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'If You're Not Helping People Directly, Then at Least be Involved in It'

HSE University is always proud to share its graduates’ success stories. Anastasia Galina graduated from the Political Science programme in 2014 and has since reached great heights in her career. Anastasia works for the United Nations, doing research and creating a platform for data exchange within the organisation's agencies. In this article, Anastasia talks about her journey building an international career and explains what the political science field is really about.

'If You're Not Helping People Directly, Then at Least be Involved in It'

Photo courtesy of Anastasia Galina

— Anastasia, why did you choose the Political Science programme?

— Well, since I was on the 'green wave' list (a list of students admitted to placed funded by the state or HSE University), I could enrol in several programmes: Management, Economics, Sociology, or Political Science. As I have always gravitated towards international relations, politics, and social studies, my decision was pretty obvious. Besides, my parents were keen on politics and wanted me to work in a political or international sphere. The final decision was made really quickly—I just called up my school teacher of social studies, and she told me: 'Go for political science—it's the narrowest of the four areas of study, the most specific.'

— What memories of your studies stand out the most?

— I think for me, like many of my classmates, passing economics was a moment none of us will ever forget. [laughs]

— Was it that difficult?

— Yes, it was. Professor Pavel Usanov was really strict in his assessment, and we even thought we were going to fail out of HSE University. It was a close call, but, luckily, we managed to pull ourselves together and pass it. I also recall my first conference, working on research papers. To tell the truth, my supervisor, Alena Vandysheva, had to put in a lot of effort to inspire me to go on with my research work. And I am really grateful for her invaluable support and inspiration!

Another moment I remember clearly was when I was making a speech at the first scientific conference in my life: the Annual Scientific Conference 'October Readings' held at HSE University in St Petersburg. I gave a presentation and was worried whether I performed well enough. At the end of the conference, our teacher, Mikhail Gorny, came up to me and said: 'Nastya, you have exceeded my expectations, good job! See, you can do anything if you put your mind to it. Keep it up!’ His words inspired me a lot and gave me confidence. It's hard to talk about, but Professor Gorny passed away last year. I will always remember both his words of support and the definition of 'political institutions' that he gave us in his lectures.

— Was your decision to study political science related to well-known Russian political scientists in the media? Were you inspired by Ekaterina Shulman when you applied to the university?

— In 2010, unfortunately, there was no link between political science and the media. All we knew about political science was just that it is related to the work of deputies and politicians. In fact, some of my classmates enrolled in the programme with intentions to go into that kind of job, but as the programme went on, the subject acquired other perspectives. Besides, the studies themselves made us change our perception—we had unique courses in political culture (taught by Grigory Tulchinsky), a course in political journalism and others. Over time, we began to realise that political science is not limited to public policy, but also encompasses many other areas: science, humanities, analytics, and journalism.

— Political scientists now appear often in mass media. What do you think about that?

— When we started studying on the programme, many of us planned to engage in public politics and even considered becoming municipal deputies. But everything changed with the appearance of Ekaterina Shulman in the mass media. She almost single-handedly raised public awareness of political science with the help of YouTube, making it attractive to young people. Before that, Russian media did not even know how to correctly translate the term 'political science' into English. We often had to explain that the programme’s name is not 'Politology', but 'Political Science', and few people had heard about the concept of a 'think tank' as a research institute. 

Originally, the programme was pretty practice oriented, since the HSE Department of Political Science mainly consisted of practitioners who used to work as deputies of the Leningrad City Council (the department was headed by Alexander Sungurov, founder of the Strategy Centre). Over time, new early-career specialists emerged among the faculty; they had experience studying abroad and introduced us to a different way of looking at political science. They showed us that it is possible to be engaged in politics as a science at an international level by writing articles, participating in conferences, and conducting joint research with foreign institutions.

— Do you think that now, during the pandemic, it still makes sense to pursue a higher education in the field of international communications? After all, there are still travel restrictions with many countries, and it may take some time before we start to 'build bridges' again.

— Well, it is in our power to do everything possible not to shut ourselves off from the world. In my view, any ecosystem—whether it's related to a country, an educational programme, a scientific area, or human beings—cannot develop without interaction and new ideas coming from the outside. Besides, at such critical moments as the pandemic, it is necessary to develop international relations, not only in terms of politics, but in terms of science as well. Since the format of human interaction is undergoing crucial changes, it is important that new specialists appear in the field of international communications, for example, in the field of network analysis. With everything happening online, people are required to constantly acquire new advanced skills to keep up with the changes. In addition, many studies claim that the transition to the online format leads to an even greater digital divide. Overcoming such inequalities is a promising field for work and research.

— Do you think this trend of online communication will continue in the future? Or will we go back to the previous pace and way of life?

