The Careers of UN Staff Spouses: Interview with Paloma Redondo
What does it look like to be a UN staff spouse and embark on a career journey that spans multiple nations and opportunities? In this interview, we learn about Paloma Redondo's remarkable life path, marked by relocations to diverse countries and the ever-changing landscape of her work environments. As a UN staff spouse, Redondo's experiences offer valuable lessons in adaptability, resilience, and the pursuit of continuous learning. Her story is a compelling testament to how one can carve a meaningful professional path, even amidst the challenges of international moves. Please join us as we explore Redondo's unique perspective, providing insights and inspiration for those considering similar adventures as UN staff spouses. As always, the conversation 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 by Sorina Matthey de l'Endroit, PhD
Question 1. 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 who has worked as a translator for the United Nations for more than 10 years?
My husband and I moved three times, over the past eleven years. First, we moved from Paris to New York City in 2012, for three years. Then to Geneva, Switzerland, in 2015, for eight years. And this June, we decided to move to Madrid, Spain.
Question 2. In hindsight, has the choice to join your husband at a new UN duty station altered your career?
Yes, my professional trajectory has been altered due to the two moves I made with my husband.
To offer some background, I am originally from Madrid, Spain. I moved to Paris after finishing my studies in Spanish philology.
I went to Paris because in 1992 I won a literary prize for a short novel called El latido del corazón, which was my first novel. The price was a scholarship to study a language wherever I wanted in Europe. I decided to learn French in Paris. This prize changed my life because I ended up living in France for 18 years.
My first job in France was within the publishing world. I worked for ALLCA XX, a Paris based publishing house specializing in showcasing the great Latin American authors of the 20th century (a project which was partially financed by UNESCO). Then, I worked for several years as a freelance journalist for Fuera de serie, a Spanish magazine, covering topics linked to Parisian lifestyle, fashion, culture, arts, crafts, etc. At the same time, I chose to also teach Spanish language courses for different schools which were focused on business. Thus, before moving to the US, I had two jobs which I felt perfectly complimented each other.
In 2012, when my husband passed the UN exam for translators and was offered a job in NYC, we decided to move together to the USA. When we arrived in NYC, I was still able to briefly continue working as a freelance journalist, for the same Spanish magazine I just mentioned. But shortly after I decided to take some time off to think about my professional life. On the one hand, after 10 years of combining two almost full-time jobs, I was exhausted. On the other hand, without a work permit in the US it is impossible to work legally.
Question 3. Looking back at your first move together, to NYC, I am curious to know: Did you take a specific first helpful step?
It was not easy to adapt to the new host country. I did not know the US job market, nor the overall culture. Plus, my knowledge of the English language at that time was limited. Overall, it was a challenge to obtain my work permit. And, I had to make a radical change to my profession.
Initially, I oversaw finding an apartment and completing all the practical aspects of our move, which took about 6 months to accomplish. During that time, I was lucky to learn about and become an active member of the New York Local Expatriate Spouse Association (NYLESA). This was a necessary and interesting experience, because the Association helped me answer all the questions I had not only about the US job market such as, for instance, how to apply for a work permit as an UN staff spouse, but also about overall life in the US. As a result, I was also able to meet many fascinating and lovely people and that helped me feel less lonely. Plus, I was able to see that there were other people in my situation. Meeting other UN staff spouses (men and women) was a source of inspiration and it helped me to slowly build my professional path in New York.
I cannot say how the situation is now, but back in 2012, the UN did not assist staff spouses who moved to NYC with job related questions. It was in fact the NYLESA who helped spouses answer questions, such as: how to find an apartment, which schools to enroll children in, how to apply for a work permit, etc. And at the time, the UN headquarters in NYC did not even provide visiting batches to the spouses of UN staff. This did not make any sense for us especially as my husband and I chose to join a bank that was located on the UN premises, and before having the visitor badge, I would have to wait for someone to physically accompany me inside the UN every time I had to go to the bank. Many other couples were in our situation. And the UN reception desk used to have two ladies meant to accompany the visitors up and down the stairs to make their appointments.
