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The Quick and Dirty Guide to Interning in Geneva

Article and photos by Britnae Purdy

The United Nations Office in Geneva
The United Nations Office in Geneva.

In December 2014, I graduated from George Mason University with a Master of Arts in Global Affairs…and very little idea of where to go from there. In November of 2014, I started applying for jobs with abandon, and in the midst of dispatching dozens of cover letters, resumes, and inquiries to potential employers, I came across the Program on Global Governance and Policy in Geneva, hosted by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The program combined nine weeks of interning with a week of intensive classes. I had specialized in Global Health in grad school but lacked hands-on experience, so when I saw that their Global Health track offered internships at the World Health Organization Headquarters, I was enamored. I applied more on a whim — after all, this was a top-rated program at an incredible university, and I was still getting rejected from entry-level job after entry-level job.

Two days before my graduation ceremony, I received the email. Miracle of miracles, Sanford had accepted me. My hands shook as I read the details of the acceptance. I had a little over a month to decide.

I left the decision to the last minute, the practical part of my brain arguing that unemployment was no time to jet off to Europe. At the same time, part of me desperately wanted to follow my dreams and yearned for a chance to intern in Geneva, home to the United Nations, World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, and numerous other intergovernmental organizations. When the acceptance deadline came and I still had no job offer, I decided to take the leap. A month later, I earned a spot interning at the WHO — a dream come true.

Geneva from the lake
Geneva from the lake.

Dreams, however, often come with price tags. Swarms of interns flock to Geneva, especially during the summer. Though many of these interns would describe their experiences as priceless, an equal number reflect on being shocked by the price tag involved in living and working in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I’m not going to lie — making an unpaid internship work in a city where a personal pizza will run you $20 is not easy. Further, venturing to a foreign city, especially one as bustling and diverse as Geneva, can be rather intimidating. But with proper planning and gumption, I found the experience to be incredibly rewarding. Below, I’ve offered a variety of tips to help you get the most out of your internship and your budget.

Preparing

  • Settle your Visa

    First things first: Will you need a work visa? If you’re coming from outside the Schengen region and plan to be in-country for more than 90 days, you likely will. If you’re interning with a United Nations agency (that includes the WHO), it’s better to err on the side of caution and seek a visa or at least speak to someone at the Swiss consulate. To secure a work visa, you will need to have your airline tickets booked (including the return trip), a letter of offer from your intern agency, an address at which you intend to reside, and copies of your passport. Switzerland has been changing their travel requirements quite a bit recently, so it’s vital to keep checking with your nearest Swiss embassy. For example, partway through applying for my visa, Switzerland changed its regulations to require an in-person application — meaning I had to make an emergency overnight trip to my district consulate, which was six hours away in Atlanta.
  • Pack for the Weather

    In Geneva, the weather is typically moderate, ranging from 20-40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to 60-90 degrees in the summer. That being said, when I interned in Geneva, I spent the first two months enjoying 75 degree days and a cool breeze at night. As soon as July arrived, however, we were struck with the hottest temperatures Geneva had seen in over a decade, with two straight weeks of 100+ degree weather. Keep in mind that many buildings in Switzerland do not have air conditioning, as this extreme weather is rare. It’s best to pack layers and a mix of casual and professional clothing. Bring a rain jacket and warmer layers for visiting the mountain areas of Switzerland, which can see snow year-round. A simple trick for packing light: make sure everything you bring can do double duty, e.g., tops you can wear with shorts on the weekend and layer under a blazer for work days.
  • Start Looking for Housing Early

    Housing, by far, will be your biggest source of stress. Unless you’re coming from a major city, rent prices will seem shockingly high, so allocate a decent amount of your budget to accommodation. I recommend you begin looking at least two months before you’re scheduled to arrive in the city. As soon as you accept an internship, ask to join any intern Facebook groups, including this one for the WHO or the larger Geneva Interns Association (GIA). A useful list of foyers (sort of a cross between a dormitory and a hotel) can be found here. With foyers and other student housing, it is especially important to start looking early, as they fill up rather quickly during the summer. Public transportation in Geneva is convenient and easy to navigate; the city is relatively small, so don’t be too worried if your accommodation is on the border of town.

