Our group went to New Orleans. We spent a week building houses, having fun, working really, really hard, but most importantly, when we were down there, we were allowed to build with the people that would actually live in those houses. We got to know them, hear their stories, and I’d say, become friends.
Ten years later, I’m starting my Master’s in International Development at Princeton. I’m so excited, I feel like a little kid in a candy shop again. And I’m there at the orientation meeting with all of these amazing people, and Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast and devastates New Orleans. I remember watching the images on TV of people that I had met, people that I felt I knew, literally drowning. Once again, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was running off to picnics, meeting all these great people, staying up all night, and people in the country I was living were literally dying right beside me. And I decided I had to do something. I couldn’t give up my Master’s, but I knew I could give a week.
So during my break at school, I decided I would go down there. A bunch of students found out I was going and decided they would come with me. We didn’t really know what we were going to do, but we knew we could give our hands. So we get down there all excited and at first, we are kind of just twiddling our thumbs. We start working in some local soup kitchens and asking around saying that we are energetic and excited to work. When people see that we are serious, they start to give us tasks.
Before we know, we are helping people clean out their flooded homes, we set up a makeshift Medical Center, we worked heavily in a soup kitchen, and we were handing out blankets and food. A local organization noticed us and asked us if we could conduct surveys of the survivors. So we went around and asked dozens of survivors what it was that they needed most, and we went to their local governments and asked them to provide those needs.
One woman saw the work I was doing, and she came up to me and asked me what organization I was with. I said, “I’m just a student. I’m only here for a week.” We started talking, and she said that she was moved by my passion and my ability to organize, and that she could see me as somebody working in emergency relief. I didn’t even know that was a career.
And a year later, I found myself at the United Nations, not really knowing how I got there. So I can’t tell you how to get a job at the UN, but I can give you three tips to do meaningful work. The first is to do something. The second is to contribute in your own way. And the third, and I think most important, is to make sincere connections.
I want to end by sharing the most important lesson I’ve learned. I think it’s going to surprise you. In a lot of these talks, and including the stories I’ve given, we talk about people that started with these little things, and they all became these grand endeavors, but I actually think the little things are the ends in themselves. And I think that what is important is that no matter where it ends up, if you do something meaningful, it will matter. I know how busy you are as students, and I know how right now and most times, you feel pulled in a million directions, but you will never be less busy than you are today, I promise you. You will have jobs, you’ll have families, you will have pets, houses, and cars, and so many things that will be pulling you in a million more directions.
So whatever you’re going to do, big or small, it needs to be today. You know that best friend I told you about in Human Resources? Many years ago, when I was working at Covenant House Shelter, he came to see some of the work I was doing. He was so inspired I could work with street youth, and by the work that the shelter does, but he said it just wasn’t him; he didn’t know if he’d feel comfortable, or if he’d say the wrong thing, it just didn’t seem like his environment. But soon enough, he came more and more, and about once a month, he started running a class for the youth. He taught them how to write resumes, he taught them how to interview, he taught them how to get jobs in the city. He used his skills in human resources to help in that situation.
And years after I left Covenant House, he was still working there. It’s now ten years later, and my friend helps people in organizations all over Toronto: new immigrants, elderly people, people with very little means to write better resumes, to interview better so that they can work to feed their families. He didn’t leave his full-time job, it’s just something he does every once in a while when he has time.
When I started working for the UN, I had these big visions. I thought I’d be in a plane dropping packages of food onto people who needed or at some big, amazing negotiating table as the lead ambassador, but I don’t think that my future is at the UN. Turns out my mom got sick, and my dad got much older, and all of a sudden, I find myself wanting kids and a family, and wanting to have roots for the first time. I see my future in Toronto today. I know that, even if I don’t end up at the UN, I will find some small way to make a contribution to my community. It may not make it on the front page of the paper, but I promise you that it’ll matter.