She now runs intricate multi-component programs at the Georgian Human Rights Secretariat, but Lela Akiashvili’s first project at the age of eight was to take care of her siblings. While other kids her age watched cartoons and played games, Lela learned valuable lessons of compassion and care by supporting her siblings while their parents were away.
It’s not surprising that she grew up to be kind and caring, developing a career working on establishing and managing social justice and equality programs for Georgian women and children. From learning life lessons with her siblings, to starting a nonprofit human rights organization at her university, to working at Save the Children and the UN—Lela’s thoughtfulness and empathy have inspired her career choices throughout her life.
A Childhood Passion Becomes a Career
Though her work is challenging at times, Lela gains energy from meeting and talking to people.
In 2008, when Lela was a student at Tbilisi State University, Georgia and Russia entered an armed conflict leaving thousands of people displaced and in need of help and rehabilitation. Passionate and caring by nature, Lela felt a responsibility toward them. She engaged in helping war victims through her nonprofit Students for Human Rights. Though many students wanted to help, most of them had no idea how. It was the perfect time for Lela to step in as a leader.
“At the IDP camps, displaced people had nothing—they have lost it all to the war. Yet, they were immensely warm and hospitable every time we visited them, thinking of what they can offer us forgetting all that the world took from them. It was so profoundly inspiring.”
When others felt like their job was done, she was just getting started. Lela’s experience in the camps led her to join “Consent,” a women’s association for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Apart from running large and small scale programs for IDPs, Lela became an international Youth Trainer and facilitator conducting over 100 trainings in English, Georgian, and Russian for youth from rural areas, women from underrepresented communities, entrepreneurs, and young leaders.
Ever since the Russo-Georgian War, giving back to the community has become an integral part of Lela’s life. Building on her work experience with various communities in Georgia, the aspiration to bring a greater change at the policy level brought her to UNICEF. At the UN family, Lela became part of a larger process that could influence many people at the local level.
Though she enjoyed getting a first-person perspective into how policy is introduced to parliament and eventually written into law, she also felt like something was missing—she was not the one designing the policy.
Learning to Speak up in the Face of Adversity
Determined to put herself in a position where she could directly influence policy, Lela applied and received a Fulbright scholarship—a life-changing opportunity—that afforded her the opportunity to study at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
According to her, the master’s program in public policy analysis was remarkable and vital for her further professional growth. The coursework helped her understand the intricacies of policy, how it is designed, as well as its impact on people. However, Lela also knew that theory had to be put in practice and enriched with experience.
That is what ultimately led her to apply for the Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program in 2018. “And it was one of the best decisions of my life,” she recalls.
The Muskie program is a summer internship and professional development initiative funded by the U.S. Department of State that provides emerging leaders from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia with the opportunity to gain real-world experience complementing and enriching their graduate studies in the United States.
“The Muskie internship gave me a huge advantage as an international student. I was able to enrich and diversify my professional experience at two different institutions, build resilient networks, and work on programs that I truly cared about. Moreover, Muskie experience helped me to find a job in the U.S. as well as upon return—in Georgia.”
As a Muskie intern, Lela worked as a Gender Equality Guyer Fellow at Save the Children in Washington, D.C., where she worked on gender equality initiatives and professional development opportunities for youth.
“One of these was a newly developed department and while that seemed challenging at first, it was a great opportunity to develop and grow. My supervisor gave me complete freedom to steer it in the direction I want and use my vision and creativity to develop equality related programs.”
For someone like Lela who craves learning opportunities, this was a great experience—but she constantly felt the need to do more.
“I constantly demanded more from myself. Sometimes I would even put myself through unnecessary stress, but this led to some meaningful results for the organization and for me personally. The funny thing was that I only realized how much I had accomplished during my time as a Muskie intern while writing my final report listing all the activities I have led and supported.”
Lela received a nine-month extension to work at Save the Children, which speaks volumes about her performance as a Muskie intern. Apart from Save the Children, Lela was invited to conduct a research on Women, Peace and Security at the San Diego University, where she spent two months working with experts and key stakeholders in the field from around the world.
When she looks back at her Muskie experience, Lela recalls that the most powerful impact it had on her was making her realize that her opinion matters, a feeling that will stay with her throughout life and will give her the courage to speak up in the face of adversity.
End of an Internship but the Beginning of a Career
Soon after her Muskie internship, Lela moved back to Georgia. She received an offer to work for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a Project Manager of the UN Joint Programme for Gender Equality in Georgia.
Her work aims at contributing to greater equality in social, economic, political, and other spheres. Striving to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality), Lela believes that everybody’s work matters and sometimes the smallest activities could have the largest impact on bringing social change in society.
“Our efforts are now aimed towards increasing women’s representation in the Georgian Parliament. Having more women at the Parliament is a political decision, but political decisions reflect what the country believes in.” Lela takes pride in knowing that Georgia believes women should have a representation in the Parliament. “If a country starts believing in something, it is bound to happen, sooner or later, and this makes me look ahead at a brighter future for the country”.
As a result of her conviction and efforts to advance human rights, Lela has recently been appointed the Georgian Prime Minister’s Advisor on Human Rights. In her new role, she will ensure that the Human Rights Secretariat intensifies its work and becomes a guarantee of human rights in the country. She hopes to establish cooperation between the council and non-governmental organizations.
Lela’s story is a testament to what’s possible when hard work meets opportunity. She’s one of the many Muskie interns who are impacting different parts of the world and turning them into better places to live.
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