MGA alumnus thrives in role bridging Mennonite Central Committee and United Nations

Master of global affairs alumnus Derek Lee ’20 says the opportunity to work in the Mennonite Central Committee’s office at United Nations headquarters in New York has been an unexpected but rewarding experience. 

“I hadn’t been aware that they had an office here,” said Lee, who had previously worked with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Nepal on rural food security programs. Lee was introduced to UN Office Director Chris Rice by Keough School Professor Emmanuel Katongole—a theologian and priest from Uganda—and Lee now serves as the MCC UN Office program and communications coordinator. Described by the MCC as “the voice at the United Nations for MCC and our global partners,” the office’s role is to inform MCC staff and partners of UN policies and programs that may affect them, while bringing expertise and experience of MCC partners and personnel to UN diplomats and employees who establish and carry out UN policies. 

For Lee, this new position has meant a shift away from frontline programming and into strategic evaluation of the UN office role for the well-regarded MCC, which has a presence in more than 50 countries and has pursued the cause of peace and human dignity for decades. But the MCC advocacy component is fairly new, Lee said, and it’s evolving alongside some 6,000 nongovernmental organizations operating within the UN ecosystem. This evolution has meant that thinking strategically, a skill Lee developed during his Keough School Integration Lab (i-Lab) experience, has been critical.

“As part of the i-Lab you learn design thinking and human-centered design,” Lee explained. Nearly all Keough School MGA students participate in the i-Lab Global Partner Experience. In Lee’s case, that experience included field work in Uganda and Bangladesh in large, post-conflict refugee settlement programs operated by Catholic Relief Services.  

“For us to have any legitimacy, we have to care for the whole person.” 

Lee’s academic background includes several disciplines, including his undergraduate studies in biology at Wheaton University.

“I wanted to be pre-med at the time,” he said. “I was driven by some of these global issues.” The quantitative skills he learned in biology served him well with MCC in Nepal, but his experiences also revealed that he was more interested in building relationships than being a physician. That self-awareness led him to seek a new career direction through the Master of Global Affairs (MGA) program.

“I remember looking at a lot of global affairs and international development programs, even some in the UK and Netherlands,” Lee said. Ultimately, Notre Dame’s other-centered emphasis on service and the Keough School’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which administers the peace studies concentration within the MGA program, drew him to Notre Dame.

The diversity among the Keough School’s MGA students also was a key factor. Students and MGA alumni come from more than 50 countries including Taiwan, the home of his immigrant parents. As a student, Lee hosted a Lunar New Year party for his cohort and remembers folding dumplings with classmates from 15 different countries as they talked about the principles they had learned in class. He still relies on the influence of his MGA classmates as he connects MCC priorities to the UN mission.

A screen shot of meeting participants in a Zoom presentation by MGA alumnus Derek Lee.
A screen shot of a the November 2020 student seminar “Tackling the Global Inequality Pandemic” hosted by the Mennonite Central Committee’s UN Office. Coordinated by MGA alumnus Derek Lee ’20, program and communications coordinator for the UN office, the seminar included students, peace practitioners, an assistant secretary-general, and religious leaders.

“Oftentimes, I’m thinking, ‘What would my classmates think of the material I’m presenting?’” he said, adding that the people one studies with are just as important as the people one studies under. Lee values the relationships with former classmates and professors alike as he elevates the MCC position on issues including migration and climate change.

“Migration is one of those issues where you need a lot of countries to cooperate,” Lee said. MCC recently added a new standing committee to explore migration, and Lee and the UN advocacy office are part of that effort. The underlying value of peacemaking is a lodestar for establishing the MCC’s role in the UN system. 

That’s also true on climate, which Lee understands as a form of violence against people of the Global South. “It’s not just a policy thing or COP,” he said, referring to the annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “How do we address these injustices?”

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by complex or controversial issues on which seemingly little progress is made, such as climate change or migration, but that’s where the foundational values of the Keough School and its emphasis on change through relationships are most important to his advocacy. 

Lee integrates the values underlying development with human dignity, common to both the MCC and Catholic social teaching, into his work and sums them up in a single sentence that guides him into the future: 

“For us to have any legitimacy, we have to care for the whole person.” 


Top photo: MGA alumnus Derek Lee ’20 (left) with his supervisor Chris Rice, director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office, in front of UN headquarters in New York.

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