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The City You Could Set a Clock By

BU Abroad: Students and the world meet in Geneva

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Tara Lee Vaughn is in the middle of a six-year physical therapy program, with a minor in public health. She also scored an internship at the World Health Organization (WHO), which is headquartered in Geneva.

BU Today reporters visited campuses across Europe this month to learn more about Boston University study abroad programs. In all, the University has 75 study abroad programs — in language, liberal arts, fine arts, engineering, and science — in more than 20 countries around the world. BU Today is publishing students’ accounts of their international experiences. Click here to learn more about Gabriela Fish in Madrid. Click here to learn about Kelsey Herwig’s experience in Dresden. Click here to learn about Erika Rosendale and her participation in the Venice Studio Arts Program.

Switzerland may be best known for its chocolate, cheese, watches, and banks. But it’s also a hub of international diplomacy, development work, and public health policy, centered in the French-speaking city of Geneva, and Tara Lee Vaughn (SAR’10), one of about 30 BU students studying international relations or public health as part of BU’s Geneva Internship Program, is taking advantage of it.

Vaughn is in the middle of a six-year physical therapy program, with a minor in public health. She also scored an internship at the World Health Organization (WHO), which is headquartered in Geneva, along with the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Commission on Refugees, the International Red Cross, and more than 100 other international agencies. Vaughn’s work here is focused on HIV/AIDS and the research, politics, and policy priorities related to the United Nations targets for fighting the disease worldwide. Vaughn recently spoke with BU Today about her work at the WHO, the joy of on-time trams, and riding a mechanical bull on election night.

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I remember sitting on the plane we landed in Geneva, thinking, what did I get myself into?

I knew that I didn’t want to graduate without having studied abroad. That was a definite for me. Still, coming to a new country where you don’t speak the language is very scary. I’m from Cape Cod, and my mom is from India, so I speak some Hindi. I also speak Spanish. I find French a very difficult language, comparatively. But I’ve stopped worrying about it. I’ve picked up a lot of French here, and of course there’s a lot of English spoken in Geneva.

The program directors prepared us for a culture shock. But I didn’t really experience any shocking cultural differences. I find that Western Europe and the States are quite similar, at least from the perspective of someone from an East Coast city like Boston.

Of course, there are some stark differences between America and Europe. People don’t smile as much here, for example. That’s how you’re easily spotted as an American, because you smile too much. I can’t imagine going through life not smiling all the time. And there are some differences in humor, too.

There have been a couple times that I’ve missed being in America, which I never thought would happen. I’m not a person who usually gets homesick. We moved a lot when I was growing up, even to India for a couple of months, and I never had an issue with homesickness. And coming to college I was perfectly fine. But here I did have a little bout of homesickness — I think everybody had it at some point. I mean, for the first three weeks here you’re like, “Yeah! I’m in Europe. Woo hoo!” And then you’re like, “Yeah, I’m here for a while.”

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A lot of us didn’t arrive in Geneva knowing what our internship would be. They told us not to get our hopes up, and I tried not to worry about it. But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, the WHO would be so great; it would be so great! And then people started getting their internships. They’d get the e-mail, and they’d be like, “I got my internship! I got my internship!” And you’d say, “Oh that’s great. I’m so happy for you.” But secretly, you’re thinking, “When am I going to get mine? They’re not going to be able to place me. I’m going to be that one person they’re not going to be able to place.”

But we all got one. And I think almost everybody is happy with where they landed. I was placed with the WHO, and I’ve got to claim pure luck on that one. I mean, I have a good résumé with a lot of nonprofit and public health experience, but I’m definitely the youngest in my department by at least 10 years. There are other interns, but a lot of them are doctors or Ph.D. candidates.

For the WHO, I work in the strategic information unit. I focus on prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Right now, I am working on projects dealing with target-setting methodology and research related to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, eight goals agreed upon by 147 heads of state in 2000, which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education by 2015. I’m working on a manual about how these goals are developed and whether they’re effective. You have to set targets that are reasonable enough that they’re attainable, and there’s a lot of political push and pull there.

