19 March, 2011

Sea change & Spillover

"I was surprised by your email," the colleague, an alum of my grad program, said over the phone earlier this week. "It sounds like you're just packing up and going home."

She had called to let me know that lunch for later in the week was off. She was being sent for a training that she had tried, without luck, to get out of. I had already offered to help out her husband with babysitting over the weekend. A gal's gotta make money somehow and I like their kids.

At the end the end of my email to her confirming my availability, I wrote that I would likely be gone by June 1, seeing no feasible way or justifiable reason to stay through June with student loans coming due and gainful employment needing to be found.

On the phone that night she sounded concerned and somewhat insistent, asking if there was any way I could stay, any way the organization could keep me on, had I asked around. I told her the answer was no, to the best of my knowledge.

"But there should be demand for somebody with your background and who speaks Arabic," she said and insisted I talk to her husband, who works for an NGO, this weekend. I did add that my Arabic is not fluent, but she insisted intermediate is better than none.

My section chief keeps insisting they are thrilled with my work and "you are welcome to stay as long as you like." She tells me having an experienced professional working for free can only benefit them, so it is a rather sweet deal. I appreciate the sentiment, but it just leaves me giggling to myself a bit. There's no way I could possibly stay, barring adoption by a patron or the offer of a paycheck. U.N. rules are that you can't so much as offer a consultancy to an intern for 6 months, much less a job. There may be other possibilities, but there are bigger issues for me at the moment.

You could sum things up in a word: spillover.

This project for my internship - essentially a needs assessment of international staff families, though people keep insisting they don't want to call it such - has been great in many ways. First and foremost, the chance to talk with and help share the stories of an interesting and diverse group of families and people. It's been a professional, challenging task that plays on several strengths of mine. I am forever thankful that it wasn't me sitting at a desk passing time, forced into a role that simply did not suit or benefit, waiting for people to show up.

However, you cannot listen to these stories and not have it impact you somehow. The effect of the project on me has been a serious bout of self-reflection and reconsideration of a lot of things I assumed were important in life. This is not a bad thing. I would argue vociferously that you can only help others to the extent that you yourself are working from a healthy, whole place.

For years I've been on the go, hopping continents and new experiences. It's been interesting, fun at times, horrible at others. I've learned a ton, made wonderful friends, and had amazing experiences. Trick is, I let a lot of things go in pursuit of something  I wasn't real sure of. In career management speak, I've not been living my values.

"At some point you get tired of moving around, you just end up comparing one place to the last place, but you look around and you've lost all your connections to home and you're in a spot where you can really leave the pension and benefits," said one person I interviewed.

What I was tasked with may be program development, but it's also been talking with people about a lot of pain, sadness, and frustration. It's reminded me so much of work with marginalized communities, where a group has decisions made for them and is given no means of providing input, often with dire consequences.I'm thankful for the opportunity and for the openess and candor of those I've spoken to. At this point, I really feel my commitment is to them, to try to accurately convey their lives and stories in a way that might be taken up and considered by the agency.

Last week I booked a ticket back to the U.S.: Zurich to Miami. Cheap ticket on a German low-cost airline. I may have to stand in the aisle or sit on the wing, but I've got an iPod and can bring my own peanuts. Luckily, I was able to cancel at the last minute.

When I told my direct supervisor that I'd booked she seemed surprised. "So you will be staying through May?" she asked."Well, I thought we'd agreed I would leave at the end of May," I said."If you will have completed the hours your department requires and if after Paris you will just be writing the report, I thought you would finish that at home," she said. "That way you save money, can start looking for work, it will be less stress for you..."I told her I wasn't sure and she said I would just have to let her and our section chief know by this Friday.

This week I took them up on the offer. I leave Geneva on 29 April, having managed to find a ticket from Geneva and on real airlines, headed back to my home state of Florida for the time being. I am committed to crafting a strong, quality report. I can help finish it during review and revisions, but the actual final product ans what anyone here does with it is out of my hands. I think some space and sunshine will help in the writing process. The preliminary draft of the report is due 6 May and the final draft, at least what I'll be producing, is due on 20 May. And then that's that.

The inevitable question is "What now?" A liberating, exciting, and terrifying question all at once.Things are popping in my mind, but I barely have the headspace to make a grocery list at the minute. Let me focus on finishing my interviews, my break in Paris, and getting myself back stateside before I even try to answer. I'm sure I'll ruminate on the matter here before then, but give me some leeway, please.

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