Kara has completed a masters of international relations/political science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva
Despite what some would think, and despite the label of coming from a middle-class American family, my life has never been what I would consider easy. Don’t get me wrong, I obviously have grown up with many advantages just growing up in the United States as is, but I definitely wouldn’t call it a walk in the park either.
At an early age I learned the value of a dollar. Due to the United States’ fluctuating economy post-9/11, my father – who is my family’s main provider has been in and out of work for the last 15 years.
So, as a point of pride and to lessen my family’s burden, I began to work. Every spring and fall I would referee soccer games with my father; save up the money, and use it throughout the year as my pocket money. When I turned 16, I continued to referee soccer games, but also took another part time job. Eventually I would go on to carry at least two part time jobs while going to school full time until I was 22. When I decided to pursue my master’s degree in Geneva I did not have much in savings and my family had no means to support me in the slightest, so I took out a $50,000 loan from the U.S. government.
Due to Swiss law, as an American student I was not allowed to work for the first six months of my stay in Geneva. Strike 1. As soon as the 6-month bar lifted I began the arduous search for work. Prior to the start of my search I had begun to hear from fellow students, that while there were many “opportunities” to work for the various UN agencies and other respected organizations, the majority were unpaid. I was raised with the strong mentality to pay one’s dues. To this day, I still believe this notion, and doing one unpaid internship was worth the experience. However, the more I searched and the more I talked with fellow students who I was now beginning to realize were some of my biggest competition, was that it did not just stop at one unpaid internship. I have friends who had been doing unpaid internships for years….YEARS. Strike 2.
Despite my anxiety I pressed on, and after countless applications I finally landed an internship. Unpaid and for four months. Reflecting on that time, I learned a lot about human rights advocacy, communication, and the many functions of the United Nations. I did enjoy my time. However, it must be said, those four months were incredibly stressful. See, I was still attending a full load of classes at the time to complete my master’s. On top of that, I had also acquired a waitressing job a few nights a week. While I did learn a lot at my internship, I also feel like I did not live up to my potential and it was not the best of circumstances. Since I could not commit as much time to the internship, I felt like my supervisor did not give me as many tasks as my fellow interns who could spend more time with the organization.
After I completed my four months with that organization I was back to square one looking for another internship or potential job opportunity. This time was even more stressful: I was in the process of writing my dissertation and dreading the countdown I had going on in my head of how much time could I allow myself before it would become no longer possible for me to continue my life in Geneva. Again, while I am all for paying my dues to the system, this time I could not afford to have an unpaid internship. My loan money was drying up fast, and with no other means of financial income or support, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Days went by, weeks, months. Nothing was coming up. The majority of internships was unpaid, and even those who did offer a stipend, it was too miniscule to make a difference. In order to do a full time unpaid internship, I would have had to also take some sort of job working in the evening or the weekends to support myself. There just isn’t enough time in the day for all of that. Eventually, I had to make the hard decision to give up my search and leave Geneva to return back to my family’s home. Strike 3.
It was one of the hardest and saddest decisions I have ever made. I failed. I could not make it. In my hometown I was the big fish in the small pond, but in Geneva I was the opposite. I was the small fish in the large, enormous sea.