Working with mentors to change the world


Former JET assistant language teacher Nicole Deutsch has an ideal job. She works with a dynamic team of people from all over the world. And at the end of the day she goes home feeling that she’s helped to make the world a better place.

At her workplace, the United Nations Development Programme office, located across from the U.N. Secretariat in New York, Deutsch works as a policy specialist. Her responsibilities include coordinating inter-agency groups that liaise among such organizations as the United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Development Programme, World Food Programme, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization. She develops strategy and guidelines for the U.N.’s country offices, based on analyses of trends and challenges, and drawing from examples of good practice in more than 130 U.N. programs worldwide.

The work Nicole Deutsch does plays a vital role in creating reform and a renewed vision in the United Nations. One question she gets asked all too often is how she landed such an interesting job.

Getting a combination of the right skills, experience and contacts is essential, but bringing these things together depends on luck, says the New York native. “You have to take life by the horns and take on challenges you desire, even if they seem impossible. People usually try to get big brand names on their C.V.s, but I’ve found that the most valuable experiences often come from finding a good mentor.”

Working in Japan as an English teacher on the JET program was the first big step on her career journey. “Japan gave me the confidence to try new things and it showed me a different way to live and think,” Deutsch says.

After graduating from New York City’s Barnard College in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in English, Deutsch saw the JET program as an excellent opportunity to get some experience working in Asia. She worked as an assistant language teacher at the Yokohama Board of Education, where she taught English at local public schools. She also found time to develop conversational Japanese skills, as well as to learn how to read basic Japanese.

After two years in Japan, Deutsch was ready to return to New York. She wanted to enter a Ph.D. program in sociology. Her dream was to become a university professor and conduct research on gender, ethnic and urban policy issues. During her first term of graduate school at Columbia University, however, Deutsch had second thoughts about an academic career.

“Graduate studies seemed so esoteric after two years in Japan and traveling in Asia,” she comments. “I realized that I had learned more by doing, as opposed to only reading, about things.”

While writing her master’s thesis, a comparative analysis of how American and Vietnamese perceptions of the Vietnam War have changed over time, Deutsch was hit by the travel bug. She felt a strong desire to live abroad again, this time in Europe. To make this dream possible, Deutsch began looking for work opportunities in Paris and Geneva and asked everyone she knew for job connections.

Bringing together her French-language abilities and JET experience, she contacted various Japanese governmental organizations in Europe. The Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations in Geneva was, at the time, in need of an English speechwriter and general assistant to the diplomats during treaty negotiations. Someone like Deutsch, who had English-, Japanese- and French-language skills as well as experience living in Japan, was perfect for the job.

Deutsch was called to Geneva for an interview. There, she took a position as a political analyst and the only non-Japanese member on the mission’s diplomatic team. Besides speech-writing and editing English documents, her responsibilities included preparing the minister for press briefings and participating in U.N. delegation meetings. She worked on disarmament issues, such as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban treaty, and labor, human rights and other issues. With her language skills, she also became a trusted go-between for the mission’s Japanese- and French-speaking staff.

Nicole built close ties with her Japanese colleagues and learned a tremendous amount from her unique position as a foreigner in the delegation. Moreover, working for the Japanese, she was able to gain an unusual perspective from attending both donor-country meetings, as well as Asia-Pacific meetings comprising primarily developing countries. She learned more in four years there than she could ever have on a Ph.D. program.

Although her job was rewarding, after four years, Deutsch was eager to advance her career in international affairs. Her parents also wanted her to return to New York.

Before going home, however, Deutsch traveled through Europe. For the first time in her life, she had both the time and the money to do so. She tied up her European journey with an intensive one-month Spanish-language course in Spain.

Back in the United States, while job-interviewing in Washington D.C., Deutsch volunteered her services to the International Federation of Settlements and Neighbourhood Centres by participating on the youth committee, and taking notes on and writing summaries of U.N. meetings on discrimination against women.

At the NGO, she worked with a woman she had met at an International Labor Organization conference in Geneva the previous year. This woman, Carol Lubin, was 91 years old and had vast experience working with international organizations, including connections to senior officials in the United Nations.

Lubin was an important role model for Deutsch and introduced her to the policy director of the U.N. Development Programme, a critical introduction that led her to where she is today.

“Finding a mentor has been very important in my life,” says Deutsch. “All my different life experiences have been a stepping stone, and all of them essential on the route. Yet, more than all the experience, it is the opportunity to work with true mentors, people I admire, for their strengths, achievements and for being examples of who I want to become, that has been key to my career growth.”