By Katie Vloet
Tami Weerasingha-Cote, '11, vividly remembers sitting at the United Nations and watching the Universal Periodic Review proceedings—a massive review of the human rights records of all UN member states—during her Geneva externship. "I had read about these things in class, and now I was actually getting to see it happening," she recalls. "It was amazing to me that I was able to watch history being made."
That's the goal of the Geneva Externship Program, which began at Michigan Law in 2008 as a way of matching students with "top-notch international organizations and NGOs on important and substantive work," says Steven Ratner, faculty director of the program and the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law. "Because of its huge range of international agencies due to the UN's large presence there, Geneva was the perfect place in which to set up a program."
Eighty Michigan Law students have worked on human rights, trade, migration, environment, development, health, intellectual property, and other issues with attorney supervisors, supplemented by a seminar and visits to senior international lawyers in the city, Ratner says. The Geneva International Fellows, as they are known, have worked at numerous UN agencies (such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees), the World Health Organization, the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to the UN, The Global Fund, and many other governmental organizations and NGOs.
Ratner notes that, because of the cost of living and the exchange rate, students last year began receiving small stipends. Another change is that Anna Nichol, previously the director of Georgetown's career services office, recently began as the local coordinator in Geneva, succeeding Claire Mahon, who had been with the program since its start. Beyond that, the program remains much the same as it was in the beginning, and it maintains a unique place in legal academia. Ratner points out that many students choose Michigan Law because it offers the externship.
"We are the only school offering a semester-long externship program there for full academic credit, and some students have told us they chose Michigan over other schools because of the Geneva program," Ratner says. "The supervisors have, not surprisingly, been wowed by our students and are eager to have them back year after year."
Elisabeth Tuerk of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development: Division on Investment and Enterprise (UNCTAD) is one of those supervisors. "UNCTAD's IIA Section has benefitted immensely from having student interns from the University of Michigan," she says. "They have proven to be extremely well-educated in international law and are diligent, creative, excellent drafters and hardworking. We very much hope to continue this relationship in the future."
Weerasingha-Cote, now an associate at Sidley Austin, externed at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—Women's Rights and Gender Section, where she worked on policy issues. Her husband, Ben Cote, '11, externed at the same time—for the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), an NGO. For Cote, the experience was invaluable in his career path. "I was able to work in an area where I wanted to work—international trade—and it prepared me well for the work I do now," says Cote, an associate in Pillsbury's international trade practice.
Jeremy Fancher, '13, also externed at the ICTSD. His Geneva experience brought to life things he had learned about in class and helped him decide whether, at some point, he would want to pursue a career at an international NGO. "What better way to figure out if it's right for you," he says, "than to go to Geneva for four months and actually do the work? It was a tremendous experience."