6 October 2020

From Many Languages One World to UN Refugee Agency: Tom Okot

The Many Languages, One World (MLOW) essay contest, co-hosted by ELS Educational Services and United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) from 2014-2017, challenged university students worldwide to write an essay examining global citizenship, cultural understanding and the role of multilingualism in fostering both. The essay had to be written in one of the six official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), but not in the student’s first language or primary language of instruction. Winners of the contest were invited to United Nations Headquarters for the Global Youth Forum, where they created and presented action plans for the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda.

This follow-up series reconnects with the MLOW contest winners to showcase their journeys since the contest and spotlights their reflections on language learning and how it shaped their educational and professional pursuits.

Tom Okot was a winner of the contest in the Spanish language group in 2016. Internally displaced from his home in Northern Uganda due to war, he is now a senior Programme Assistant at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in San José, Costa Rica.

Read on to find out how the MLOW experience helped Tom become a better professional with an international vision.

I am a native English speaker and my winning essay, titled “The book of Tom Okot was written in Spanish. It highlighted the milestones that were influential in changing my perspective about humanity and development. No one should be defined by their past or current situation. The underpinning difference between individuals lies in their access to opportunities, as some may easily have access to opportunities while others may not. Aside from that, we are all the same irrespective of assigned societal differences. My essay underscored Sustainable Development Goals 4 Quality Education and 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. My presentation at the General Assembly reflected SDG 15 Life on Land.

I obtained my master’s degree in Spanish, studying Development Practice and Biodiversity at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica. Studying in a new language will always be challenging because it requires cultural adjustments. The sooner we recognize, accept and respect other cultures, the faster the process of cultural immersion will be. Obtaining a language comes automatically by maintaining a positive attitude and mutual respect for cultural differences.

My studies in development, coupled with the MLOW experience opened doors to the international community. The MLOW alumni community has grown bigger and boasts representation of a diversity of cultures, nationalities and languages. This provided me with a foundation that has made me a better professional and a transformative agent of change.

Learning a new language has also made me a better professional in my current role as Senior Programme Assistant with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Costa Rica. I work in line with the multi-functional team (MFT) approach to ensure the participation and inclusion of relevant stakeholders in all phases of program development, implementation and management. Learning Spanish has enabled me to fully understand and provide sustainable solutions to the people I am working to help.  Speaking and understanding the language also enables me to connect easily with my colleagues and understand the life of refugees from a different perspective through self-identification.

The more multilingual we become, the better we understand one another. Language is a foundational pathway to cultural immersion. Most global differences are the result of misunderstanding and a failure to recognize, accept and respect other cultures. Learning another language helps make it possible to live in harmony with societal diversity and nature.