Wednesday, 19 December 2012

To Geneva and back: a tale of career discovery

A snowy Sunday in Geneva witnessed dribs and drabs of sleepy SAISers emerge from an overnight train. The luckier ones hopped off the airport bus, fresh from a weekend break in Spain.

Gathering by the lake, under the shadow of Rousseau, Calvin and the only tourist attraction in Geneva, the unimaginatively named "Jet d'Eau" fountain, they wondered whether they had a future in this eye-wateringly expensive center of international politics.

Luckily the SAIS career trip, starting bright and early on a recent Monday morning, was there to give them the answers.

The whistle-stop tour of Geneva’s multitude of multilaterals with alphabet names began at the WTO, where we were greeted by SAIS Bologna Prof. Michael Plummer’s book in the reception and treated to a talk assessing the headaches of the Doha Round.

A quick taxi took us to the International Environment House where we met two junior professional officers (JPOs) from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and friendly contacts from the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

All three organisations generously covered the ins and outs of the Green Economy, subsidy analysis, public procurements and internships in Geneva. Discussion was well fueled by a tasty UNEP lunch.

After a long day assessing the sustainability of careers in trade, we headed to UNAIDS for an evening alumni event jointly held by SAIS and the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Between making the most of the free canapés, there was plenty of opportunity to meet alumni working in the U.S. mission, UN disarmament program, the German mission, the ILO, UNAIDS and more who were surprisingly as interested to meet us as we were them.

Day two brought us to the heart of the action in UN headquarters, where a SAIS alumnus from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) gave us a detailed insight into his work and some good tips on how to approach the UN Young Professionals Programme (YPP).

Next, after a few obligatory photos in front of flags, we stepped into the private sector and met the chief investment officer of Blue Orchard, a microfinance investment company. Her varied career in development banking and finance seemed like the ultimate test for a SAIS economic education.

The grand finale came with the UN triumvirate of OHCHR, UNICEF and UNHCR. Wonderfully hosted in UNHCR, with the first complimentary coffee and cookies of the trip, we debated the moral authority of the UN and intently questioned Prof. Søren Jessen-Petersen's old colleague on his first forays into the field.

We ended with some candid and passionate advice from UNICEF’s Christine Knudsen, a SAIS alumna. The message was clear: be persistent, be flexible, don’t have illusions about changing the world but be sure you believe in what you are doing.

Christine and the others took us beyond the acronyms and protocols of Geneva. As the students shivered back towards the train and a welcome return to the euro, I suspect there were many who, after two fulfilling days, did indeed glimpse a future by the lake.

by Oliver Russell