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Job Advice from a Former Refugee Now Serving as a Senior Policy Adviser in New Zealand

By Eric Kalisa

"Focus is key to a successful career journey."

These are the wise words of Martine Udahemuka, a former refugee from Rwanda, who now works as a Senior Policy Advisor in New Zealand’s public sector.

The number of refugees around the world is gradually increasing according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2016, UNHCR reported, “less than 1% of refugees’ youth had access to higher education”. Martine is an outlier and among this 1%, and thus is a role model for other refugees.

She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Industrial & Organizational Psychology, the latter which focuses on how organizations can improve employees’ well-being and productivity at the workplace as well as the development of people.

After earning her Master’s Degree, she ended up working as a human resources generalist at the Ministry of Social Development in Wellington. She later worked as a student success advisor at Massey University. There, she collaboratively worked with teaching staff to support students’ academic goals.

All the while, Martine never forgot her roots. Alongside her full time employment, she volunteered her time and skills to support the former-refugee community. Most recently, she founded two social impact initiatives - Learn and Innovate with New Kiwis (LINK) and MentorShip - to support former-refugees in being their best versions in the new land.

She has held several positions within the government but is now focused on mastering the fine art of public policy. Public policy touches on the lives of every citizen, including communities newly resettled to New Zealand.

“I want to advocate for better outcomes for all New Zealanders, including former-refugees,” she said to me.

Martine’s LinkedIn bio eloquently highlights her goals and what drives her: “Becoming a refugee is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. But they say it is in adversity that we grow the most. Losing my childhood, home, relatives, friends, and everything I had ever known in the blink of an eye has taught me resilience and to have faith in the midst of darkness. Most of all, it has left me with a strong sense of Justice and Service.”


During an interview, I was inspired by Martine’s advice to refugees like me who want to be successful in the future despite our different challenges. She shared with me the following:

  1. Stay focused. “Since I was young, I have been a very focused person,” Martine said. Being a focused person can help us to reach or achieve what we want in the future.

  2. Be strategic. Martine advised that students should try to discover their goals so that they can spend their time more wisely on achieving them. Being strategic, including not being afraid to connect with people, leads to better decisions.

  3. Do your research. This is particularly important before applying for a job.

  4. Work hard. Though refugees face employment barriers, working hard no matter how small the job may seem will help you access better job opportunities.

  5. Mentor and be mentored. Never be afraid to ask for guidance and be a guide for others.


I was most impressed by Martine’s inspiration for refugees generally. When I was young, I had a fixed mindset that no refugee can be successful. Martine proved me wrong. She is one of many refugees who made it. She changed my mind; I feel rejuvenated! Recently, I wasn’t as focused on my studies as I should be because I thought I was wasting my time. Getting a job seemed like a far-fetched dream.

From Martine, I learned the importance of knowing where you come from as key to knowing where you want to go.

“Students should be clear about what they want to get out of their education,” Martine said. “They should have realistic goals as this will help them to stay focused.”

When I joined university, I took it for granted. However, Martine’s advice underscored the importance of working towards your goals.

Finally, I also learned that collaboration is so important. Working with other people helps you gain skills and knowledge in different areas where you might not be as strong. So, we should build networks that support each other to accomplish our goals.

As a result of this experience, I want to focus on my studies as well as discovering my goals. Through the interview, I have gained clarity about how volunteering can play a role in career development. Specifically, I would like to help refugee communities in terms of health and education.

As Martine has demonstrated, gaining clarity about goals and seeking guidance from mentors can drive a successful career journey.

Connect with Martine Udahemuka on LinkedIn.

Eric Kalisa is a Southern New Hampshire University student. You can connect with him on LinkedIn. He wrote this story after going through Global Innovators Academy's Interview an Innovator online course experience.

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