A Passion for International Affairs

As Austin browsed the UGA bookstore for his business textbooks, he found himself wandering through the international affairs section. An hour later, after picking up multiple IA books and zero business books, he knew something had to change. It was in that moment that he would define his new, and improved, career path.

Austin Gignilliat is an international affairs and economics major from Marietta, Georgia. While he didn’t come to UGA as an intended IA major, he has certainly found his passion in SPIA.

“My International Affairs major is the perfect thing for me,” he said. “I love my classes and I love what I am doing.”

It was during his study abroad experience in South Africa that he set his sights on a career in international affairs. The Stellenbosch program is a four-week Maymester that offers a unique combination of classroom learning, community engagement, and wildlife viewing. As part of the program, students get the chance to fully engage with the South African community by participating in a four-week service-learning project in the nearby community of Kayamandi. This trip was the impetus for Austin’s budding career.

“The juxtaposition between the affluent and predominately white city of Stellenbosch and the utter poverty I witnessed in Kayamandi—which was only a few kilometers away—was jarring,” he reflects. “Ultimately, the experience strengthened my desire to find a career that would allow me to promote and defend human rights through diplomacy, international law, and economic development.”

During the 2017 school year, Austin was offered another incredible opportunity: to intern remotely for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). UNITAR was established in the early 1960s at a time when numerous former colonies in Africa, and elsewhere, were becoming independent.  UNITAR was created to provide administrators, diplomats, and other officials with the necessary training and capacity building services so that they could continue to develop and ultimately succeed as newly independent states.  Today, decolonization is over; however, UNITAR continues to provide those in the developing world with this kind of training.

“During my time as a remote intern with UNITAR, I performed all sorts of odd jobs, such as writing/editing grant proposals and assisting with UNITAR’s many conferences held around the world,” he said. “However, my primary responsibility was towards the Road Safety Initiative, which seeks to halve the number of road traffic deaths and injuries around the world by 2020 as per the Sustainable Development Goals.”

In this capacity, he worked to create a Road Safety Toolkit containing best practices for improving road safety.  He compiled this Toolkit from numerous presentations given at UNITAR’s Road Safety Workshops, performing hours of research in both English and Spanish. The Toolkit contains case studies that can be used as reference material by communities seeking to improve road safety.

He was ultimately invited to come to UNITAR’s headquarters to continue his internship in Geneva, Switzerland.

“While in Geneva, I continued work on the Road Safety Toolkit, ultimately writing a document that consisted of around 100 pages worth of material, but I also had other tasks,” Austin explained. “For instance, I would accompany Alex Mejia, the Senior Manager of UNITAR’s Social Development Program, on meetings with ambassadors and high-ranking UN officials, including the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations and the head of UNITAR”.

He also had the opportunity to sit in on and assist with several meetings at UNITAR’s headquarters in the International Environment House and at the Palais des Nations.  Austin joined the International Environment House Internship Board and was eventually elected to serve as their vice president.  In this role, he helped to organize events and represented UNITAR with the Fair Internship Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting the rights of interns within the UN system.

In the fall semester, Austin remained in Europe by enrolling in the UGA at Oxford study abroad program. With his graduation date looming closer, Austin is excited about his career possibilities. He will be heading back to Geneva this spring to intern with the State Department’s Mission to the United Nations.

Austin attributes his success so far to his SPIA professors and classmates. “SPIA has opened so many doors and new experiences for me,” he said, fondly. “Dr. Gallagher, specifically, has been so supportive to me and to all of her students. She helped me home in on my passion, and I am so grateful to her.”