Eating

  • Pack a Stash

    I knew that food was one of the easiest places I could slash my budget, so I strategized early. I realize this might sound ridiculous, but I dedicated a decent amount of my suitcase to instant oatmeal and granola bars. I knew from previous travel experience that American “snack” favorites aren’t always easy to find abroad. My 50 cent granola bars were certainly a cheaper breakfast than the typical cappuccino and pastry I would find at a café, and my instant oatmeal made for good comfort-food dinners. They came in especially handy when I landed in Geneva on a Sunday morning, learning, belatedly, that the vast majority of grocery markets are closed on Sundays. As a coffee addict, I ended up incredibly grateful that I threw a couple packets of Starbucks instant coffee in my suitcase. Not only did this save more money, but a strong cup of American Joe eased my homesickness like no other. When you do eat out, pizza and kabobs are the cheapest options around the city.
  • Eat Strategically at Work

    UN agencies offer an intern special for the cafeteria lunch, and believe me I took advantage of the benefit. For the equivalent of $10, I stocked up on a filling, healthy lunch — and yes, occasionally stashed some goodies in my purse for later. In this way, I could eat a lighter dinner but still socialize with coworkers over food during this lunch hour. The UN and WHO also frequently host lunchtime or dinner events with free food or beverages. Seek these out and make sure they’re on your schedule. Free food plus lectures from experts! What more could you want?
  • Shop like a Sleuth

    Go to France for your groceries. No, really. The first time I heard that advice, I thought it was a gross exaggeration, but since Geneva is nestled right up against the French border, it’s simple to cross the border to fill up on groceries, which are typically much cheaper in France. Though these are rarely checked, be sure to bring your passport and visas as well as Euros, not Swiss francs. If shopping in Geneva, the discount grocer Denner is a good place to buy dry goods and cheap wine, while the Migros at the main train station is one of the few grocery stores that stays open past 5 pm and on Sunday. Note: the majority of stores stay open until 9 or 10 on Thursday evenings only. Expect grocery stores to be packed on that day. For fresh produce, I highly recommend visiting the weekly Plainpalais farmers market. Odd side note: as fewer preservatives are used in Europe, your fruit and bread might start to mold a bit faster than you expect.

Working

  • My Advice

    Here is where I tell you that you’re in Geneva for a reason — to work your butt off at an internship and learn as much as you possibly can. Do your work quickly and diligently; don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Don’t be the last one in the office each morning or the first one to leave at night. If someone approaches you with extra work, your answer should almost always be “yes.” That being said, most employers understand that part of the Geneva interning experience is cultural, not just professional. Ask your coworkers about living in the city and their recommendations for local activities. Employers are generally fine with you requesting one or two days off during your internship. Take advantage of cheap flight services like EasyJet and explore Europe a bit more. Such travel might seem frivolous for someone on a budget, but by carefully booking flights and staying in hostels, you can have some amazing experiences for a relatively inexpensive price.

    Author traveling
  • Network

    When I first started interning at the WHO, I was entirely star-struck. I was surrounded by global health professionals at the top of their game; I was terrified of sounding like the ignorant intern. But I quickly found that my coworkers, while busy, were also very willing to share their experience and advice. Before leaving your internship, reach out to everyone working in your department and ask if they could spare a few minutes to grab coffee with you. Ask them about their daily work, their goals, their background — folks love talking about themselves, and you’re likely to learn a ton and make great new connections.
  • Find a Group

    One of the best things about working in a city with so many other interns around is that there is a great sense of community. Find out if your organization has an intern organization, or join the GIA. Even if there are just a few other interns in your department, seek them out and you’ll meet some interesting people. Some may become friends, some travel buddies, some may show you how and where to explore the city, and some can even serve as mentors. I’m a very shy person, but I found that the interns in Geneva, in general, are open and friendly; people are there for a short time, so they don’t waste breath with pettiness. Interns will have gone through moments of homesickness, embarrassing culture shock, and learning something astonishing. Becoming close with fellow interns serves as a reminder that you’re not alone, no matter how far you are from your family.
Britnae Purdy in Switzerland Britnae Purdy has studied abroad in Havana, Cuba with George Mason University in 2014, in numerous European capital cities with the University of Mary Washington in 2012, and with Duke University in Geneva, Switzerland in 2015. She has a BA in International Affairs/Women's and Gender Studies from UMW and an MA in Global Affairs from GMU. She is currently living and working in Durham, NC while she starts her first year as a Master of Public Health distance-learning student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, from which she expects to graduate in 2018.

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