Study Abroad in Geneva, Switzerland

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.  Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.

 

My STEP Project was a semester study abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. While in Geneva I took classes at Webster University, a sister school to Kent State University and I took part in an internship at World Vision International, an international development NGO.

My little sister and I outside the UN

My little sister and I outside the UN

 

 

  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?  Write one or two paragraphs to describe the change or transformation that took place.

 

This experience in Geneva helped me grow in various ways throughout my 4 month stay. Some of the few major changes and understandings that immediately come to mind when I think of my experience are; the real look of humanitarian work in Western countries and my ability to become more independent as a traveler.

The main reason that I chose this study abroad experience was because of the internship opportunity in Geneva, Switzerland, a capital of peace and neutrality where some of the most important work in my field (International Development) is done. I did my internship with World Vision International, an international NGO that does development work, child sponsorship and disaster relief. Working with this organization and simply living in a city like Geneva was very eye-opening for my perspective on the work being done in development. My day to day work involved sitting in an office, working on reports and having Skype meetings with people in countries around the world and while I greatly valued my experience I felt a deep sense of disconnect between the work I was doing and the people that World Vision served. It is hard to sit in an office in one of the most well-off countries in the world while writing a report on the lives of people who survived and struggled through a hurricane or earthquake. Geneva is also home to UN headquarters and I spent some time visiting there and other major organization headquarters like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. What I found is there is a distinct hierarchy in this system of NGOs and a slow moving bureaucracy that is even marked by where NGOs are located. My office at World Vision was about 20 minutes away by public transportation from the UN and its major subsidiaries like the International Organization for Migration and the World Health Organization; those closest to the UN seemed to be the biggest actors who got the closest access to the action while other NGOs were spread throughout the city. I also got to learn about how other organizations worked because I had friends working at places like the WHO and UN systems; they were often overworked and somewhat underappreciated and while they were grateful for their experience I felt that my experience with an NGO outside of the UN systems was much more relaxed and reasonable for a student. It’s not to say that working hard isn’t what I came for, I put in a lot of hours and was expected to do my work well but I also wasn’t expected to work 40+ hours a week and come in on Sundays as an unpaid intern. Essentially, I found that a system that I thought was incredibly well-planned, influential and powerful is in fact incredibly flawed. It is not to say that all of the major NGOs out there are doing poor work because in many cases they do important to people in countries all over the world but there is certainly a sluggishness and lack of productivity in the UN systems that I didn’t expect to find. Before coming to Geneva I did know that there were some problems with the field but I realized after living in it that I could never be a part of that system-which was a bit disappointing but also important to understand as I move forward in my career. While this may seem like an overly negative perspective I think it was important to get the real picture of how things work at that international level; I recognize that some of that office work like I was doing needs to be done and that the UN (while slow and bureaucratic) does provide a unique space for nations to come together until something better comes along. But I have learned for myself that I do not want to be in an office and that I should be in the field working with people on day to day tasks- so it was a very important learning experience for myself and my future job search.

The second major change I observed was that I felt myself become more independent when it comes to traveling and searching for entertainment. I have always enjoyed travel but it is a whole different experience in Europe where the mentality about travel is that it is normal and accessible rather than rare and expensive (as it seems to be in the US). While I was in Geneva I was able to travel to 9 countries; we would take weekend trips either out of the country or to different parts of Switzerland almost every weekend. These weekend trips were always fun and interesting and allowed me to learn how to travel with an open mind. Even planning the trips allowed me to grow a bit because I learned how to book flights, hostels and plan out a whole weekend completely on my own. I also learned how to travel with new people who have different interests- this often involved a lot of compromise and flexibility so that everyone could enjoy and get what they wanted out of an experience. I was not expecting this part of my study abroad to have such an effect on me when returning to the US but I have found that since I came home I am much more interested in exploring what is around me and using my time as best I can to meet new people, have new experiences and find new places.

Weekend trip to Ireland with a classmate.

Weekend trip to Ireland with a classmate.

 

  1. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you? Write three or four paragraphs describing the key aspects of your experiences completing your STEP Signature Project that led to this change/transformation.

