Oreva Olakpe graduated in 2009 and has interned at UNICEF and has lived in Geneva, China, and Nigeria. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of London.
Highlight one Honors Class You Took.
I took Children and Political Violence taught by Professor Mellisa Clawson and Professor Scott Erb. It was a very wonderful course, in fact, one of my favorite at UMF (among many others). It was a very insightful course on the impact of war on children both during and after conflicts. It was an enjoyable course because students were encouraged to write journals about readings and other course materials. I always looked forward to class discussions and enjoyed the fact that we discussed different countries of the world and how children in those countries were affected by conflict. It was a very interdisciplinary course because we got to understand childhood from different perspectives ranging from politics, education and human development. Before then, my concept of childhood was not multidimensional. What I found most unexpected from the course was that my concepts of childhood and political violence changed by learning about the narratives of former child soldiers and this change in perception still has a strong influence on my view on war and conflict. Another unforgettable course is Religion and Colonialism taught by Professor Jennifer Reid, which opened up historical narratives that I was not aware of.
How did you decide to major in international and global studies?
My decision was impacted indirectly by my parents. As a child, I was very interested in international histories, social studies and foreign languages. When I was thirteen, my Father gave me an interesting gift- it was a book about international humanitarian issues and the work of the International Red Cross (ICRC). I read it and became very interested specifically in international relations and international law and from that moment, I knew that I wanted to learn about international studies at the University level.
What did you write your thesis on?
I wrote my Honors thesis on the role of grassroots-level community organizations in resolving the Liberian conflict. I chose this topic after an internship at the Carter Centers Conflict Resolution Program, where I carried out research on the conflict in Liberia and was exposed to information on the important role that women played in resolving the conflict. My thesis was a very interesting and challenging experience. It was my first time writing at such lengths and in such detail. It was perfect practice for my Masters thesis. My Honors thesis taught me about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and as a researcher. It was also an invaluable lesson in independent information and data gathering. Finally and most importantly, it was enlightening to learn about the power of women and community groups in resolving conflicts and wars, a message which the world needs to hear and apply to every conflict today. One of the women I carried research on in 2009 (Leymah Gbowee) won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her contribution to sustainable peace in Liberia.
How did your experience at UMF help prepare you for your future?
My experience at UMF helped prepare me for my future because I have a multidisciplinary understanding of the world. The Honors courses opened up spaces to discuss and study topics that would generally have been outside of my course schedule. My experience at UMF gave me a strong foundation in research that has driven my career decisions to become a researcher. The Honors thesis was a great way to begin a career in research and motivated me to continue on to a Masters, as well as a PhD training. I can firmly say that it was my participation in the Honors Program, as well as the support and constant encouragement of my Supervisor, Professor Sylvie Charron that inspired me to this point in my education.
How did you become interested in exploring other cultures?
My family moved a lot in Nigeria because of my Father’s job in the Nigeria Police. As a result, I grew up exposed to numerous Nigerian cultures, which inspired my interest in exploring cultures. My Mother also inspired my desire to see the world by possessing the most international little library I had seen and by her constant entrepreneurial adventures around the world. My family also enjoyed watching Hong Kong movies, Hindi movies among many others and this also influenced my interests.
After the tremendous opportunity to study at UMF, I decided to study in Geneva, at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies because I felt that my education was a good platform to gain a global academic and work experience. Attending school in Geneva was exciting because I was surrounded by multi-lingual and well-traveled classmates, famous Professors in the field of international law, as well as numerous international organizations. I missed the warmth and personality of the UMF campus, the close interaction between students and faculty, the affordable accommodation (everything is pricey in Geneva!), my wonderful Supervisors at UMF, among many other things.
After I was done with my Masters Degree, I decided to take a year off, traveling, volunteering and learning Chinese. My interest in China actually began at UMF, where I took numerous courses on Chinese language, culture and history. Those were some of my most enjoyable times as a student! I lived in China for over a year and my language comprehension skills improved dramatically, as well as my understanding of Chinese culture. I worked in Nigeria after that for a year at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies as a researcher. What I learned from my work in Nigeria was not just work experience but I became very engaged in community development. I was involved in a series of micro- community development projects in northern Nigeria and that experience changed my life and my perception/ understanding of development.
Tell us about your internship at UNICEF.
My internship at UNICEF was a very educational experience. I was an intern in the Child Rights Advocacy and Education Section of UNICEF in Geneva, Switzerland for over a year. My role was to carry out research, coordination and writing tasks for the department on different child-rights related issues and this research was used for advocacy. For example, I carried out research on the global incidence of forced child begging and drafted a discussion paper outlining relevant legal standards, current situations and good practices in relevant countries.This discussion paper was used by UNICEF in preparation its position and advocacy targeting the drafting of the Human Rights Council Resolution on children living and/ or working on the streets. I also carried out research on the situation of unaccompanied and separated children in Europe, as well as the treatment of migrant children and their families and reviewed reports and international law to support advocacy positioning. It was rewarding to gain experience on child rights at an international level and to strengthen my knowledge of the UN system. It was also rewarding to think that my research was useful at some level in the advancement of child rights.
If you could give a piece of advice to a graduating senior, what would it be?
My advice to graduating seniors is to make good use of the courses and resources at UMF as a platform to the world. My civic engagement courses at UMF led to my experience with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which led to my internship at the Carter Center. The Carter Center experience inspired my Honors Thesis and led to my pursuit of a Masters Degree. The experiences at UMF became the reason why I was accepted to do the internship at UNICEF. The Chinese courses at UMF inspired me to move to China and that has shaped my PhD research focusing on south-south refugee migrations (particularly African refugees in China). All these doors opened because of UMF and the wonderful people, courses and opportunities I found at UMF.