So it has been a bit over one week since my arrival at WHO and it feels as though so much as happened. I have met a lot of new and interesting people, settled into an apartment in Geneva, been a bit of a tourist, worked on some tasks here and there, and constantly learning a lot from everything around me.
Please remember these are simply my observations and reflections on my own experiences thus far, and simply that. I am aware that many interns here experience things so very differently from one another since the working environment, the supervision, the projects, can differ so much. However, some things and thoughts are probably similar. Nevertheless, some of the big things that pop out to me at this point that I want to reflect on are…
Working at WHO
On my first day here at WHO, it definitely felt quite surreal. While a lot of my first day and subsequent days involved getting orientated to the building, the organization, and the department, it was quite the unique experience. It felt very much like the first day of school in September as a student – you try to meet as many people as you can, you try to ask as many questions without disturbing others too much, and you don’t want to forget your lunch money, etc. Everyone is quite friendly and supportive, and it definitely helps that there is a dedicated intern association that looks after and helps welcome new interns.
With my couple days of being an intern so far, on a day to day basis, it feels very much like a relaxed academic institution similar to any other office workplace. But the opportunities to connect with mentors and supervisors and the learning experiences you are able to engage yourself in are unlike any other. There are often lunchtime seminars where staff present their work and share findings, which are great opportunities to hear about things happening in other departments. And I have yet to do this, but the opportunity to connect with senior staff over a cup of coffee is highly accessible and recommended. The experience here is also very much ‘what you put in is what you get out of it’ – the more that I invest myself in seeking opportunities to learn and seek advice from others at WHO, the more learning I will be able to take back with me.
I feel as though I am still trying grasp the gravity of what it means to be a part of this organization. I feel very much a part of something bigger, an institution that is capable of so much, but often can’t help but also feel very removed from the actual impacts that the institution makes.
I knew that I wanted to come to WHO to see it for myself and to understand if what others tell me about the institution are true. I came into the organization understanding little about the actual structure of authority, but soon felt a need to get accustomed the many acronyms that are thrown around to describe a staff position, a department, a project, etc. etc. I suppose I have also been exposed to the particularly complex workings of the institution that make it particularly bureaucratic and political, although what was I to expect for an organization with 194 member states.
Meeting new and interesting people
Being here at WHO, has definitely put me outside of my comfort zone in meeting and interacting with so many different, new, and especially interesting people on a daily basis. And the mindset that I use in approaching these interactions is seeing the learning opportunity and positivity out of every interaction. Interacting with other people, staff, interns, seemingly random strangers in the city, is super interesting – all you need to do is listen and you learn a lot about the way other people think, the way that you think yourself, and the world around you. Let anyone be your teacher, just listen to them with an active- and open-mind. And take every opportunity to learn and try new things. I am pleasantly surprised each and every day by other people and the way they will open up to you, mentor you, give words of wisdom, provide insight, and share a unique story.
Pushing myself outside of my comfort zone by meeting new people and constantly engaging in discussions can be tiring for myself and recognizing that was definitely important for me. I felt quite tired over the past week and a bit because I found myself with a lot less time in solidarity and to reflect on my own, but in making time for myself for this very reason, I was able to recharge and find a routine that I am comfortable and motivated with.
The opportunity to be here
It is an incredible privilege to attend this unpaid internship in Geneva, Switzerland.
I am still unravelling the privilege and opportunity involved with being a part of the internship programme at WHO. It is an opportunity brought upon by many privileges of a young professionals’ socioeconomic background, educational background, merit and talent, nationality, but also networking and connections.
I came across two articles in the UN Special that resonated with me about my feelings towards my experiences so far and the representation of nationalities within the internship program at WHO. Here are two excerpts from the articles:
“Unfortunately, for many bright and highly-qualified young people around the world, especially from least developed and developing countries, living in a city like Geneva is a luxury they cannot afford. Therefore, taking an internship here becomes an exclusionary and elitist process since the selection criteria are not only based on merit and talent but economic means.” “Have you seen the intern?” by Carolina Urrego-Sandoval – Page 34 of June 2016 UN Special
“As the internship programme is administered by WHO, many expect it to be compatible with global health ambitions. However, research has shown that participation of Member State nationals is inconsistent with WHO’s own HRH policy. For example, in 2014 a study showed 50% of interns at the flagship headquarters programme were from just 2 Member States; with less than a quarter from developing countries.” “Bringing WHO’s internship program in line with global health policy” by Ashton Barnett-Vanes and Maziar Jamnejad – Page 20 of May 2016 UN Special
Geneva, the city
The city is quite beautiful. I really haven’t done as much exploring of the city as I would like to after work, but I have made the trip down to the lake and biked around casually after work. I have never been to Europe before, and it may be hard to believe this, but after leaving Canada for almost two weeks now, it still hasn’t quite sunk in. I really enjoy the mountains, the greenery, and the picturesque architecture that you can find just around every corner – it has all felt very surreal, and I will probably feel this way for quite a bit longer.
The city is a very unique hub of international organizations and representations from all around the world. I have heard from others that Geneva as a city is not extraordinarily exciting and definitely more expensive compared to its city counterparts in France or other parts of Switzerland. But I think I disagree, as I feel that there is something truly stimulating and electric about this city for its ability, or rather how it serves as a platform, for bridging international relations and fostering collaboration. An excerpt from another article I found interesting:
“Geneva, with a long history as a hub for international economic and trade relations, is today among the world’s most important centres of international cooperation. It not only hosts the second-largest UN office but also more than 30 international organisations, diplomatic representations of almost all countries, and at least 250 non-governmental organisations. Approximately half of all Geneva’s residents are foreign nationals. Or as Illona Kickbusch, professor at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, puts it in this latest edition of Multilateral Accent: “Here, one doesn’t speak about the others, the others are here.”” “Editorial” by Michael Gerber – Multilateral Accent Issue 20/June 2016
More personal things
I am living on my own in a different city, many thousands of kilometres away from home, without the comfort of family and friends to rely on. Being on my own has been hard of course, but it’s also been very exciting. It’s been interesting to need to rely on myself fully to remember to make sure all of my everyday living things and personal things are taken care of – such as moving into an apartment, navigating the transportation system, buying groceries, figuring out phone stuff, etc. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing strenuous, but I do wish I had better French abilities to help me get around and getting lost on the transportation system a few times definitely taught me a few lessons to say the least.
There is also this feeling of how to balance the transient relationships you build with others. Some people that I meet I may encounter quite a few times, but others, maybe much less so, but there seems to be this collective sense that we are on tight schedules and that the time that we spend here will go fairly quickly. And in the relationships that I build in the office, I am aware and acknowledging certain limits and responsibilities as a temporary employee that is here to learn, but also contribute in ways if possible.
Also another lingering thought is this balance of changing your mindset on a frequent basis of feeding the travel bug/wanderlust and switching back to a public/global health mindset and reminding yourself why you are here in the first place. A balance is exactly that. Taking time to relax, enjoy, and smell the roses in Geneva, but also to learn and experience WHO as an intern so you are able to take something out from it that teaches you about the fields of work you are drawn to and helps you question what you understand and perceive about the institution and how it impacts the world.
Till next time,