For example, in one of the NYLESA workshops they thought us how to behave and answer questions during a job interview. That session was very helpful because for Europeans, like me, or for those coming from other continents, it is not the norm to say in an interview that we are the best candidate for the job, which is what a US employer wants to hear. Because in our home countries we tend to behave and interact differently during a job interview, it makes it much more difficult to successfully complete a job interview in the US. Plus, since like myself, many of us got an US work permit as a freelancer, it was in fact the Association that taught us how to create our own small company and how to correctly file US taxes. And, when I had to renew my work permit, it was again the Association who taught me how to do it. Lastly, it was with the help of the Association that I was able to obtain a 6-months long renewable UN visitor batch.
Question 4. How did you go about finding your first job in the first country you moved to?
Initially, I was able to write a few articles related to life in NYC. Unfortunately, my freelance journalist work in the US did not last long because the Spain-based magazine I was working for already had several writers based in NYC and still needed a person located in Paris. As it was not possible for me to write about the latest cultural events and overall Parisian lifestyle, I had to give up this job.
This break gave me the chance to look for other type of work opportunities and train myself in the field of graphic design, something I had wanted to learn about for a while. I noticed that I felt the need to start working with my hands. After a while, I started making art pieces comprised of collages, which I created by utilizing the beautiful photos I had saved over the years from different magazines. After a while and once I obtained my work permit, with two of my female friends, I was able to start organizing small art exhibits for my friends and acquaintances, which were held in private locations around NYC. These exhibits were a lot of fun and had a collegial feel to them, as we also invited other female artists to exhibit with us and we were all able to sell our pieces to those who attended the exhibits. I loved this job very much as I enjoyed the collaborative and creative part of it. Unfortunately, this beautiful adventure ended after two years, when my husband got a new job in Geneva, and we decided to move back to Europe.
Question 5. How did your experience in the United States help you later to transition to the Swiss job market?
In 2015, I moved to Switzerland due to the new job of my husband. Overall, my experience in Geneva was very different from that in NYC.
When we change cities, we change our lives. What I started professionally in NYC could not be moved to Geneva which is a small town, when compared to a big city such as New York. So, I had to adapt again.
Based on my experience, UNOG Geneva helps to integrate the UN staff spouses more than in NYC. For example, in Geneva I received a UN visitors badge as soon as I arrived. I was able to immediately join my husband for lunch or coffee, see exhibits, and attend concerts and talks which are open to the public. This gave me much more flexibility than in NYC, because in Geneva one is able to meet people more easily within the UN compound and make new friends and contacts.
Also, because I had already gone through a move to NYC, moving to Geneva was easier because I already knew the steps, we needed to take, both as a couple and also by myself professionally speaking, in order to integrate in the new location as soon as possible. And knowing the French language, helped me tremendously, while other friends who moved here and did not speak the language seemed to have a harder time integrating. Plus, by the time we moved to Geneva, I was already fully aware of life as a UN spouse, and I also knew much more about the UN overall and about how it functioned. For instance, I already knew that they were teaching language courses to their staff members. And by then, I already knew what the protocol was when it came to contacting people within the UN. Because I had all the experience and the qualifications that were needed for a teaching job, that also helped.
Overall, the new move was hard and conflicting for me because I had finally managed to have a job I really liked in New York. Moving to Geneva meant having to start from scratch again. I tried to keep a positive attitude, telling myself that the change would be an opportunity to do something else professionally. The time in New York helped me discover my passion for graphic design, so in Geneva I decided to continue to train myself professionally within the same field. At the same time, I followed courses to learn how to create online interactive publications (which combine text, with audio and video content). As such, I learned how to professionally utilize Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and other graphic tools. In parallel, I also continued with my collages, in which I started to also incorporate graphic design elements. And I also decided to reactivate my trajectory as a Spanish teacher, thinking that it would be easy to teach that language in Switzerland. What I quickly discovered was that Spanish was not a language that people seek to learn in Geneva, but that in fact it was German, a language more widely utilized in the country.
