Recently, an intern from New Zealand caused an internet stir when he quit his unpaid UN internship in Geneva, Switzerland, after being outed for living in a tent outside of town. In his statement, he admitted he couldn’t afford to support himself for the six month stint. Despite being asked during interviews if he could, he wasn’t honest about it because he felt he’d be passed over for previous internships because of it.
Having lived in Geneva for six months on an unpaid internship myself, I’ve got some insights on this.
By whatever miracle, early in my development career, I found myself an unpaid internship in Geneva with a non-profit organization that followed the United Nations conventions. (I would’ve killed for an internship at the actual United Nations like this guy, but I digress.) I researched the crap out of places to stay, ending up the first two weeks in a hostel that I knew I couldn’t afford for more than a few weeks, waiting for space in another place that was so popular, it had a waiting list.
Eventually, I moved to Mandat International Rappard House, a beautiful old house on the outskirts of town that had room rates based on the economic situation of your country. Nationals from developed countries paid more, those from developing countries paid less. While I would’ve loved the lower rate, overall it seemed fair. I got to mix and mingle with folks from all over the world, building a vibrant communal support system. And what a community! We had debated over breakfast every morning, and discussed our days while cooking pasta in the evenings. I loved it there, and am even still in touch with a few.
Then, my supervisor travelled to the Gambia for a month and offered to let me house-sit. All of a sudden, I had my own flat in downtown Geneva for free! That single gesture of trust and understanding saved me a ton of cash. My friends and I subsisted on UN happy hour fare, partied in squatter housing, nursed drinks at the Alahambar and made pasta dishes on tiny hot plates across the city. In the end, I was able to live in Geneva for less than I thought.
I don’t know this guy’s situation. However, I do know a few things:
- It takes time to get where you want to be. If I had quit in the first two weeks, I would’ve missed some wonderful opportunities both to meet new people and work on my career. I couldn’t have foreseen that my boss would travel and like me enough to let me house-sit, but I took a leap of faith anyway and toughed it out.
- Geneva is well-known to be an expensive place. Within the UN community, I believe that nearly everyone knows (or has been!) an unpaid intern. Sympathy was on his side! Resources abound for those coming in to do short or long term stints.
- Interns aren’t the only ones who have it rough. I feel like not only did he gave up too quickly, but for a bourgeois cause. If interns have it rough, what about the number of other immigrants who fight for the right to live and work in Switzerland on a daily basis?
- From most accounts, it appeared he made conscious a choice to go it alone, refusing family and other support to live in a tent. Yes, not everyone has the luxury of being able to rely on family, but what a wonderful gift when you do. It was his choice to refuse those gifts.
- No matter where you go, you retain the capacity to network and problem-solve. The best thing I did while in Geneva was as let go of certainty and learned to rely on my community. It led me down some amazing paths I would’ve never seen.