The EU Rambling: The Catch-22 of Becoming an Intern

It is an oddly satisfying feeling when you write a column at an actual office desk, particularly when you know that your internship’s monthly wage will hardly cover half of your rent. Gentrification and anti-capitalist criticism aside, sitting in the office of a small environmental NGO has been the outcome of a true e-mail marathon: between 30 and 40 human resources managers received my CV in their inbox, and only around 8 replied to offer me an interview, three of which were positive news. From the stories I have heard it is a privilege even to be rejected these days, so I will look at this extraordinary outcome with cautious optimism.

One of the replies was UNESCO. And that is the beginning of an emotional rollercoaster.

After jollying up my Friday at the Climate Change Strike in March, I felt like changing the world was a fair way to spend your life, pushing me to send what at the time was probably the tenth application in a three-week span. Wandering on the internet, I found a brand new vacancy in the Gender Equality division of the Culture and Education division, with the usual UN brand “unpaid internship, 3 months” attached to it. Against all expectation, I received a call ten minutes later, asking whether I would be fine with an inexistent salary and a start in April, even though someone who states they are looking for university students only should know better than that. On the other hand, having your cv noticed at UNESCO for no particular reason made me feel like the nerdy ugly duck turned slightly prettier – proving in regretful hindsight that those high school memories will never leave me.

And that is when the Director’s secretary became a Tinder ghost. First by praising my CV and raising the emotional stakes; then by telling me she would call back about the chance of part-time work in April right after the weekend. She moved on with her life for three weeks, sending me an automatic message to confirm she had opened my follow-up email. And one week later, the day after receiving an offer for my current job, here she calls to propose an interview in 20 days’ time. That is when I called the shots and started a minute-long monologue on how the fact of receiving another offer made me regret keeping people on hold for so long for just an interview. The snappy voice with which was a nice touch to conclude this short love story with a bittersweet, useless sense of revenge.

Because even though I now have a small team around me who care about my learning, and a good cause to work towards, it seems ridiculous that the fact of being an intern can automatically decrease an employer’s respect for your own priorities. A vacancy that was supposed to be filled in by the end of March was suddenly postponed with no regard for the fact that finding an internship in a saturated market is not something you can – and want to – leave at the last moment. Had my messages received a timely reply, I could have weighted in a couple of choices before choosing the best fit for my future, since I had been thinking about intergovernmental organisations throughout the semester.

I probably must be glad that the one who have been reliable at interviews and e-mail communication are also the ones providing me with an invaluable amount and variety of responsibilities (a rarity in the eyes of many fellow students with whom I have discussed the problem). Nonetheless, one cannot help getting into an unhealthy “what-if” mindset, thinking that the quality of the experience is nothing compared to a big name appearing on your CV at a relatively young age. Considering the disorganisation in the recruitment process, it would have probably been a nightmare to enter an office where the burden is not shared: funnily enough, a few people felt I had lost an opportunity in rejecting my offer, since it was already great to receive a call. Have we come to this point to feel validated and professionally appreciated?

It feels like competencies are not the key requirement for most big organisations, and neither is fair compensation. It is mainly a matter of being there at the right time, which tends to be impossible to grasp in this catch-22 scenario. Unless you have a wealthy background, infinite free time, a relative willing to host you in the suburbs of New York, or a desire to let people deprive your education because of your relative lack of experience, you are just not the right match. In a way, we are reinforcing the idea that transferable skills should be your weapon of choice, but we do not allow them to be employed out of mere laziness employers show when it is time to invest in people, be that through resources or simple time and attention.

I genuinely hope that at some point my generation will not have to see a reinforcement of inequality, let alone because we are the most qualified and yet exploited cohort of workers. And that it will not be our parents’ financial situation to determine whether we can afford a dream riddled with obstacles of all kinds. But maybe, once again, I am too optimistic to understand what is going on with the job marketplace, or maybe I should have had previous experience in collecting data for future performance assessment.

[Lucia Posteraro]

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