Rooftop view from the AGORA centre in Lausanne overlooking Lake Geneva. (Photo: Amanda Norchi)

The following article in our ‘Breaking In’ series was published in the Fall, 2019 print and e-edition of Global Geneva as part of our Youth Writes initiative.

LAST YEAR, I WAS ONE OF THOSE STUDENTS, nervously searching for a position. I was also aware that simply sending out applications was not the solution. Not only do messages get lost in overflowing inboxes, but reviewers are often swamped with over-whelming numbers of applications.

So, how does one standout in a highly competitive crowd?

I am a rising senior at Colby College, a small but acclaimed liberal arts school in the US state of Maine. On completing high school in Massachusetts, I was proud to have made it into Colby, which is renowned not only for its academic programmes and world-class professors, but also the ability of its students to endure incredibly frigid winters (Maine ranks as one of the 10 coldest states in the United States).

I am currently studying psychology and neuroscience, plus taking prerequisite classes to eventually enter medical school. My favourite class was Neural Plasticity and Behaviour taught by Professor Melissa Glenn. Over a semester, my lab group induced glutamate dysfunction in rats, which is seen in patients with schizophrenia; we did this through MK-801 injections (an N-Methyl-D-aspartate, or NMDA, receptorantagonist) in order to investigate how the impairments would affect anhedonia, startle response, sensorimotorgating, and fear and anxiety.

Although my course load is science heavy, I enjoy writing and other humanity-based courses. Frankly, I wish I had more time for these.

American intern Amanda Norchi in early 2019 on jetty overlooking Lake Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: Amanda Norchi)

Obtaining an internship: a university requirement

One of the many special, yet unusual, features of Colby is the requirement that students devote at least three separate January months over the course of their four-year education to take either a non-traditional class on campus, or complete an off-site internship. Both options are designed to provide exposure to something novel and to further stimulate interest in subjects a student may not typically have time to explore. There is also strong support for travel in the form of grants.

After having spent the last two “Jan-Plans” on campus taking classes of interest, I was set on going abroad and completing an internship with an organization focusing on a topic about which I was passionate. I wanted to work somewhere where I could combine my interest in medicine and healthcare with writing, preferably under the tutelage of a great mentor.

January is not a typical time for college students to complete internships. There is less competition, but also fewer opportunities. I dedicated my time and effort to finding an organization passionate about working with young people, even if only just for a month.

I first went for the obvious by contacting the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. But as with so many international institutions, a second-year undergraduate is not on their radar of interest. They prefer students who have already completed their Masters’. But then, asking friends and relatives (you have to use every contact possible to reach out), I discovered Global Geneva magazine.

Their compelling writing and focus on current events – while reminding readers of the very relevant need to understand recent historical context– convinced me to contact Edward Girardet, the European-American editor, founder, and veteran foreign correspondent who has lived and worked through many of the events that have altered our world over the past few decades.

During our first conversation, Mr. Girardet cheerfully came up with various suggestions for internships in Switzerland, but warned that for most organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), three weeks was too short. They also preferred students with more experience. At the same time, he explained, Global Geneva was aiming to increase collaboration with young people, such as its Youth Writes programme.

Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet (L) with reporter William Dowell (R( interviewing at the AGORA Center in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Photo: Amanda Norchi)

I described my interest in science, specifically health-care, and Mr. Girardet suggested I assist primarily on a story about the AGORA project, a new cancer centre in Lausanne. One of their top veteran journalists, William Dowell, formerly of TIME magazine, was coming in to do the piece. (See William Dowell’s and Amanda Norchi’s piece on the AGORA Project)

This opportunity would allow me to learn from successful writers while simultaneously living in my dream location. Eventually, I opted for Global Geneva over other opportunities and flew from Boston to Switzerland, where I spent an exciting January of 2019.

Immediately upon joining the Global Geneva team, I realized how much there is to learn about the craft of journalism and the business of running a magazine. Essentially, I received a crash course. I was invited to attend nearly every meeting, interview, and relevant event, such as an international journalism conference but also networking functions, that were either available to the team or relevant to my AGORA project assignment.

Helping report a major article

The first major task I was given was to extensively research the AGORA cancer centre, compile information and present summaries to both the article writer and the magazine editor. This allowed us to maximize our knowledge about the project and how best to prepare for interviews with subject matter experts. (The UN library at the Palais des Nations supported by the Rockefeller Foundation ranks as one of the best in the world).