So, after not being able to obtain a Spanish language job, I started looking at the United Nations. Luckily, I started working as a professor of Spanish for United Nations employees. This was a very stimulating job. Because Spanish is one of the official UN languages, I was able to interact with and teach a variety of UN personnel who needed to learn Spanish for various reasons, such as to be able to: speak with their colleagues in Latin America, read documents during different meetings or reports that were originally written in Spanish, before going on a mission in a Spanish speaking country, or who wanted to learn it for pleasure.
At the beginning of my teaching at the UN, I was teaching by trimester, 3-month long courses, 2 times per week, about 12-13 students per each class. We were teaching people of all nationalities, all ages, different kind of jobs, different kind of maternal languages, and their Spanish level varied, anything from beginner to advanced. Once the COVID pandemic started in March 2020, we were immediately told that all our classes would be moved online. Initially, it was challenging to teach online because I have never done that before nor did some of the students. Since some of my colleagues had experience with teaching online, we helped one another to adapt to the new medium.
As a result, without even planning for it, I taught myself how to teach classes online and found quickly that it worked well, and that the students enjoyed it and did well in the courses. While we missed out on the face-to-face interactions (such as, having coffee with colleagues), we gained a lot of time by not having to commute to work. Plus, many of our students had to go on missions on a regular basis, and with the classes having been moved online, they were now able to attend their class from any location.
Question 6. What do you believe were the main skills that helped you adapt to new work environments?
With every move it is important to learn how to adapt fast to the new environment and learn how to figure things out by ourselves or by asking a lot of questions.
Before a new move, we need to realize that we might have some preconceived ideas about a specific country. For example, when I first arrived in Geneva, I thought I was going to find a job quickly teaching Spanish, an important international language. In fact, I quickly realized that while Spanish is a crucial language in the United States, it is less used in Switzerland, where German language is more widely utilized.
Overall, while it is difficult to move often, it can open doors in our career that we could not have even envisaged had we not made a move. For instance, while in NYC I was not able to work at the beginning, that impediment opened the door for me to study something I found to be interesting (like graphic design) and thus get a new certification. And then, while in Geneva, because I wanted to continue with teaching Spanish, I was able to determine a way to combine this desire with my newfound interest in graphic design. By deciding to combine the two, I can now create my own support materials for my language classes.
Question 7. What is on the professional horizon for you?
My husband retired from his job at the UN in February 2023. As a result, we decided to move to Spain, Madrid.
This new move is challenging as I am going back to my country of origin after having spent the last 30 years living and working abroad.
After having been employed at ILO as a training assistant, my intention is to continue working in the training field, especially in the e-learning domain that offers numerous possibilities for learners, teachers, organizations, and companies. I am currently giving online private Spanish classes and I would like to pursue my career as an instructional designer.
In addition, I am putting my experience and skills as a graphic designer into the conception and development of online training materials. I recently completed a training on the design of interactive publications, a very promising technology for e-learning.
As I already mentioned, oftentimes we have a preconceived idea of what we will be able to do in a host country, which shall in fact be different from reality. Due to my past experiences, I now know that I have to adapt quickly and see how I can manage to create a new professional path for myself, which will take a lot of energy to do.
Question 8. To conclude, is there a particular advice you would like to share with other UN staff spouses, or any other person who chooses to move with their partners to a new location?
In my experience, I find that spouses of United Nations employees embody the ability to adapt to different situations and new countries with great ease.
For those individuals who are soon to move with their spouses to a new country, I would like to advise that they try to always stay open, constantly look for leads, and learn how to quickly adapt to new environments. And, if they cannot find a job in a new country quickly, then they have to learn how to use both their prior positive and negative work experiences to professionally reinvent themselves and fit the needs of the job market they wish to join.
Thank you for reading.
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E-Learning Instructional Designer & Spanish Language Teacher for Private Classes
Freelance | Spain
Illustrations: The main article photo and the profile photo displayed in this intterview were made available by Paloma Redondo.
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