Why on earth would you want to work for free?

Last summer I had a great plan – it was also a simple plan: I should finish my thesis. It is still a great and simple plan, but I am only getting around to following it now. 

Here is the distraction: our CEMS coordinator in the beginning of July sent out an email with the offer of an internship in the autumn at the United Nations in New York City. At first I was not very excited by the email: First of all, I had planned to spend the autumn writing my thesis, and second of all, the internship was unpaid, and as a good classmate said “Why on earth would you want to work for free?”. A fair point, obviously, as there were several available internships that offered paid positions, and NYC is, after all, one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. 

However, at that point I still was not sure in which direction I should develop my career, and, I was still playing with the thought of working for either an IO or NGO, or somewhere where I would have the opportunity to address global challenges and help to raise the living standards in developing countries. So, based on this lack of clear direction in career-path,I decided to apply.

Two weeks later I was standing outside the Chrysler building, where the UNAOC office is located. For those not familiar with the UN family – it is huge. The UN comprises 6 core bodies, and in addition has 14 specialized agencies and 12 funds and programmes, being managed by approximately 56,000 staff members. 

UNAOC (United Nations Alliance of Civilizations), my new employer, was established back in 2005, as an initiative of the UN Secretary General, with the aims to improve understanding and cooperation between states and people of different cultures and religions. It tries to counter the forces that contribute to extremism and polarization by encouraging dialogue, understanding and respect among people from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, through various different projects and initiatives that are being run by the organization. 

The High Representative for the UNAOC is the former President of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio. The office itself is really small – all in all we were around 14 employees (some were frequently on missions), of which four were interns, all having different academic and national backgrounds. The official working hours were from 9AM-5PM, however people used to arrive around 10AM and did not leave earlier than 7PM. During the day I was sitting in meetings, attending sessions or specific events at the HQs, or conducting research for the projects I was working on. When I arrived my supervisor was still on maternity leave, so there was a lot of work that had to be done for the Youth Program. The days were pretty busy, each of them offering a new learning point or something to think about. Furthermore, at the UN in NYC, there are around 400 international interns. This means that we had our own little international community, which offered lots of activities and networking events such as philosophical debates, language classes, mission visits, Backstreet Boys concert, kayaking on the Hudson River etc. 

One of the great things about working in such a place is, that you never really know who you can meet or when. At some point I managed to walk into Aung San Suu Kyi on the staircase, and I had a talk with Jeffrey Sachs about snacks (of all things) and had a dinner with the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asking him questions about international relations, bombs, and, well, family. 

I worked at the UNAOC for four months from the end of July till the end of November. At the very end of my internship, I got offered a position as a Communication Officer for the project I was working on. The project focuses on social entrepreneurship and innovation, which is something that I am really passionate about, so, it was not an offer I had to think twice about before accepting. A job offer, though, was not the last surprise NY would have for me. On the day of my departure, Sandy hit NY and my flight got cancelled, and I ended up spending a week trapped on Manhattan. Even though I did wonder whether the world would end with her arrival, it did not, and the worst thing that happened was that our flat was transformed into a little Evacuation Center where people came to cook and get a shower. Which wasn’t really that bad either 🙂
This whole experience provided me with opportunities that I would never have expected possible, and even gave me a push in the right direction of where to go in my future career. From being a slightly disoriented student not even knowing what to write my thesis about, I ended up leaving with an incredible experience, a job, and, in fact, a half written thesis, as during my internship I had a talk with a colleague at the UN as well, who gave me a great idea for the direction of it.

So, looking back now – working for free was definitely worth it.



This entry was published on January 7, 2013 at 3:59 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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