Heini Utunen works internationally for the World Health Organisation (WHO). She is leading a unit that is in charge of training for emergency aid programmes in health crises, especially to support the poorest countries in the world. She has been a UN official for 12 years. During the pandemic, Utunen has called Kuopio home, while she visits the headquarters in Geneva every other month.

Utunen comes originally from Muurasjärvi in Pihtipudas, so the University of Jyväskylä was a natural choice for her studies. She sees Central Finland and Jyväskylä as her home base, even though her study and work career have later taken her across Finland and the world.

“I am a native of Central Finland! My ‘tribal sense’ is really strong, even though I come from the outer edge, from the most northern village of the region.”

Utunen has always been interested in social issues. After graduating with a bachelor’s in social sciences, she worked at JYU as a project manager in a project related to entrepreneurship in the countryside and held various positions of trust, including as a town councillor in Jyväskylä. She continued her studies at the University of Oulu and graduated from there with a Master of Arts degree.

“Alongside social issues, I was also interested in international affairs. My bachelor’s thesis dealt with the Palestinians’ right to return. I served on the board of the UN Association of Finland from 2001 to 2002 and as a UN youth delegate of Finland in 2002. In the Student Union of the University of Oulu, I was in charge of international and development cooperation issues.”

Before her current career in the United Nations, Utunen worked in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, as the minister’s spokesperson, a political assistant, and as in-house training coordinator in the Crisis Management Centre. Heini’s first UN job took her and her family to Vietnam for four years, where she worked as a FAO specialist of natural catastrophes.

At present, Utunen is leading a unit of 30 employees from across the world, with the team members located from Costa Rica to China, and Senegal to Australia, according to Utunen. Under her coordination, they produce online learning materials as a response to the pandemic as well as other learning projects, especially for the Global South.

“It started from fighting Ebola in western Africa. Now we produce training material with relation to the coronavirus, on 40 different topics and in 60 languages, and we have materials for more than 20 contagious diseases. We prepare instructions, for example, on the use of test laboratories, building clinical units, and handling vaccines as well as on how basic functions can be sustained even in very challenging conditions.”

In addition to leading curriculum planning, Utunen establishes partnerships when joint efforts are needed. The curricula are built on the scientific foundation of the WHO research programmes, and WHO employs various cooperation partners, such as Translators Without Borders, to promote the production, translation, and dissemination of information.

“Anticipation is a fundamental element in everything. What will be the next disease to cause a public hazard? If this becomes a century ridden with pandemics, as some experts predict, we have to race against time to ensure appropriate educational responses when the next virus hits.”

In Utunen’s work, continuous learning is a constant presence. Technological issues, in particular, call for continuous learning and applying new knowledge. In Finland, the development of health informatics is on a high level. Utunen’s own work involves locations where all hospital devices, for example, might be powered by solar energy and no clean water is available. We must consider thoroughly the technologies by which we can provide the recipients with the best possible learning experiences.

Utunen is also currently pursuing postgraduate studies at Tampere University. The last articles for her doctoral dissertation on information technology have been finished during the COVID-19 pandemic. Utunen encourages today’s students to pursue a diversity of language learning as the ongoing transition to virtual work increases the opportunities for international careers.

“Most knowledge-intensive work is about problem solving, and a university education provides you with the necessary practical skills and competences. Your personality and show of interest, such as well-rounded language skills, demonstrate your motivation to engage in knowledge-intensive work in different work environments and teams, and also imply cultural awareness.”

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