Because this cutting-edge facility was not yet fully operational, relatively little was known in the media. I scoured the internet for existing information and became unexpectedly excited when it dawned on me that journalists had not yet extensively covered AGORA. The Global Geneva piece would be the first major article about the project.

Reception desk inspiration decoration at the AGORA centre established by the ISREC Foundation in Lausanne, Switzerland (Photo: Amanda Norchi)

At one point, our team received a tour of the AGORA centre, which we also photographed. I was thrilled to learn that some of the images I took would eventually be used in the final article. As part of our investigation, we interviewed those at the heart of the project. An incredibly informative standout among many memorable interviews took place with Dr. George Coukos. He brought to life how AGORA differs from other cancer centres by enabling collaboration among researchers from multiple institutions in close proximity to the patients, while emphasizing community and tumor microenvironment.

Dr. Coukos discussed how those at AGORA will use investigative methods to develop new therapies, summon engineers to become partners in development, and eventually take new treatments to the clinic. His passion for medicine and desire to help future cancer patients re-minded me of why I am drawn to the medical fields. I was open and enthusiastic to taking any potential opportunities, and Mr. Girardet encouraged me to contribute to other projects.

This means that although my primary task was to assist on the AGORA piece, I also performed background research for a writer working on an article on the current and future state of medical marijuana, specifically in Switzerland. The work included accessing library databases (such as in the ones I accessed after traversing the mazework of the United Nations), creating detailed summary sheets regarding different topics within the realm of medical marijuana, and contributing to brainstorming sessions.

This experience allowed me to build further on a prior internship with a Canadian pharmaceutical company that is developing cannabinoid-based therapeutics and to continue to learn about a space that is already influencing our approach to diseases and pain management.

Reaching out to young people

Another project I worked on involved collaborating with Global Geneva’s young writers programme, YouthWrites. This initiative encourages a young 14-18 year-old audience to submit pieces specific to the magazine’s focus. Winning entries are placed on the website (See awards announcement September, 2019), while those of the highest quality are printed in the magazine. I was happy that my ideas were actively sought and employed, which was personally rewarding considering that I was within this age group not that many years ago.

Internships should be about experience and developing greater awareness of both countries and fields of interest. While I spent the majority of my time in Switzerland dedicated to the magazine, my weekends and evenings were devoted to exploring Switzerland and France. Living near the border allowed convenient access to a variety of locations. As a big skier in the American Northeast, I’ve always dreamed of skiing in the Alps.

With that said, I made unforgettable trips to Verbier (Switzerland) and Flaine (France) with some new friends. While these days provided incredibly memorable highlights, I also cannot speak highly enough of the days pent in Annecy, a nearby French provincial town. The cobblestone streets, vibrant town life, and beautiful Lake Annecy led to an indelible imprint of postcard views of this picturesque city.

Although these were among my favorite experiences, I had plenty of opportunities to familiarize myself with Geneva, often favoring walking over public transportation in order to better learn the area surrounding the Lake. I would return to Switzerland and participate in a similar internship in a heartbeat.

My advice is that if given an opportunity to complete an internship or work in a different country, you should consider it. Also, many colleges and universities, including Colby College, provide some funding assistance to students who successfully apply so that these dreams can be made a reality; this allows students to receive a stipend to defray living expenses for a valuable and interesting, yet unpaid, position.

Amanda Norchi (L) with friend and co-host Elisa Amadei in the French lakeside town of Annecy near Geneva. (Photo: Amanda Norchi)

Perhaps most important, my month in Geneva quickly shoved me from my comfort zone. It also taught me to be a better writer, while immersing myself in medical topics,  plus provided me with lasting friends and memories. Even though my French is rudimentary at best, I ended up having truly one of the best months of my young adult life. By the way, if you’re like me, I recommend investing in a translating app!

AMANDA NORCHI is an undergraduate at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She contributed this article to Global Geneva magazine as part of our Breaking In section.

For other Breaking In article published in Global Geneva.

Letter from Congo

Letter from Ruaha: Summer Internship in Tanzania

Letter from Nicaragua: Volunteering to help – but also to learn.

Letter from Rwanda: A Privileged Engagement

Leaving the Nest for European Millennials: Where to Live and Securing Your Dream Job