 

I met all kinds of people during this experience that had important effects on how I viewed my time there and how it affected me in the long run- both good and bad. A few of the most important and influential parts of my experience were my internship, my classes, and the other study abroad students.

For me, the internship was my main reason for choosing to study in Geneva, Switzerland and it was an incredibly formative experience. I worked in a very small office with less than 20 people which meant I got to know a few people, my supervisor and office mate in particular, very well. It was incredibly intriguing getting to know these people and their journeys up to that point. My main supervisor was Swiss, my office-mate was Scottish, the office manager was German, the head supervisor was South African, the accountant was British, the IT guy was Italian and my fellow intern was Chinese; I could not ask for a more diverse office space and I loved that part of this work. Everyone had different stories and paths and it was encouraging to know that there are so many opportunities out there. My supervisor, for example, is Swiss but worked with a nonprofit in Guatemala for a number of years after college and then went to Burkina Faso to get her Master’s degree- most of them had interesting backgrounds like hers. These people and their experiences in the field were very encouraging to me and helped me realize that I should and would like to get more time out in the field working closely with people because many in the office felt a bit cramped having to do day to day work in an office (most of them traveled at least three times a year for extended times) but enjoyed the work they did. So getting to know the employees and their journeys was very encouraging.

Classes were another important part of my time in Geneva because while the courses themselves weren’t very challenging or time-consuming, the professors teaching the courses were very interesting and talented. Most of my professors there were experts in their field who worked closely with the UN or other organizations, were very worldly and had so much insight about how the world works (none of them were actually Swiss). They were also very critical of the systems (like the UN) that exist on the international level and that was interesting to hear. One of my favorite professors was a Frenchman who spoke at least 4 languages and had worked closely with the UN human rights council who taught two of me international relations courses. He loved talking to me and a fellow study abroad student after class about politics, living in Geneva and the US in the overall world system and these conversations were incredibly valuable to me as a student. But one particularly unpleasant experience I had in Geneva was when we visited the World Health Organization for a class and the woman presented on how to get involved and employed by the UN systems. She spent much of the time discussing how you essentially need multiple degrees (which are expensive), tons of experience at a high level (often unpaid internships like the three law students helping her make powerpoints) and good connections (which as she put it meant you needed to get lucky enough to meet the right people and hope they like you). For me and my classmates this was an incredibly off putting experience but wasn’t completely new to us as we spent more time in Geneva; this was one of the main reasons I was left with a particularly negative outlook on that whole system. So my classes were important on multiple levels.

Finally, my fellow classmates and my relationships with them were very important to my time in Geneva. As I mentioned earlier, I felt that I developed a greater since of independence in my travels and a great deal of this stemmed from having to interact with people I have never met before and learning to adapt to new people and new surroundings. I learned who I could travel with and how to deal with people who have very different travel styles. It was a very unique situation to be stuck with a group of 40 people who you have never met before but who are very like minded in their interest in travel and the world. It was very encouraging to be surrounded by ‘my kind of people’. It was very motivating to get to spend 4 months with my classmates because I saw the amazing experiences they were having and felt motivated to move forward in my field even more just as they were doing.

 

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?  Write one or two paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.

This experience was very valuable for my personally and professionally. Before this experience I felt a bit lost in my field and I didn’t know what a future in this field could look like but I believe that Geneva really helped make my expectations more concrete and exciting. As I mentioned before, the employees at World Vision had such diverse and interesting experiences which helped me understand that there are tons of options available for someone in my field. Much of what I learned also had to do with finding out what I don’t want in a career like sitting in an office all day, or working with the UN systems. While my experience was overall a very positive one I think it was also important to recognize the things that I didn’t enjoy because it helps narrow down that I am most interested in.

Personally, this experience really helped to expand my independence and sense of adventure. I feel much more prepared to do things on my own and work in new environments. During my time in Geneva and my travels there I was pushed to be open minded about new experiences and willing to take some risks which was not always easy but was also rewarding. I feel much more interested in the world around me and I think it reignited a sense of wanting to explore and experience the world. I am much more excited at the idea of travel knowing I can do things independently and it is very exciting getting to think about the possibilities that exist before me.