Promoting decent work: Guan Xian’s journey from THU to ILO
Tsinghua University plays an active role in promoting the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by nurturing innovative talents, enhancing research, among many other important ways. This article, written by Tsinghua Alumna Guan Xian, national officer with International Labour Organization(ILO), showcases her story from Tsinghua University to ILO and how she joined global collective efforts striving for decent work.
Guan Xian’s journey from THU to ILO
I always remember and love a quote headlined in one of my favorite Chinese Mooks, “One-way Street”: Don’t make your mind bound in a boundless world. This quote portrays my self-construction as well as my life journey so far. To be a grounded longtermist, to be an idealistic explorer.
With such beliefs in mind, I’m motivated to broaden my horizon and explore various possibilities in life. From majoring in philosophy that I love, to becoming a UN national professional officer, my life exploration has been quite a gratifying experience than I could have ever imagined.
Following my passion for philosophy, I started my intellectual journey in humanities at Tsinghua, where I had a fulfilling time absorbing knowledge freely. In the Studies on Western Classics course, I encountered political philosophy and became enchanted by masterpieces that probed questions like “What is an ideal society?” and “What is the best politics?”
As my reading went further, my curiosity turned to questions like “What is society like?”, “How are politics and policies realized?” and, more importantly, “How can the gap between the ideal and the reality in policies be narrowed?” As it increasingly became clear to me that abstract theory building alone couldn’t answer my puzzles, I went to the University of Oxford to study for two master’s degrees in politics and social policies respectively, one focusing on China while the other concentrating on the developed world.
I first tried a UN internship during my second master’s study in comparative social policy. The decision was motivated by my desire to go beyond books and data, and to get first-hand experience in social policy-making and international cooperation in the real world.
From UNESCO to UNDESA to ILO, from field offices to headquarters, from an intern to a consultant, I carried out a variety of tasks ranging from policy-relevant research to project and event coordination to communication support. I felt myself professionally growing as I left my comfort zone and embraced new technical areas in work. I sensed that we don’t know where our limits are if we don’t push ourselves to them.
Real-life work in the UN — formulating an international standard, designing and implementing a project, establishing a global partnership, publishing a flagship report, and so on — combines grand ideas with specific routines. Progress takes time and solid efforts.
It requires patience for repeated consultations and meticulosity of every little step. As I accumulated my work experience, I was no longer impetuous but more open-minded to the complexities of reality. I introspected what I learned from books compared to what I experienced at work. Away from simplistic perfectionism, I became more inclined to take concrete actions rather than think big.
After more than a year at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, I strongly aspired to gain an in-depth understanding of how the UN work is localized and concretely influences member states’ national policy-making. In addition to paperwork, I hoped to implement a UN project.
Thus, I applied for a national project officer position in International Labour Organization (ILO) Office for China and Mongolia and luckily got the job. As an advocate of John Rawls, one of the most influential moral and political philosophers, I resonate with the ILO’s mission of “advancing social justice, promoting decent work” and expect to make my contributions to reducing social inequality.
Just before my 28th birthday, when I was informed that I would join the ILO to manage a project on skills development and lifelong learning in China, I wrote down James Joyce’s words “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” as self-motivation.
In order to implement a UN project at the national level, I needed to be an omnipotent warrior. The project management covered everything: delivering project activities, including research, workshops, and tool adaptation; coordinating with national partners like the government, enterprises, and vocational schools; promoting advocacy and visibility; communicating regularly with ILO colleagues in the Headquarters and Regional Bureau of Asia-Pacific; monitoring project progress and budget; completing various proposals and reports; processing logistical tasks, and so on.
Starting a new job and launching a new project amid the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging. The inception period was filled with my attempts “to err and to fall.” I always alerted myself that every little step needs meticulosity, therefore I learned from my supervisor’s insights and other ILO projects’ previous experiences. Gradually, I established my own system to manage, update and track the project implementation.
Meanwhile, all project activities steadily progressed. The project’s local piloting was finally launched in the winter of 2020. In less than ten days, to prepare for the project launch workshop, I created my to-do list to handle multiple tasks. From confirming a venue to designing a workshop manual, from inviting international experts from three continents to developing my own presentations, I pushed the boundary of my competencies.
During the project implementation stage, I successfully organized nine project workshops in different pilot cities. At the workshops, experts discussed the adapted ILO tools and exchanged their practical experience. Subsequently, the ILO methodologies were incorporated into the governmental working guide for vocational skills development. After planting a seed with patience and assiduity, I realized something is rooted and growing up.
Luckily, all solid efforts paid off. This first project I managed has been mentioned in the ILO 2020 – 21 Global Programme Implementation Report and the United Nations in China 2021 Annual Country Result Report. Yet, for me, more importantly, implementing such a UN project at the national level resembles constructing a bridge.
On the one hand, more global experience can be introduced through the project for the feasible application in the country. Besides completing project activities, I strive to explore how a UN project can contribute to China’s policy-making in skills development to alleviate job-skill mismatch in the labour market.
On the other hand, more Chinese wisdom in skills development and lifelong learning can be disseminated on the global platform via the project. In previous ILO tools and guides in skills development, case studies of China seldom appeared. While implementing the project, I paid special attention to good national practices shared by practitioners and summarized them into animated case studies on the ILO media platforms.
In the near future, a new international labour standard relevant to skills development will be discussed and set, prescribing training and protection for apprenticeships. I hope that my work can serve as a bridge connecting ideas, policies, and practices, and all my patience and meticulosity can benefit a wide range of workers in the long run.
Reminiscing on my life journey from study to work, I bear no regret. Majoring in philosophy at Tsinghua has strengthened my rationality and tenacity. Having a career I love in the UN has enhanced my commitment to promoting social well-being with my endeavor and endurance. As my life advances, I’m willing to embrace more possibilities. In a boundless world, I’ll continue my exploration with my mind unbound.
Source: Tsinghua University
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