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Sustainability and transition: Alumna Charlotte van Gemeren’s mission at the Ministry of Defence

What does the Dutch Ministry of Defence do to fight climate change? And what is Alumna Charlotte van Gemeren’s Role in this? We spoke with Charlotte (class of 2016) and asked her about what’s it like to do a traineeship for the Dutch Government (and how to get in), the lessons learned at International Studies and her advice to make the most out of your student time.

Charlotte van Gemeren

Charlotte, you are now working at the Ministry of Defence, what does your job entail?

'I started the Dutch governmental trainee programme, or “Rijkstraineeship” in 2019. The programme spans two years. Roughly every 6 months, you get a new assignment. I guess my current job title would be ‘advisor circular economy’. Next to this I am the chair of the Defence sustainability network and I organise events and informative sessions to raise awareness for the issue and enhance working together to speed up the sustainable transition. On a global scale climate change is a huge threat for security, my assignment is to explore how we can improve our own operations with regards to the circular economy.'

'As a chair of the network, I got to know many passionate people about fighting climate change that are working in different layers and (geographical) parts of the organisation. The ministry of defence is a hierarchical organisation, which means that the ideas of people (especially soldiers) with a lower rank do not always get through the ranks to those people making the decisions. However, as a chair I am able to set up meetings between those that have influence and those who have good ideas/observations regardless of their ranking.'

'My next step is to work for the Netherlands Enterprise Agency at the EU subsidies department and help green projects to get funding. On the long term I want to explore the role of manager, for example a sustainability manager position, or work at an NGO as a lobbyist.'

What skills you learned in your time at International Studies do you still apply in your job now?

'The first year’s course Introduction to Area Studies has forever changed my perspective on the world. I think from a global perspective, so I am always considering how my daily work contributes to making the world a better place. '

Which steps do you think were important to get where you are now?

'Taking an internship abroad has been essential for my development. Living abroad for a while, whether you take a minor or do an internship, is always considered a plus when applying for jobs. I took an extra year to graduate, so I was able to take on more extracurricular activities – such as being on a board and an extra internship. During my Master’s, International Relations (at Leiden University) I took an extra course on international climate negotiations, even though this was not related to the rest of my curriculum. This has been eye opener and made me want to contribute to a sustainable planet in my career as well.'

What is it like to do this kind of traineeship? Do you have advice for people who would like to apply?

'The Rijkstraineeship brings me a lot of valuable experience. In university I learned how to analyse and how to do research, but I had no idea of how to deal with office politics nor did I know what kind of professional roles would suit my personality. The training I get involves giving and receiving feedback, so you can progress quickly and grow as a young professional.  Through the (group) trainings you create an intense bond with the other trainees. You also learn from their shared experiences.'

'Within the programme you will get around four different assignments. This gave me the opportunity to practice different roles. I learned that I enjoy most to work in a team and in an environment where there is room to experiment with different methods of working. For example, I became project manager two weeks before the first lockdown and I had to figure out a plan on how to achieve our goals in these new circumstances in the best possible way.'

'When I applied for the programme, my goal was to practice a job interview rather than getting into the programme. The weekend before my interview I fell ill, so I had little time to prepare. Therefore, I just decided to be open during the interview and to show my thought process. Because self-reflection is such a big part of the trainee programme, this worked out positively for me.'

'Apart from participating in extracurricular activities during your studies, my advice for graduates that are interested in applying for the traineeship is to gain insight in your strengths and weaknesses. You can practically do this by asking friends, relatives, and colleagues for feedback. Also try to practice self-reflection, when or after encountering difficult situations. For example, when you failed at something, try to reflect on why, how you dealt with the situation and what you would do differently in the future. Being able to show that you understand yourself and that you are able to self-analyse is essential during the selection process.'

What advice do you have for current students to make the most out of their studies?

'My advice would be to take as many courses as you like, follow your interests, even though these extra courses might seem irrelevant to the rest of your curriculum. You never know what direction it will take you. If you have the privilege to take more time for your studies, do it. If you can pursue an internship or take on a board role: do so! Applying the knowledge you learn in university in practice will help it stick.'

What advice (or lessons learned) do you have for current students which can be helpful in their careers?

'At the beginning of my working life, and sometimes still, I experienced the imposter syndrome. I felt that everyone around me knew what they were doing, and I was the only one improvising when I did not know what to do. However, after some time I realised that even the most experienced colleagues are not perfect at their jobs. So, if you don’t understand something: ask! Hold on to the critical mindset you’ve acquired during your studies and always consider how the established norms, values and procedures can be improved. It’s our role as young professionals to refresh organisations, so if you encounter some resistance just remind yourself it is part of a natural process and that in some years you might be that complaining, conservative colleague ;)'

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