Explain your career journey to date?
During high school, I had a passion for news and current affairs, so I decided I wanted to become a journalist. However, when it came time to select my university course, I realised the industry was evolving and becoming tougher, so I decided to keep my options open by studying Professional Communication at RMIT University, which was a hybrid degree covering journalism, media, public relations and advertising.
After taking a gap year (where I worked at an outdoor activities camp in the UK), I started the course in 2014, and really enjoyed the variety that came with the degree and started steering away from journalism. Almost every industry has communications professionals, so I was able to design my career around my other personal and professional interests, including foreign affairs and international development.
I distinctly remember a uni lecturer declaring that 90% of people in my course would end up working in the tobacco, gambling or oil industries, and (with all due respect to those industries) I was determined to use my degree for something more positive.
During uni, I got as much work experience as possible through internships to determine where my skills were best suited. I had stints working in a startup, a PR agency, a UN organisation and with the Australian Government in Canberra.
I loved my three-month summer stint in Canberra in 2015/16 with the media team at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and decided to return to Canberra after graduating from uni.
In my final semester of university in 2016, I won a Global Voices scholarship, which included a fully-funded trip to Quito, Ecuador to be a youth delegate at the UN Habitat III forum on sustainability and affordable housing.
Before the trip, myself and the other delegates went to Canberra to meet with politicians (including then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) and senior public servants to discuss ideas we’d be taking to the forum. One of the places we visited was the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) innovation hub, which was designed to find better ways of delivering foreign aid through entrepreneurship and innovation.
I loved the concept and decided to send an email requesting work experience. While they didn’t have any opportunities at that stage, they encouraged me to keep in touch.
After graduating, I spent three months in Nepal trekking, volunteering and interning at the Australian Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I supported the aid program in a development communications role.
During this period and after my return to Australia, I continued to keep in touch with the DFAT innovation hub, and – as luck would have it – their communications officer was leaving, and they needed someone to fill the role at short notice. Suddenly, I wasn’t being offered work experience, but a 6-month contract position with DFAT at the start of my career.
Thrilled, I quickly packed up my life in Melbourne and moved to Canberra, sleeping on my sister Emily’s couch for three weeks while trying to navigate the difficult Canberra rental market.
I really enjoyed the meaningful and interesting work of the innovation hub, as well as the people and culture. I had initially been a temporary replacement while they found someone more experienced to fill the role (I was even tasked with writing that person’s job description!), but I gradually assumed that role and was asked to stay on.
While I wanted to stay, I had also long harboured plans with a friend to run down the east coast of Australia for a good cause, and I didn’t want to give that up.
To my surprise, my team loved the idea of the adventure, and offered to hold my position and give me a new contract on my return.
So, in 2017, Bounding Plains to Share – a multicultural storytelling adventure project – began. My friend Jackson Bursill and I (aged 22) ran 4000kms from Cooktown to Melbourne over 100 days, telling 100 stories of people who came to Australia as a refugee, asylum seeker or migrant to celebrate multiculturalism in Australia. We documented the stories and the adventure on social media, and I used my communications and media experience to find the stories and to liaise with the media throughout the journey. In March 2018, we ran into the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne to find a sea of friends and family cheering us in. We’d raised over $13,000 for the ASRC, but really the journey was always about storytelling and changing the narrative around multiculturalism, rather than fundraising. It was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure – meeting incredible people from all walks of life and seeing most of the east coast of Australia is something I’ll always look back on fondly.
Returning to my role at DFAT’s innovation hub, I worked on some cool projects, including creating DFATx, a platform for the Foreign Minister of the time to showcase innovative people and projects Australia was supporting in the Pacific region. We also ran global challenges in partnership with organisations such as Google, MIT and Atlassian to try to find solutions to complex challenges in developing countries, such as improving nutrition, access to clean water, and preparing for the workforce of the future.
Outside of work, I set up a pilot program called the Refugee Marathon Project (RMP), using seed funding from the Foundation for Young Australians. RMP was a community building initiative to assist new Australians to make new friends and improve their social, physical and mental health. Participants were paired up with an experienced local runner as they took up running (usually from scratch) and trained together with the group for a local fun run (distances ranging from 10k to the marathon). Ten participants went on to run at the Australian Running Festival in Canberra, including my good friend Zaki Haidari, a refugee advocate who fled Afghanistan ten years ago. Zaki couldn’t run more than a kilometre before RMP but went on to run the marathon in an impressive time of just over four hours after six months of training. He has since run ultramarathons and has used his running to fundraise more than $25,000 for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) over the last couple of years.
Noticing my passion for refugee and humanitarian issues, a colleague offered me a position working in DFAT’s humanitarian team. In 2019, I left my role in the innovation hub and began working on humanitarian crisis responses, covering Australia’s responses to both rapid onset (eg. tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones etc) and protracted (conflict and wars) crises. I’ve since worked on crises such as the Beirut explosions, Tropical Cyclone Harold (in Vanuatu and Fiji), COVID-19 responses in the Pacific and protracted crises in Bangladesh/Myanmar and Syria.
In 2021, I was deployed to Port Moresby for six months to support the PNG Government’s COVID-19 response through vaccine communications and public diplomacy. The work was enriching but running in PNG had its security challenges! If I wanted to go for a run by myself on the streets of Port Moresby, I had to take a security escort with me, which meant running on the roads with a huge car with four guards following very slowly behind me (not great on hills, I can assure you!).
