Haley Walker '20
Life Lessons for Anyone with a Bit of "I Want to Save the World' in Them
Last spring I studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. While not your typical study abroad location, as an International Studies major and an avid skier, it seemed like the perfect place for me. I’d never been to Europe before and wanted to experience all I felt I’d been missing growing up. However, I knew I wanted more than to just hop from one country to the next every weekend, so when I learned about the possibility of interning in Geneva, I was sold.
While it was a difficult process interviewing and emailing back and forth while I was at BC in the fall semester, by the time I was leaving I knew I’d be working at Oxfam International, a humanitarian-aid-based non-governmental organization (NGO) in a sea of other NGOs and international organizations. In my classes and on the news, I’d learned a bit about these types of organizations, but it was impossible for me to fully understand how they functioned until I got there.
On my first day, I found my way to the office, passing signs for countless other organizations, just praying I would finally see Oxfam in big green letters. I was surprised when I arrived at the address to see Oxfam listed among twenty other organizations with offices in the building. After finding a front desk inside, I asked for Charlotte Stemmer, my boss -- who as of then, I only knew by her lovely British accent. Charlotte came out, brought me to a conference room and walked me through the basics of what I’d be doing and what I needed to know. During that conversation, I was shocked to learn that she was the only Oxfam representative in Geneva -- now there were two of us -- and instead of a whole office building full of people, we had one-and-a-half desks in a room the size of my dorm, alongside two other NGOs. It was then that I was beginning to learn that things were a lot different that I’d so wistfully imagined.
Since there were only two of us, I quickly learned how valuable having an intern was to Charlotte. Being in Geneva, she served as Oxfam’s Humanitarian Representative, which meant attending briefings at the United Nations and coordinating advocacy efforts with other organizations, while working to further Oxfam’s particular agenda, all on her own. My job became to do whatever Charlotte couldn’t—be it reading reports and writing summaries on issues such as the treatment of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar or the ongoing violence in Yemen, or attending sessions of the Human Rights Council and even going to the World Health Organization to discuss how Oxfam’s team in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could aid in the ebola response. It was something new every day.
While the first few weeks were exciting, I began to see how bureaucracy so painfully impeded progress. The democracy and fairness so ardently promoted by organizations like the U.N. seemed to work to its own detriment. There would be hours of discussions on issues of human rights in Sudan, then comments by all who wished to state their claim -- and then, nothing. All the real decisions happened behind closed doors, and the jobs of the NGOs were to influence those decisions in any way they could. Never before had I seen someone work for a month straight to add just one word to a U.N. agreement, something I became acutely aware of in the advocacy community. The "us vs. them" mentality became a constant struggle, but the little victories were celebrated.
Ultimately, coming back and working another summer at a corporate job in the U.S., I realized that this work I’d been doing in Geneva, while not very glamorous, mattered. Whether it really impacted anyone else’s life somewhere else in the world, I’ll never know, but it affected me. I went into work every day and I was surrounded by hardworking, passionate and intelligent people who could be making loads of money somewhere else but chose to dedicate their lives to something bigger than themselves. It was a humbling experience and one that I won’t soon forget. It is one that constantly reminds me, especially with only several months left as a college student, that even if it’s not my first job, humanitarian work is what I want to dedicate my life to. Whether it's meeting people of another culture, interning somewhere that interests you, or just talking to people who've been through what you're going through -- do it. Making life decisions is hard, and I still don't know what I'm doing, but I have a better idea of what motivates me and makes me feel fulfilled, and I think that's a feeling everyone deserves to have in their career.
Haley Walker '20