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  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

The Careers of UN Staff Spouses: Interview with Gaspard Nordmann

What kind of work do spouses of United Nations (UN) professional staff members accomplish around the world and what are some strategies that help one adapt to new and different work environments? In this interview, Gaspard Nordmann discusses the challenges and opportunities that he encountered while working within the field of international cooperation in various countries (i.e., Bolivia, Italy, and Switzerland), as a result of choosing to follow and move with his husband, Paúl Coellar Ríos, to new UN duty stations. Two of the most crucial points that Nordmann highlights in this riveting conversation are: (1) the importance of keeping “in mind that the choice to move to a new country is a couple’s project” and (2) that this decision is “a kind of investment; a choice that leads us [as a couple] on a path on which we grow together.” Nordmann’s raw and honest depiction of his personal and professional journeys, provide the reader with valuable and much needed inspiration regarding: How to get a first job in a new country where you do not speak the local language; the skills that one should try to perfect early on during their career; the mentality that helps spouses overcome challenges while living abroad; and much more. The article concludes with the interviewee’s personal and career related advice meant to help and encourage other UN staff spouses, or any other individuals, who choose to move with their partners to a new country.

Interview with Gaspard Nordmann, Persuasive Discourse, by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD.
Gaspard Nordmann and his husband, Paúl Coellar Ríos, at 4750 meters from sea level, during their stay in Bolivia.

Gaspard Nordmann is a Swiss national, currently working as an Institutional Partnerships Manager at the Swiss Church Aid HEKS/EPER. An LGBTIQ+ activist, he is also the Co-Founder and President of the Swiss NGO PRISMI.

Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. As we start our conversation, could you please briefly describe: How many times did you move to a new country with your spouse, Paúl Coellar Ríos who has been working for the UN in various capacities?


My husband and I have moved three times, over the past five years. First, we moved to Bolivia (for about three years), then to Italy (for about two years), and most recently back to Geneva, Switzerland.

Q2. In hindsight, has the choice to join your husband at a new UN duty station altered your career?


Making this choice naturally leads to changes in one’s career path, and I think that all the couples that live within the international domain face this at some point.

In my case, I was very lucky because even when I moved to a new country, I was able to continue working within the same field, that of international cooperation.

Q3. Looking back at your first move together, to Bolivia: Did you take a specific first helpful step?


Going to Bolivia felt relatively easy for me, for two main reasons.

First, I spoke the language. And second, I decided to start my stay there by giving myself a couple of months to rest, re-center, and enjoy being a househusband. It was during that time that I realized I wanted to complete two additional trainings on: gender-based violence and result-based management. That choice helped me not only educationally, but it also allowed me to start building a local network and to learn about the Bolivian work environment.

Q4. How did you go about finding your first job in Bolivia?


When I arrived in Bolivia, I had absolutely no idea about how to find a job.

I have the chance of working in international cooperation, which I thought allowed one to easily find a job in any location. I thought that the best way to start working in Bolivia was to look for consultancies. As I researched the Bolivian job market, I noticed that there were multiple Swiss NGOs operating in the country.

Same as for any job search, I looked within to understand my selling points, meaning my skills and attributes. In my case: I understand how Swiss NGOs work, so I decided to re-activate my professional network from Switzerland, which was crucial in obtaining my first consultancy.

In the end, most of the consultancies I had while living abroad, both in Bolivia and Italy, have been because of the professional connections I made earlier in my career, while working in my home country, Switzerland.

I find that when arriving in a new country, people are particularly eager to make new professional connections, which is to be expected and very important. Yet, in the process they may overlook the importance of their already existent professional network, which can provide crucial connections especially for those who are working within the international field. In my case, I think that without my initial professional network, which I built over the years in Switzerland, it would have been much more difficult to find work, either in Bolivia or in Italy.

Q5. How did your experience in Bolivia help you later to transition to the Italian job market?


Due to my work experiences in Bolivia, I noticed early on that it was going to be more difficult to obtain a job in Italy. Besides the fact that I did not speak the language, my research showed that there are not so many NGOs working in Rome in the field of international cooperation. There is of course UN presence, but that is not within my line of work.

My first steps were to enroll in Italian classes and to engage again with my professional network from Switzerland. As such, I was able to obtain an initial contract to cover for a former colleague who took her maternity leave and then I got another short contract with another Swiss organization. After these two contracts ended, I encountered more difficulties in finding a new job and I was also tired of constantly looking for a new professional opportunity. At that point, Paul and I took the decision together, as a couple, to start looking for jobs again in Switzerland. After five years of living abroad, we were able to move back to Switzerland, from where we can both continue our careers.

Q6. What do you believe were the main skills that helped you adapt to new work environments?


On the personal side, my father was also an international worker. While I am originally Swiss, I was born in Nicaragua, then we lived in Argentina, and we travelled a lot. I have always been used to changes and have organically learned how to adapt to new contexts.

On the professional side, I sharpened my analytical skills while studying towards my Master of Development Studies, at the Geneva Graduate Institute. And, early in my career, I learned the importance of networks. I believe that if you do not have contacts within your field and you do not know how to reach out to others who might be helpful for your career development, it is going to be much more difficult to succeed in your career.

Q7. What is on the professional horizon for you?


For now, we plan to settle down in Switzerland for a couple of years, and I wish to have stability in my current job.

For the future, my objective is to slowly create a job for myself that I can take with me if we choose to move again. For example, last year I created my NGO not only for reasons linked to my professional passions, but also because it could offer the opportunity to create a job that I can take with me. If I have a job that I can do from anywhere, it will be easier when having to move again because it will eliminate the need to choose between staying for a job or following my husband.

Q8. To conclude, is there a particular advice you would like to share with other UN staff spouses, or any other person, who choose to move with their partners to a new location?


When choosing to move with your spouse to a new UN duty station, it is important to keep in mind that the choice to move to a new country is a couple’s project, one that you choose to do together.

For example, in our case, it is easier for both of us to always remember that we are doing this not only for the career of the other, but also because it is a kind of investment; a choice that leads us on a path on which we grow together, both personally and professionally.

To be more specific, I believe that from a personal perspective, the choice to move together has helped us grow as a couple. And, from a professional point of view, I believe that it was very useful for my husband’s career to have the specific UN related work experiences he has had thus far. In hindsight, the choices we have made as a couple thus far, are what has helped us today to both have good positions.

To conclude, I think it is always good to see the choice to move to a new environment together as a couple’s project. By adopting this kind of mentality, it allows one to see the bigger picture. Meaning, it can help one to place things into perspective and to avoid the feelings of frustration that may arise from being an UN staff spouse who chooses to follow their partner to a new country where they might: (1) not able to find a job or, (2) regret that prior to the move they might have had a higher earning job, with more responsibilities, etc. And, when that situation arises, it is important to be able to think: Yes, this is what is happening right now, but I know why I am doing this.

Thank you for reading.

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Gaspard Nordmann. Interview for Persuasive Discourse, by Sorina I. Crisan PhD

Institutional Partnerships Manager

The Swiss Church Aid HEKS/EPER | Switzerland

Co-Founder & President

PRISMI | Switzerland

Illustrations by: The main article photo was made available by Gaspard Nordmann. The profile photo included on this page is available on the interviewee’s LinkedIn page.

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