Since returning from PNG, I’ve been the Communications Manager on a taskforce delivering the 2022 Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which Australia is hosting with the UN in Brisbane this September. Taking on more of a leadership role has been a great opportunity for me and I’m looking forward to seeing the conference come to fruition.
In October, I’ll be taking up a short-term (6+ month) humanitarian position in Tonga to support the development program there as the country continues to recover from the massive volcanic eruption and tsunami that occurred earlier this year.
How did Strathcona prepare you for your chosen career?
Strathcona taught me to give everything a go and to always try your best. For instance, I was never the most talented athlete, but the size of the school meant I could sign up for any sports team and there would always be a spot for me to develop my skills. I was involved in everything at school – musicals, choirs, debating, sports – and always felt supported to juggle my extracurricular activities with my academic studies, which I think has set me up for a well-balanced life.
What did you study?
Professional Communication at RMIT University, majoring in Politics and Public Relations (with electives in Mandarin and Entrepreneurship)
When did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?
I knew I wanted to do something in the media industry from about year 9 but only got onto the foreign affairs/humanitarian pathway towards the end of university.
Who/what was the major influence on your career path?
There have been many influences on my career path, including a lot of mentors who have believed in me and given me opportunities. I remember Mary Hall leading the year 10 journalism elective at Strathcona and really supporting me to pursue a career in the media.
Were it not for the DFAT innovation hub taking a chance on me at the start of my career, I have no idea where I’d be today (but it would look very different!).
Now in the humanitarian area of DFAT, I am surrounded by likeminded people who are motivated to empower others and make a positive difference in the lives of people in developing countries. I love going to work every day knowing I get to work with such supportive, interesting and diverse colleagues.
What are your career highlights to date?
My six-month deployment to Papua New Guinea last year is definitely a highlight, as well as the lead up to my deployment where I travelled to Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bases in Darwin and Brisbane to manage the media surrounding Australia sending the first supplies of COVID-19 vaccines to PNG. Some of my work in PNG involved working with the PNG Government and other partners to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine messaging to combat vaccine hesitancy.
Another memorable moment was being on ‘humanitarian duty’ and getting a call at 2am when the Beirut explosions took place in 2020. It was really rewarding to be part of the initial discussions around what Australia could do for Lebanon to assist with the recovery efforts.
What day-to-day thing do you enjoy about your job?
I love that I’m constantly learning from the amazing mentors around me. We face a lot of challenges with the increasingly diverse and complex crises we’re seeing (compounded by climate change), but we are always shifting and adapting the way we work and doing our best to stay positive in what can sometimes be quite an intense job.
What core attributes do you need for your chosen career?
Working in the humanitarian sector requires a lot of passion and dedication, an interest in diverse people and cultures, and a relentless belief that you can make a difference.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start in your industry?
Don’t just apply for advertised job vacancies. Think about where you want to work or who you want to work for and get in touch with them and ask for work experience or even a job. The worst they can do is say ‘no’. The best jobs I’ve ever got have come from writing a good email explaining what I could do to help an organisation. I would also suggest interning as much as possible to work out what type of work suits you while you’re still studying.
Do you undertake any service (volunteer/charity) work outside of your career? If so, we’d love to hear about it.
I am very passionate about ultramarathon running and multiculturalism/refugee issues, so most of my community work has combined those interests.
(Refer to sections on Bounding Plains to Share and the Refugee Marathon Project in question 1)
In addition to the Bounding Plains to Share and Refugee Marathon Project initiatives, I have recently become an ambassador for Free to Run, a charity using adventure sports to develop female leaders in conflict zones. I’m about to kick off my fundraising campaign here: https://www.givegab.com/p2p/2022-ambassadors-freetorun/cassie-cohen.
I also spent five years volunteering as a member of the Canberra Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum to bring young people together to deliver impact in their community.
What is your life like outside of work? Tell us about any passions or hobbies you have!
Outside of work, I am always up for a new adventure or challenge. This often revolves around running ultramarathons.
In 2021, I was selected to run Coast to Kosci, a 240km race from Eden to Mt Kosciuszko that is considered Australia’s premier ultramarathon. Despite having returned from PNG two weeks before the race (and had restricted training there), I managed to finish the race in 36 hours (with the help of an incredible support crew) and become the youngest female ever to finish the race.
Earlier this year, I ran my first 24-hour race, where you run as far as you can around an athletics track in 24 hours. I ran 204.9kms, which qualified me for the Australian team. In July, I joined the team to travel to Bengaluru, India for a hot and humid Asia-Oceania 24-hour championships. I had low expectations for my first representative race but managed to come back from being in 6th place (and 12kms behind) at the 12-hour mark to win the silver medal, and team gold for Australia with 214.59kms in 24 hours. I also managed to break a number of Australian age group records in the process, and now hold the F25-29 records for the 6 hour, 100-mile, 200kms and 24-hour distances. My race report is here if you’d like to learn more: https://www.runnerstribe.com/features/team-gold-and-individual-silver-for-australia-at-asia-oceania-24-hour-champs-in-india/.
Other than running, I love exploring Canberra and surrounds with hiking, camping, cross country skiing, mountain biking and more. I also love travelling around Australia and overseas and discovering new languages and cultures.
If there are any Strathcona students or alumni interested in a career in the humanitarian sector or in getting into ultramarathon running, I’d love to hear from them!