Especially for those drawn to careers at international organisations, the importance of gaining fluency in different languages cannot be overstated

Coline Schupfer
Coline Schupfer
Associate Policy Officer, Open Society Justice Initiative
LLB Law with French
Coline discusses her time at University, and her subsequent work at the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Coline Schupfer

What is your current role and your main responsibilities?

I currently work as Associate Policy Officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative on a global project that challenges the contingency of rights upon legal status and the reliance of national identity and security on the exclusion of populations with precarious legal status, with a focus on displaced communities in South and Southeast Asia. As part of this, I coordinate and produce research, work with communities to develop and effect legal strategies, build partnerships and coalitions at the national, regional, and international level, and carry out different activities to strengthen the capacity of individuals to exercise and realise their rights, and in view of translating lessons from grassroots experience into large-scale, progressive changes to systems and laws.

Please summarise your overall career since graduation, but in particular, what was your first relevant role to the area in which you work now and how did you secure that position?

During my final year of Sheffield, I organised the Human Rights Forum at the School of Law, food bank collections, and UN thunderclap campaigns. This was funded by the University of Sheffield’s 100-hour project-based, internship. After completing all deliverables, and because I had several unspent hours of work remaining, my professor Dr Sorcha MacLeod asked me to assist in her research project on the internalisation and socialisation of human rights in private security and military companies. I was subsequently hired on a part-time and later on a full-time basis after completing my final year university exams. This was my first relevant human rights research experience and I’ll be forever grateful to Sorcha for this incredible opportunity to learn from her and her senior research team, which in many ways paved the path that I then pursued. It also meant that I didn’t graduate university absolutely broke. After Sheffield, I moved to Canada for a year. I knew I wanted to pursue public interest work, but with no connections, I had no idea where to start. I therefore engaged in all kinds of work, both paid and pro bono. This included freelance copywriting, volunteering at a homeless shelter for indigenous peoples, sitting on the Human Rights Committee at the Holocaust Memorial Centre, where I led museum tours and organised the annual agenda and several expositions – and I also started my own business and built passive income streams. Thereafter, I moved to Phnom Penh and spent six months with the United Nations at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – the hybrid tribunal mandated to prosecute crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed during the Khmer Rouge regime. I then completed a traineeship at the European Parliament and spent several months providing legal aid to asylum seekers in the so-called ‘hotspots’ in Greece, before joining the Justice Initiative in London.

How has your qualification helped you in your career?

I studied Law with French at Sheffield. However, I was never interested in traditional legal practice – but rather in the ways in which the law can be harnessed for social change and as a tool for justice at the local and international level. For this, I believe my joint honours degree gave me a creative edge, not only in pushing me to think comparatively about different legal systems, but also in allowing me to study interesting, non-law subjects such as French philosophy and literature – which imparted meaningful life lessons. Studying French as my minor also meant I was able to spend a year studying public international law and political sciences at a French university in Aix-en-Provence. On a professional level, my French language skills have been critical in allowing me to forge meaningful working relationships in both Québec, where French is the official working language, and in Greece, where we worked with several clients from Algeria, Cameroon, the Congo, and the DRC. Especially for those drawn to careers at international organisations, the importance of gaining fluency in different languages cannot be overstated.

What is an average day like for you in your current role?

A lot has changed since COVID-19 emerged, which has restricted our travel and direct engagement with partners, communities, and key stakeholders on the ground. Although the pandemic has meant that we are currently limited to our four walls and dependent on the internet, there is still no such thing as an average day. We have had to think more creatively about different approaches to our legal empowerment work, for example, instead of community paralegal programmes, we have had to run webinar workshops and consultations and explore how to most effectively deploy informational and communication technologies in remote communities. If anything, this has increased our reliance on local actors and the communities itself, which is a really positive development in the way it shifts power from the international to the grassroots. I still conduct research and interviews and carry out different activities. A significant amount of our time is currently also spent on strategy development, including understanding the new challenges that have arisen as a result of the pandemic, and identifying key areas of intervention where law can leverage meaningful, systemic, and much-needed change.

What advice would you give to current students who are interested in pursuing a career in your field?

I think it’s important not to be too disheartened by the fact that it is, at the beginning in particular, immensely difficult to find paid opportunities. While unpaid internships are inherently exclusionary and really harm representation, the reality is that many smaller NGOs simply cannot afford to provide adequate stipends. That said, I also believe that change is coming. Initiatives such as #PayYourInterns are gaining more ground and there is a growing awareness around how critical it is to provide financial support to interns, and this is particularly the case for larger organisations that can clearly afford to do so. With all that said, I would really encourage everyone to take up as a much pro bono work as they can, alongside their studies or alongside their day job. In fact, speaking to many of my colleagues and friends who have been working in the field for much longer, one constant is that the best, most interesting work is often pro bono – at all stages of one’s career. I would therefore recommend saying yes and putting your heart and soul into everything that inspires your curiosities – you never know what doors that might open.

What were your previous academic qualifications?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in Law with French at the University of Sheffield and then earned my master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford.

What were your career aspirations when you were younger?

My parents went through divorce proceedings when I was six years old, and from then on I kept saying I wanted to become a lawyer. I guess some things stick with us.

What advice would you give to young people considering University?

University does not equal success in your life or career. While there are more and more organisations that no longer require employees to have a degree, the reality is that most still do. I think it is critical to really inquire what brings you joy and purpose and boldly pursue what feels right. Intuition if often underrated. Choosing which university to attend, let alone what degree to study, can seem like a massive decision, but it does not need to be. Take a year out if you want to. Don’t feel restricted by your choices and make your degree work for you. Of course, there are core subjects you need to complete, but you also get a great degree of choice and flexibility. I tailored my courses so I could study international law and French philosophy – subjects which I immensely enjoyed, and which were my way of making my degree align with my interests. Your university experience is ultimately what you make of it.

Why did you choose Sheffield? / What sets Sheffield apart from other Universities?

There were several reasons why I chose Sheffield. For one, when I visited for an open day, I just had ‘that’ feeling you get when something feels right. Sheffield has a thriving art and music scene, a fascinating urban landscape with lots of unexplored steel factories, and it is also the greenest city in the UK. The Peak District is still one of my forever favourite places. Besides being a really friendly city and a very welcoming university with a renowned students’ union, Sheffield is also the UK’s first city of sanctuary, which means that there were boundless opportunities to engage in social inclusion and community work.

What did you most enjoy about your time at Sheffield?

I really enjoyed all aspects of life in Sheffield: the underground music and culture scenes, the annual Sheffield Doc/Fest, weekend hill climbs in the Peak District, the paternoster lift in the Arts Tower, and the dungeons of Western Bank library.

Why would you recommend the University of Sheffield as a good place to study?

In my experience, Sheffield has a way of attracting academic teaching staff that really care about their students and their research disciplines. I’ll be forever grateful and indebted to my teachers, including Dr Sorcha MacLeod, Dr David McCallam, and Dr Russell Buchan – who were not only brilliant thinkers and professors, but also inspiring role models.

In one sentence, how would you describe the impact Sheffield had on your career and life after University?

Sheffield has had an immeasurable impact on my life and career, by sparking confidence through the grounding it provided, and by inspiring creativity through its eccentricity and charm.

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