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Brendan Kahn – American Voices at Vienna Based Organizations Campaign Series – April 2023

Brendan Kahn, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), HIV/AIDS Section


“Americans Voices at Vienna-based International Organizations” Post #1 Monday, 3rd April 2023


Our first spotlight is on Brendan Kahn. Originally from San Diego, California, Brendan serves as a Consultant for Drug Use and HIV in the HIV/AIDS Section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC. Read on below for more details on Brendan’s role, past work experience as a teacher, favorite aspects of living in Vienna (including easily accessible snowboarding trips nearby!), and even a few tips for those considering a career at an international organization.


1. Where do you work and what’s your role?


I work at UNODC, in the HIV/AIDS Section, as a Consultant for Drug Use and HIV. This year, my portfolio has also expanded to supporting the work that comes with UNODC’s current role as the Chair of the Committee of Cosponsoring Organizations of the UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), a role held by one of the 11 cosponsoring agencies each year.


2. What encouraged you to apply for this position?


Before working at the UN, I was a teaching assistant as part of a Fulbright-affiliated program, teaching English in a few different middle- and high schools in and around Vienna for the better part of three years. In looking to pivot back to work that matched my background in political science a little better, I began looking for some opportunities at the UN Office in Vienna, and was lucky to latch on with the Section that I still work with today.


3. What are your favorite things about working for an international organization?


I have two answers for this. One is that no day is ever the same as the last one – it’s a fast-paced environment, but there’s always something new and exciting going on, which really helps me to bring energy to my job each and every day. On the other hand, there’s also the wide array of people that you’re able to meet working in such an international and multicultural milieu – all of my colleagues have had starkly different backgrounds and upbringings than my own, even for those that have ended up spending a decent amount of time in the U.S., either for work or for studies. I learn so much just chatting with colleagues both within and outside my section, even in just the brief stops on the corridor or at the water cooler.


4. What project/accomplishment are you most proud of from your time working at your VBIO?


It’s been nice to see the success of some of the projects that I have developed or hearing the words of speeches that I have drafted being supported by high-level speakers from my own organization and from some of our Member State partners, but for me the most inspiring success I have seen is a continued increase in the expansion of the evidence-based services that we advocate for. For example, we support opioid agonist therapy (OAT), a treatment generally involving methadone or buprenorphine, alongside psychosocial support, as a critical intervention both to address drug use disorders and to prevent HIV among people who use drugs. Seeing more countries adopt OAT in the time that I’ve been with UNODC is evidence for me that our advocacy is working.


5. What is it like to be an American working at your VBIO?


There’s an interesting duality to being an American working in UNODC. At least at Vienna headquarters, I don’t believe there are so many Americans working for UNODC – at least, I haven’t met any others working either in my section or in the sections, units, branches and divisions that I liaise with most often. At the same time, all of my colleagues are deeply familiar with current affairs in the U.S., and in fact some of my colleagues have a rather intimate understanding of day to-day life in America too, from time spent studying at American universities or working in the U.S. As such, I bring a rather unique perspective to the table, but also one that can be the starting point for enriching discussions with fellow colleagues.


6. What is the best part of living in Vienna/Austria?


Vienna is often ranked the most livable city in the world for a reason – there are a ton of aspects that make living here a really comfortable, yet vibrant experience. If I had to pinpoint one thing, however, it would have to be the public transport system. Within Vienna, just about everything is no more than 30 minutes away from anything else, with a well-connected web of subways, trams, trains, buses that seem to come every 2-3 minutes during rush hour, and every 7-8 minutes even late at night. This is paired with an extensive national rail system that lets you see a lot of this very beautiful alpine country very easily – for example, I’ve gone on numerous snowboarding trips where I’ve been able to get from my doorstep to the slopes without ever getting in a car, just by maybe changing trains once.


7. What’s it like living outside of the United States?


Austria and Europe are certainly more similar to the U.S. than other parts of the world, but there are still some really marked differences that can take some time to adjust to. Oddly, I’ve found that some of the big changes work themselves out rather quickly, like using a different language while paying for groceries and ordering at a restaurant or learning the different holidays that you can expect to have off. It’s the little things that really stick out over time, however. Every American I know has, on at least one occasion, ordered an iced coffee at a Viennese café and ended up with huge, heavy coffee sundae with whipped cream and syrup (the words for ice and ice cream are the same in German). I’ll also never understand the fascination with cold cuts for breakfast here. But even in beginning to work for UNODC, there was a bit of an adjustment in learning to work more in a British English environment rather than an American one. On my first day of work, I learned from a colleague that my direct supervisor was “on leave”, and thus wouldn’t be available that day. In my American understanding, I was immediately really worried that something terrible had caused her to take a leave of absence; it took a while before I realized she was just taking a few vacation days in Italy. While you kind of always have a sense of how the big things in your life are different while living abroad, it’s noticing these little day-to-day things that really makes you realize upon reflection both how particular and unique (and perhaps a little peculiar) the U.S. is, but also how different things can be in all facets when living in a culture other than the one you grew up in.


8. Where in the U.S. are you from? How has your upbringing influenced your decision to pursue a career at an international organization?


I grew up in San Diego, California, though I’ve now spent many winters in places that have an actual winter. For me, this has been less of an influence on my decision to pursue a career at an international organization, and more an influence on some of the factors that have made me more successful there. I strive to bring from my coastal, beachy upbringing, a sunny, laid-back disposition and a sense of relaxed calm that I can draw upon to remain in control and focused during chaotic, high-pressure, high-stress situations, while also trying to project that same calm to my fellow team members. My decision to enter international public service is influenced much more by family upbringing. My parents both instilled in me a sense of compassion and empathy, but also one of duty and service (my dad and grandfather are/were both surgeons that served as doctors in the military). In charting my professional path, I’ve always looked to connect with and help people and communities, and hope that I can say that I brought some positive change and progress, no matter how small, when I look back upon it someday. These qualities made teaching deeply impactful for me, and have also made me passionate about the work I do now with UNODC.


9. Do you have any tips for people considering a career at an international organization?


Considering a career at an international organization should first take a good amount of soul searching – the impact can be immense and very enriching to one’s own life experiences, but it can also be quite a hard path, particularly when you’re far away from home. That said, I think the main thing I’d recommend is to approach such a career with a strong sense of confidence, flexibility, and indefatigability. There are a number of different ways to get into working at international organizations, but if you’re committed to pursuing such a career you’ll need the confidence to know that this is what you want to do, but also the flexibility and persistence to pivot to plan B, or to another possible door (or back door, or side door, or cracked-open window) in, if plan A doesn’t work out. Reaching out to anyone you might know working at such organizations already to learn about how they got to where they did can be a big help and confidence booster in this too – if they found a way to make their goals happen, then so can you!


Learn more about UNODC HIV/AIDS Section here: https://twitter.com/UNODC_HIV


Tune in next week for our second #MondayMotivation post, where we will spotlight another American pursuing a career in international public service at a different international organization based here in Vienna.