I first saw the ad for the Master/Postgraduate Diploma in Contemporary Diplomacy while working in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – the town that welcomed close to one million Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar.
I shared an office with an Australian colleague who wore the title of humanitarian diplomacy liaison. It sounded fancy and we got along well, often exchanging views on the highly political aspects of the Rohingya crisis. I felt like my communications portfolio was restrictive and I longed to cross over into the role of a humanitarian diplomat who could make a difference by amplifying the voices of the voiceless behind the scenes, in the corridors of power, through the tools of diplomacy.
From my tiny room in CXB, I prepared my application and sent it off to DiploFoundation on 15 October 2018, days before travelling home for a much-needed sanity break. I immediately received an email that my application was incomplete. Forgive me, my mind was already on vacation! There I was emerging from my first night’s sleep back home, having to focus my brain cells on developing a dissertation proposal on my cell phone as I left my laptop behind in Bangladesh.
Have you ever tried typing on a small screen with jetlagged eyes? Me neither, but I somehow managed to send something sensible to Diplo’s administrators and get back to my vacation in the paradise island that I call home – Tobago. Once my ‘staycation’ was over, I headed back to Bangladesh, my Rohingya reality.
Weeks later, I received confirmation that I was admitted to the programme and thankfully received a partial scholarship. My next sanity break from the chaos of Cox’s Bazar was the MA/PGD introductory workshop in Malta in February 2019. Work took on a different flavour as I had something specific to look forward to. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my job working on the Rohingya crisis, but I needed an outlet for venting my frustrations and nurturing my other interests.
Diplo’s programme was a chance to step out of my comfort zone and stretch myself beyond the psychological and physical boundaries that I involuntarily set for myself. It was also a chance for constructive venting of my concerns about the never-ending Rohingya crisis while equipping me with concrete tools for processing what I was experiencing.
Travelling to Europe in February was unimaginable to me. I’m from the Caribbean where it’s 32 degrees Celsius year-round and there I was heading to Malta fearful of being bitten by the cold. Once the fear subsided, I managed to have a relaxing weekend before the 10-day course began, with an additional weekend to explore Malta at the end of it all. In between was the most intellectually stimulating and fun-loving experience I had in a long time!
I met classmates and lecturers from all over the world, from different backgrounds, and at different stations of their lives. We became so engrossed in group assignments that we often lingered around in the conference room well beyond class lectures were done, chatting the night away. We shared breakfast, lunch, and dinner; class notes and secret hopes; aspirations and trepidations. We arrived as strangers, but left as friends. I even met a kindred spirit from Kenya who shares my birthdate. February 2019 turned out to be a month to remember!
Who would have thought that in December 2019 I would overnight at my Kenyan classmate’s home in Nairobi on the way to my new duty station in Zimbabwe or hold her one-month old son in my arms? Who would have thought that I would share a festive Christmas meal and ring in 2020 with classmates from Zimbabwe or have them help me find the perfect place to live without the hassle of visiting? These are true friendships we all need in life and it all unfolded thanks to Diplo.
It’s been a real journey – literally and metaphorically – with Diplo! There have been highs and lows with zones of turbulence. The cabin pressure dropped a few times but there was always a friendly, reassuring attendant on board in the persons of Patrick, Tanja, and Sylvana who have been on call at any time ready to assist in finding workable solutions.
The beauty of Diplo’s programmes is the tremendous flexibility of following classes online. This was crucial for me as I travelled often during the year. Thankfully I was able to log in to classes wherever I was in the world: from hotel rooms in Kuala Lumpur and Dhaka, the sidelines of international conferences in Barbados and St. Lucia, public libraries when I had no wi-fi at home, to my current lockdown location in Zimbabwe. When I missed a class, I was able to review the lecture transcripts and make my contributions to the discussion through hypertext. Submitting assignments couldn’t be easier with the user-friendly navigation tools.
Thankfully, Diplo’s flexibility extends offline as well. Due to uncertain contract work and health concerns, I was not able to pay all my fees up front, but Diplo extended a reasonable payment plan which made it possible for me to go all the way from a postgraduate to a Master programme. As I prepare my dissertation and gear up for the last few classes of the final module, I am sincerely grateful to Diplo for the opportunities extended to me. It is not an exaggeration to say that 2019/2020 has been the most hectic and fulfilling year of my life.
Even in the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, when the world we know has shifted from outdoors to indoors, and offline to online, we are witnessing a sudden surge in online collaboration and connected communities. In a real sense, Diplo’s online learning platform prepared me for this in advance. While the transition to an online environment can be unsettling for many, Diplo’s lecturers and support staff are extremely helpful in allaying the fears of newcomers.
As I come to the end of the programme, I feel confident and equipped to move into the next growth phase of my career. No one knows for sure how long this COVID-19 crisis will last and what the new normal will look like after this planetary quarantine is lifted. I choose to remain optimistic and eagerly await graduation to be able to meet up with my cohort buddies again in Malta. I firmly believe that the skills learnt along the way and the friendships nurtured will lead me to yet another unknown destination where I can confidently serve in a contemporary diplomatic capacity wherever I am needed most.
Gennike Mayers is a communications specialist with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) based in Harare, Zimbabwe.