is the only way recruiters gain an impression of the candidates. A design portfolio is also required at this stage, but they asked me to send it again in the second round. It was a very long and exhausting waiting process. I applied in April 2019 and heard back from them in July indicating I was shortlisted because of my computer skills and portfolio. They got back to me in late July to set up the interview in August. My contract went from early October 2019 to April 2020. Usually, the intern contract ranges from three to six months, and my section highly preferred interns to do six months.

ENVD student interns with UNWhat has been your most memorable experience so far in Kenya?
There have been many memorable experiences actually. Apart from work, I would say the Halloween party last October. It was my first month, and almost a hundred people from the U.N. attended the party, and people went really crazy. We are all from different countries, literally everywhere, and overall, the international community here offers me a lot of memories. We can start a casual “global seminar” anytime. It’s fascinating that the world is so diverse. There are so many excellent and talented people here. I’ve been learning so much from them.

What has made this trip worthwhile for you?
Too many things. First of all, this is my first time in Africa, and I realize how much I misunderstood about the continent before. I work in a very professional and global organization and learn a lot of work ethics: time organization and interpersonal communication, which might even be more important than job tasks. As I worked on various projects and engaged in different stages, I also explored other aspects of my potential. 

How has this experience changed you and your perception of the design/planning world?
The most important thing has been that design is a vast topic. In a real-world design project, design means the whole process, from the idea being conceptualized to the project finally being implemented. It involves ideas, budget, manpower, regulation and law, business models, client perception, sustainability, and so much more. Design studios and lectures in school are a good start to build the theoretical foundations, but the practices, especially the design practices of the U.N., require the understanding of a bigger picture and collaboration with other specialists. 

What skills have you gained from this experience that will stick with you?
Interpersonal communication, strategic thinking, work organization, planning and networking.

ENVD student interns with UNWhat were your expectations for this experience? Were your expectations before the trip met or was it different from what you thought?
Before it started, I was clearly expecting two things: the platform and the network. It turned out to be beyond my expectations. The U.N. is definitely an expectational platform to get a global vision, which could apply to and benefit any profession. It has surely enhanced my working skills. What has been beyond my expectations is that interns are treated just like everyone else, and we have a great deal of freedom and flexibility to develop ideas and advocate projects. This is also a good way to show our value and give back to the U.N. I actually went a lot further than my original position and now I’m working inter-departmentally with two teams. It’s a perfect place to witness your own potential.

How has your experience been working for the United Nations? 
Overall, very satisfying. I have learned a lot and met many outstanding people and most importantly got a clearer sense of what I could do. 

What are your plans after coming back and after graduation?
I’ll be back at ENVD in fall 2020 to graduate. I might come back to the U.N. working as a consultant for some time or go to grad school.