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A review of 3 months in Geneva September 1, 2011

Posted by Kate Saetang in Graduate, Individual Fellowship, Master's, Switzerland.
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My internship in Geneva came to an end a couple weeks ago.  I’m now sitting in a cafe in Athens, Greece where enough time and distance have passed that I can properly reflect on what it means to work for an international organization in Geneva.

Kate Saetang with co-workers

On her last day in Geneva, Kate hiked up the Le Môle with her IOM coworkers.

While learning about the work of the International Organization for Migration was a crucial part of my internship, it was not my biggest takeaway.  What was much more valuable was learning the culture of an international organization–who works at the UN and partner agencies? What are their motivations and aspirations? What do people talk about over lunch? What do people worry about? At the end of the day, do the people who work in international affairs envision the same kinds of career for their children? To me, these were some of the recurrent themes that ran throughout the summer:

If you decide to work for an international organization, career security is only an illusion.  For example, many people I met at IOM and UN agencies that had worked for five or more years were working off a series of 3 or 6 month contracts.  This makes decisions like signing an apartment lease for a year or buying a car difficult.  Often, the decision to renew a contract comes only at the very last minute.  When working for an international organization, you need to be ready to lose your job or move at any minute.  You can imagine that most conversations revolve around contracts (“When is your contract up? Is it getting renewed? What kind of contract are you getting next?”)

The concept of diversity took on a whole new meaning for me once I got to Geneva.  I had grown up with what I had considered a culturally and ethnically diverse background, in immigrant neighborhoods in Chicago.  But in Geneva, I was surrounded by people from all corners of the world.  For example, in my office alone, I worked with people from Bhutan, Canada, Lithuania, Spain, and Italy.  My supervisors were German, Romanian, and Bangladeshi.  My good friends were French and MozambicanWhen surrounded by this kind of diversity, it is easy to take a step back from your own cultural assumptions and examine them through critically.

At the same time, a lack of diversity
I need to precede this with a huge disclaimer: these are based on my own observations, and I’m sure half of the people reading this will be armed with examples to refute this.  Although there was a diversity of country backgrounds represented in international organizations, there was not necessarily a diversity of economic backgrounds. It seemed that a good proportion of the people I was meeting were from families with diplomatic backgrounds, or some background in international civil service.  And this is generally a proxy for wealth–most of the people I met seemed to come from well-off families and/or families where it was normal to work for the UN, an embassy, or an international NGO.  This makes sense for two reasons: first, before you can get a paid job at an international organization, you must do an unpaid internship.  And only those already well-off can afford to do an unpaid internship in Geneva.  The second reason is my next point.

Getting a job at an international organization
Getting a job at an international organization is almost 100% dependent on who you know.  I realize that for other jobs, your social network is key, but this is even more so the case for international organizations. The competition is so fierce and the prestige of working for an international organization is so high.  What ends up happening is that the only way to separate yourself from the rest of the pack is to have someone already inside to pull you in and single out your resume.  This is why it seemed to me that people working at international organizations come from families or have friends with international affairs or diplomatic backgrounds.

I’m grateful that the Ford School was able to help me find this internship with the IOM–without their help, I do not think there would have been any way I could work for IOM.  And of course, I would not have been able to afford to live in Geneva without help from both the Ford School and the International Institute.  The entire summer was a rewarding experience for me, and I would have loved to have stayed for longer.



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