BY CLINTON DICK
What feat of mental acrobatics convinced me to forgoe a summer at a large firm where I would have earned more in four weeks than I have in my lifetime in favor of toiling away in the public sector?
My interview answer to this question isn’t entirely false. I believe in the same goals that inspire many other Harvard Law students to pursue the public interest path: the poor are hopelessly underrepresented not only in the courts but in the international community at large; crimes against humanity should not go unpunished; nobody should have to spend the night sleeping on a sidewalk, etc. And of course, it’s pretty cool to think that I’m helping to save the world for less than $6,000 (not including credit card debt).
But before you hand over the Good Samaritan award, I ought to admit that there was one other factor influencing my decision to pursue international public interest work this past summer. The idea of doing unto others as I’d have them do unto me became all the more attractive when I got the opportunity to practice what I preach from a comfy perch in Vienna. Living amongst the comforts of Europe was sort of my mental trump card to a domestic summer associate position.
I worked for the State Department at the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is a multi-regional organization (the U.S. frowns upon calling it an “international organization” since this would entail too many legal obligations) that handles much of the U.N.’s dirty work in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The OSCE does laudable and effective work in election monitoring and reform, rebuilding communities, educating people about the good of not hating other people – in short, nation-building (again a no-no in U.S. terminology). Thanks to years of hands-on work by OSCE member states, the citizens of Kosovo and to a certain extent Serbia have made considerable progress in reducing ethnic tension within their borders while also dealing with the controversial question of Kosovo’s final status.
Even if I’d been performing this work from Gropius, I would have felt that my summer had been worthwhile. Still, I’d be lying if I pretended that my decision to accept the internship was entirely uninfluenced by the fact that the OSCE’s headquarters is located at the Hofburg in the first district of Vienna. In a lucky twist of irony, I worked to alleviate poverty in the Balkans in rooms once occupied by the rich and powerful Hapsburg family. A certain German dictator of the 1930s left a blemish on the palace with his declaration of the unification of Austria and Germany from one of the balconies, but I paid him back during the Anti-Semitism Conference by opening one of the windows with a view of the infamous balcony so his image could look on at the historical event.
Even more exciting was the access I had to the rest of Europe. Vienna is a wonderful hub city for overnight trains to Venice, Rome, Florence, Warsaw and Krakow, as well as short three or four hour trips to Budapest, Prague or Salzburg. European history was open to me in a way that it never could be during a two-week vacation. I had ten weeks of relative leisure to explore every cathedral, palace and museum that was within an easy Eurail Pass from Vienna.
But while my public interest eye seemed to drift to the nicer OSCE areas, I also had the opportunity to investigate religious tolerance in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and the ever infamous declarations of Belarusian President Lukashenko. These areas deserve attention as much as Paris or Rome, and their cities are in many ways just as beautiful as those of more affluent Western Europe. My exposure to these cities contributes to a greater understanding of what Europe is.
In short, and the reason for all this writing, is that public interest was my ticket to exploring Europe this summer. Of course, the skeptical reader will point out that I could always have worked for a law firm in a foreign city – thereby earning the inflated summer associate salaries while still exploring Europe.