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Supporting the ‘chance of a lifetime’

[Robyn Finley]
 Robyn Finley (Artsci’15) was able to complete an internship at UNAIDS in Geneva, Switzerland thanks to the support of the Principal’s Student Initiatives Fund. (University Communications)
Queen's in the World

Robyn Finley (Artsci’15) had the “chance of a lifetime” when she was offered an internship this past summer at UNAIDS, the umbrella organization at the United Nations that coordinates worldwide efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.

The problem was that it was an unpaid internship.

And it was in Geneva, Switzerland, one of the most expensive places in the world to live.

Fortunately, the Global Development Studies student was able to find the support that would make the dream a reality.

Ms. Finley found out about the Principal’s Student Initiatives Fund, through the Office of the Principal, applied and received a grant that would help see her through.

While she felt good about receiving the support from her school, she also says she learned more than she could have expected through the internship. She’s now looking to share what she has learned with her classmates and the greater Queen’s community.

The road to the internship had its beginnings in a pair of classes she took last year – Cross-Cultural Research Methods (DEVS 300) and AIDS, Power and Poverty (DEVS 320).

Ms. Finley says she became fascinated with what she was learning in the AIDS course and wanted to apply what she was learning to a project in Research Methods.

“The disease is an epidemic but there is so much more to it than, say, malaria where it is a cause-and-effect kind of medical problem. There are so many social determinants that factor into the HIV epidemic,” she says. “It’ s social, it’s political, it’s groundbreaking and revolutionary in a lot of ways because it makes people question gender, sexuality, identity and all these things, and I think it has moved a lot of discourse forward.”

Ms. Finley looked at different treatment plans in Africa and how the disease is being tackled and settled on a project in Malawi that focused on pregnant women. The difference with this program was that the women take one pill a day rather than the standard treatment of a cocktail of medications taken on a timed basis throughout the day, something Ms. Finley says fits modern Western society much better than it does African.

However, in her research she found a gap within the program as pregnant women were not being given a choice to start the one pill a day regimen. There was no other option. The project was framed as being beneficial to babies as it reduced the risk of vertically acquiring HIV, but in so doing, limited mothers’ autonomy to choose the treatment plan that was right for them.

Wanting to be sure, she contacted the gender team at UNAIDS. The reply she received was that this was exactly the type of issue the team is trying to tackle. They also asked her to send them her project when it was complete.

So she got down to work.

“The project was the hardest thing I’ve ever done for school. I looked at the computer for four full days on the last draft alone,” she says. “It was intense.”

UNAIDS then invited her to apply for the internship, which she did in January. The she waited… and waited a bit more.

“At the beginning of April, classes are done, I’m getting ready for exams and I was eating breakfast one morning when I got an email from the UN asking me to move to Geneva three weeks later and start this internship at UNAIDS with the gender team,” Ms. Finley recalls.

What followed was a whirlwind. She had to cancel her summer job, find a place to live in a city she had never visited and somehow find the funds that would allow her to pursue her dream and be able to return to school for her final year.

However, she had the backing of the Global Development Studies program and the Office of the Principal.

As a result, she gained a learning experience she couldn’t have imagined. On her first day she was responsible for crafting the gender and equality team’s press release regarding the mass kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by extremists.

While she considered a UN job to be the Holy Grail in Global Development Studies, it is far from glorious. There are long hours of basic grunt work, the issues on which your work, but over which you have no control, can consume you, there’s a high divorce rate among employees and the pursuit of a work-life balance is never-ending.

The Principal’s Student Initiatives Fund supports student participation in projects devoted to the principles of personal growth and/or community service. Projects should provide educational opportunities such as participation in competitions, symposia, conferences, festivals and community development projects. For more information contact Christine Berga.