I have been researching all the HIV/AIDS targets related to universal access to treatment in the WHO’s 193 member states, including how many people are on antiretroviral drugs and how many people are alive 12 months after initiation of drug therapy. We also measure the behaviors of the most at-risk populations. How many injection drug users reported use of a clean needle last time they injected, or what’s the rate of condom use among sex workers? The baseline is 2005. I’m looking at the targets they set for 2008, and the next assessment will be in 2012.

I’m also taking some courses. In the first part of the semester, I took French and public and international health, where we had a speaker every day from a different realm of public health, on everything from abortion rights to public health issues of natural disasters to climate change.

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What I always say about Geneva is it’s a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit. There aren’t a lot of attractions. But it’s a high quality of life. I feel very safe here. Of course it’s expensive, but I like it.

I was surprised by the cleanliness of the city. Everybody’s polite, and the trams are always on time. You can set your watch by them. That’s my favorite part of living in Geneva. Everything’s on time. And they’re big on the honor system here. For instance, in the middle of the city, they have this giant chess game with each piece about three feet high, so you have to pick them up to move them. They just leave it outside all the time. Now, if you left giant chess pieces out in Boston, somebody’s going to steal them. I mean, I would steal one. They’re pretty cool.

The first two weeks were just overwhelming. Even though there was no culture shock, you’re overwhelmed with everything that is happening, especially with the language being so new that it just sounded like mush. So you’re just kind of walking around wide-eyed. You can be spotted as a tourist. You just look lost. But after a while you start finding your way around, and you start getting used to things. You’re not amazed by the timeliness of the tram; the fantasticness of the coffee in the morning doesn’t faze you any more.

A lot of times during the week, I end up just doing things for work and school and then on the weekends we’ll go out. They don’t have a very heavy nightlife here. Geneva’s very low-key. And a lot of times, we’ll cook here in the common kitchen and end up sitting at dinner and just talking for three or four hours. There are about 30 of us in the program, so there’s still a lot to learn about everyone.

And I was really surprised at how into the U.S. elections everyone here was. Even when we traveled to Italy, Hungary, and Croatia, everyone we met asked us questions about the elections. Every time somebody heard that we were American, they asked, “Who are you voting for? Who are you voting for?” My favorite was when I was asked if I was voting for Obama or Palin. It was actually a really good icebreaker for starting conversations. And on election day, we went to the Ramada, where they had an American election celebration, complete with a mechanical bull and a country band. I was like, “Is this what they think of us?” I mean, I may or may not have ridden the mechanical bull, but that’s beside the point.

So we went in, and about seven or eight of us stayed the whole night. A lot of people left after Obama won Ohio, basically thinking, oh well, you know, it’s pretty much in the bag. But then, I was half asleep on the floor and it flashed across the screen: President-elect Barack Obama. And I was just so happy that I got to come celebrate with fellow Americans and people who are really happy for us, too. I was very proud. And I felt like the token Americans, because I think we were interviewed like four times while we were there — two television, one print, and one radio. It was fun. Everybody was interested in what we thought. We went to the tram stop at about six in the morning, and we were all very tired. And I had my little plastic American flag, and we ended up singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the tram stop. I don’t know if it was American pride or the extreme tiredness or a combination of both, but it was a very good time.

I also got congratulated a lot at work; it was as if I had just had a child or something. For at least a week, people were congratulating us on our election. They were like, “You can be proud now,” and I was like, “I was proud of my country before.”

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I came here with a goal of knowing more about what I wanted to do as a career, but more so making sure that I knew what I don’t want to do. And I know that I definitely don’t want a life where I’m always in an office. Also, I love to travel, and I want to travel everywhere — money and resources and time permitting — but I’ve also realized while being away from my friends and family, that it’s nice to have that support system. When something good happens, you want to tell those people. You want to tell them and you want to see it in their faces that they care and they’re very happy for you. So, it’s good to be out of your element and with a whole bunch of people you don’t know, because then you have to explain yourself and you figure yourself out and just see how you react with different people. But I’ve also realized that I do want a solid support system, and that it’s something very vital to my life.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on The City You Could Set a Clock By

  • Anonymous on 04.18.2009 at 4:07 pm

    I loved this young lady’s views of her time in Geneva. It is most helpful to the parent of a daughter interested in this program.

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