When 22-year-old David Hyde from New Zealand was offered a prestigious internship at the UN office in Geneva, Switzerland, he was thrilled. But, like many internships, it was unpaid. And Geneva is the sixth-most expensive city in the world. So his solution? Live in a tent.
After his story made worldwide news, it turned out it was more complicated than that. But first, the hype:
"I met him a couple of days ago," said Imogen Foulkes, the BBC's correspondent in Geneva, on Thursday. "He'd been camping for just over a week, and he was starting to realize that he hadn't really thought it all through."
Hyde's living situation made Geneva papers earlier this week, and it prompted all kinds of reactions.
"All of the UN officials I have talked to in Geneva have said, actually he's right. The interns are right, we should be paying them," Foulkes said. But it wasn't just UN officials who took notice. When the story broke, Hyde received numerous offers from people opening up their homes to him.
Foulkes met the chair of the UN Geneva Interns Association, an intern herself, and learned that Hyde isn't the only intern who's struggled to find housing. "She's forever getting emails saying 'have you got a couch I could sleep on? Have you got an air mattress, just a corner in your room?'"
Hyde's situation brings to light another problem unpaid internships pose. Some argue that internships are only viable options for those with privilege — if you don't have the money to support yourself, they're hard to pull off.
The same young woman Foulkes spoke to about housing is from Botswana. Of the UN Geneva's 162 interns, only two are from Africa. "And that shows you again that this is now — because it is unpaid — a chance that is open, really only to people with money behind them," Foulkes said.
Hyde ended up resigning from the internship — partially, Foulkes said, due to the overwhelming media attention he was drawing. But his camp-out on Lake Geneva sent a strong message. As Foulkes puts it, "Young people working for nothing, particularly for prestigious organizations like the UN, is not something society can be very proud of."
Later Thursday, the 22-year-old admitted that his living situation had been a publicity stunt. He says he chose to live in a tent to draw attention to the lack of pay at the UN's internship program. In a post he wrote for The Intercept, he said he felt "degraded" begging employers to let him work for free, so he and his girlfriend came up with an alternative.
"The idea we came up with was simple," he wrote. "I would take an unpaid internship and do the job. But at the same time we would work to raise awareness on the issue and make a documentary about the subject."
Hyde said he leaked his story to the media, but waited to tell the full story until after the focus had shifted to the issue of intern rights in general.
"I was worried that if I came clean with my intentions right away, it would take the spotlight away from the real issue and compromise the opportunity for interns across the world to have their problems publicized and addressed. The bigger picture is what’s really important," he wrote.
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