Keeping your eyes open for opportunities to shape positive change

15/03/2023 | 6.5 mins

Resilience, foresight and persistence are just a few of the qualities that have helped Political Science and International Relations graduate Amy Coetzee (BA '11, BA(Hons) '13) navigate her varied and global career journey.

Amy works as a Gender Equality Strategy Advisor at the Minderoo Foundation, which she describes as a 'dream job', however her journey to get to where she is has not been a conventional one.

A South African immigrant, Amy and her family moved to Perth before she started high school, where she realised she wanted to work in public policy and international relations. She credits this epiphany to her high school economics teacher who got her involved in a model United Nations (UN) conference.

“I sat there and I thought, ‘Ok, this is it. This is what I want to do. I want to be the Australian Ambassador to the United Nations.’ That was decided when I was 15,” Amy said.

The ensuing journey spanned multiple languages, continents and job titles, showcasing Amy’s hard work and perseverance to achieve her dreams.

While still awaiting her Australian citizenship (and therefore HECS eligibility), Amy worked full time for six months after high school instead of going straight to university so that she could save money to travel to the Global Young Leaders Forum in the US, for which she had been nominated.

Amy said, “I felt six months behind at the time, but it was the best thing because working full time gave me a foot into the door of the corporate world and got me to save money to travel overseas later on for the first time by myself.”

After starting her studies at UWA, she took up a study abroad opportunity in the Netherlands and travelled to New Caledonia for a month through her French Studies.

“One thing that really stood out, especially when studying political science and international relations, was the importance of actually getting some international, living-on-the-ground experience outside of a study context,” Amy said of these experiences.

This realisation, along with her desire to study Spanish, led Amy to live and volunteer in Peru for six months after completing her Honours. Volunteering in Cusco exposed Amy to a new culture, people and fresh opportunities to learn.

“You go immerse yourself in other people’s culture and language and you are the foreigner, the odd one out," Amy said. "[Rather than] coming in with the kind of mentality of how much you could help, you look at how you can learn and what can help shape you.”

She said one Ambassador she met during her travels gave her some sage advice. “He said 'If you want to get involved in in foreign policy and international relations, you can't just sit in an ivory tower and try and make policies for people without having lived on the ground. You have to be in person, experiencing it for yourself and seeing what it looks like on the ground.'”

Following her time in Peru, Amy came back to Australia and worked in Melbourne as the first female CEO of Global Voices, a youth-led not-for-profit that committed to developing the next generation of Australian leaders by providing practical experience in diplomacy, policymaking and international relations.

Although educating these young diplomats was a rewarding experience and allowed Amy to share her passion for international relations, her heart was still set on an internship at either the UN, World Bank or the OECD. She knew that gaining one required enrolment in a Master’s course, however she also knew that she could not afford to do an unpaid six-month internship overseas. Amy started organising and applying for scholarships early.

Receiving an Endeavour Awards Postgraduate Scholarship allowed Amy to travel to the United States and complete her Masters at UNC Chapel Hill. While studying, she started applying for internships at the World Bank and OECD. When the OECD acceptance came through, Amy jumped on the opportunity.

Moving to Paris, Amy became part of the Gender Equality Team in Public Governance at the OECD.

"Everything fell into place. It was like a dream come true, living in Paris and working on gender equality at the OECD."

Amy Coetzee on her internship

Although she applied for multiple positions to secure a contract after her internship, there were very limited opportunities due to multilateralism being under threat in mid-2018. Switching course, Amy decided to take up an offer of working for federal government in Sydney, which she says was valuable experience in that it showed her what she didn't want to do.

“It makes you realise what isn’t a good fit for you," she said. "Sometimes you need those experiences, like ‘OK, this is not it.’”

She said the key thing missing from the government job just was international connection. “The joy and the learnings I got out of working with people from different cultures and backgrounds was just too important for me,” she said.

Amy kept pursuing her dream of returning to the OECD. After a year of applying for seven different roles, exams and several interview panels, Amy became the Advisor to the Deputy Secretary General of the OECD, Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen.

“It was incredible," she said. "The stars aligned. It is exactly what I had imagined I would be doing."

The role was perfect for her interest in gender equality and wanting to make sure that she had a hand in helping to mainstream that across the broader organisation.

After three years in Paris in that role, Amy felt ready to move onto the next challenge, but she expected to stay at the OECD. While travelling back to Perth to see her family after the COVID-19 border closures, it was by chance that a friend sent her a job listing.

During her two-week trip, Amy interviewed for and was offered her job at the Minderoo Foundation. Her lateral jump back to Perth was, she admits, quite unexpected, especially as someone who plans everything she does.

“The idea we sometimes have that you get in and then you work your way up doesn't always work well. It's not always the best way to approach a particular career,” Amy said.

Working at the OECD taught her to grab every opportunity she could, which made it easier to veer off the traditional path of just slowly staying in one place and working up.

“It just makes things much more fun and much more eye-opening and challenging and exciting," she said. "It's quite unusual to leave and come back, but for me, I knew it was going to be the right decision.”

All of Amy's experiences have taught her that hard work, identifying opportunities for herself and saying 'yes' even when you do not feel ready have collectively helped her achieve everything she has in her career.

Amy said, “I don't know if I would have had that same kind of motivational drive if I hadn’t grown up in South Africa, or worked the many years I did in customer service and hospitality. My background has shaped my desire to use the opportunities and blessings I have been given to make positive change. I also know the feeling from starting at the bottom and not having things handed to me, but having to work hard for everything I have achieved. There are so many opportunities at UWA, and in Australia more generally – you just have to keep your eyes open, be confident in yourself and stay persistent.”

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