Global Week Alum Spotlight: Isabela Medina-Maté

October 22-27 is Global Week at the University of Virginia. Stay tuned throughout the week for stories highlighting the global impact of Batten students, alumni, faculty, and staff. 

Master of Public Policy (MPP) graduate Isabela Medina-Maté has wasted little time since she graduated from the Batten School last May. The native Colombian, who just completed an internship with the communications department at United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in New York City, is already embarking on a new chapter, one that will take her to the west coast where she will be able to combine her passion for human rights and cinematography.

Prior to her time with UN OCHA, Medina-Maté interned at the UN offices in Geneva and Paris. Already equipped with a deep understanding of the humanitarian sector and how it operated, plus a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs to boot, Medina-Maté decided to pursue her studies further through Batten’s MPP program.

“Taking courses with Kirsten Gelsdorf exposed me to the sharper realities of the humanitarian sector, the pitfalls of working in the field, and the constant barriers to good policymaking.”

While courses such as Gelsdorf’s solidified Medina-Maté’s commitment to global policy work, she admitted that she missed the creative outlet her film minor had offered during her undergraduate years. Gelsdorf, who had worked for several years at UN OCHA, most recently as a Senior Policy Advisor, notified Medina-Maté of an internship opening in the organization’s communications department that would offer her a chance to combine her creative side with policymaking.

“Working at the UN was a wonderful experience. You definitely get exposed to the bureaucratic side of humanitarian policy which is both a good and a bad thing. Working on the communications side of UN OCHA reignited my interest in visual storytelling.”

During her UN OCHA internship, Medina-Maté collaborated with a cinematographer who often worked in the field documenting various humanitarian crises. “I did a lot of video and line editing but I also got a chance to think about the different ways we tell these stories of distress and conflict—and what has the most impact.”

And by impact, she’s not referring to the kind of shock-value images of war-zones and humanitarian disasters that too often proliferate the Internet. Rather, Mate was concerned with the content and the means by which these stories were shared—what might be the best way to conceive and convey a narrative about a humanitarian problem without appearing colonial, off-putting, or worse, impartial.

These same thoughts led her to play a minor role in a new project, the Humanitarian Collaborative, which Prof. Gelsdorf is currently leading with funding from the UVA Center for Innovation and Inquiry. In partnership with the UN, the project focuses on what kind of images are the most effective at mobilizing public support by asking the question “How might we more effectively use visual imagery and advocacy to drive global compassion and action in the field of Humanitarian Aid?”

Beginning Nov. 1, Medina-Maté will continue to leverage her policy background in a creative way at the SHOAH Foundation in Los Angeles. The SHOAH Foundation, which was spearheaded by Steven Spielberg in partnership with the University of Southern California, records the testimonies of Holocaust survivors with the goal of developing empathy and respect for those stories. The link between visual storytelling and human rights appealed greatly to Medina-Maté, who during an informational interview with SHOAH was immediately offered a job.

In her new position, Medina-Maté hopes to have a real chance to fine-tune her documentary skills and translate her education and experience in humanitarian policy in an effective but also creatively compelling way. There’s no doubt she will succeed.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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