— Well, I think that switching to online communication has made people miss live communication. Still, the pandemic experience has proved that a lot can be done online. For instance, now there is a trend of discussing everything in instant messages, rather than organising two-hour Zoom meetings. At my work, we are told 'don't hold a meeting for something that can be discussed in a messaging app'. The value of personal time is increasing. So, to answer your question, I doubt that we will go to go back to the previous way of organising communication in the near future. Holding conferences, negotiations, meetings, and lectures in an online format minimises all kinds of costs—there is no need to spend money on renting rooms and offices, taking coffee breaks, and so on.

On the other hand, we can make an analogy between switching to online communication and reading paper books. About 10–15 years ago, when ebooks first appeared, everyone claimed that the paper format would die. But as we can see today, everyone continues to read books on paper, because there is still a big difference.

— How did you start working at the UN?

— At one point in my life, I came up with a 'dream job formula': the position should not be in a commercial organisation, since I wanted my job to have a humanitarian basis. That is, it should be related to protecting human rights and international development. And my motto during that time was: 'if you're not helping people directly, then at least be involved in it'. After graduating from the Master’s programme, I wanted to gain analytical experience in an international organisation related to science or education—and I gained that kind of experience at Skoltech. Having worked there for quite a long time, I decided that it was time to return to my dream and began browsing vacancies in the non-profit international humanitarian sector, including at the United Nations

Basically, there are several ways to get into the UN: internships (often unpaid), 'the main board' positions of different levels (to get into this position, you need to have significant previous experience in the UN), and the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme. I was really surprised to find out that to become a UN Volunteer at the level of an International Specialist, you need a master's degree in a certain area of study and 3–4 years of paid and proven official work experience.

As for my current position in Amman, I learned about it from the UN's official Telegram channel. This vacancy had been viewed 20,000 times, so I looked at it and thought: 'Oh yes, I definitely have a chance!'.  However, despite the fact that I had to compete with many people in the selection process, I managed to get the position in Amman. This position is unique in that it is sponsored by the Russian Federation, so only citizens of the Russian Federation could apply for it. However, this did not make the competition process any easier. Typically, several thousand people compete for each position in the United Nations Volunteers programme, and this one was no exception.

— What kind of tasks do you solve at work?

– I work as a Data and Knowledge Management Analyst at the UN Office of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator. The resident coordinator is the head of the UN mission in the country, and the word 'office' in the title means the UN's representative office. Our office coordinates the work of all UN agencies, of which there are more than twenty in Jordan. Our task is to establish links between various UN agencies, coordinate their work and act as an intermediary between the government of the country and the activities of the UN. As a Data and Knowledge Management Analyst, I am responsible for supporting the entire office on data issues, and my main task is to bring all the UN agencies together by organising a Data Committee, develop and launch a platform for data and knowledge exchange, and to provide support to the Jordan Department of Statistics and Ministry of Planning.

— How difficult is it to communicate within such a large organisation? Do you get along well with your colleagues? Is there anything to learn from the UN in terms of building a corporate culture?

— Judging from my personal experience, the corporate culture at the UN is based on the absence of personal gain. There is no such a thing as using personal connections to climb the career ladder. Every time you want to change your position, you have to go through the selection process all over again. I think working at the UN will be challenging for those who come from the business or private sector, since the non-profit sphere does not encourage personal gain—one must learn how to save. 

As for the team, it is really professional. There are people from different walks of life and nationalities. Still, there is one thing that unites us all—the desire to help and support others. Despite a good standard of living and a stable income, my colleagues always do their best to support the local population. They buy local products and give donations to small businesses, hire people to help around the house, and adopt dogs from local shelters. I think this is a personal expression of the desire to help citizens and the country where the UN is just a 'guest'.

To tell the truth, at the beginning, I was a little afraid that the UN would turn out to be a typical bureaucratic organisation whose real interest was money. However, having worked for half a year in Jordan—a region with limited natural and economic resources, a lack of water—I realised that my fears were unfounded and I started to really admire the unique work that people perform ‘in the field’ here in Jordan.

— You now live in Jordan—do you want to stay there?

— From talking with expats in Jordan, I noticed that people do not stay here for more than two years. The lifestyle is different here—it can feel like everything is somewhat slowed down due to the local daily routine and working hours; most organisations in Jordan work from 8 am to 3 pm. Of course, these cultural differences made me miss Russia. Most of all, I miss cultural activities and, you know, the feeling of belonging to your country. I'm sure many Russian expats living here would understand me. At the same time, I've met people who really like it in Jordan, and they are used to this rhythm of work and the absence of a 'race'. In my case, everything depends on the funding. If I am given a chance to extend my contract, I will gladly stay in Jordan. I am happy to be able to gain experience in various fields, and most importantly, to achieve the goal of my visit: to make a contribution. 

Besides, the senior management recently told us that in order to get a position with the UN system's main board, you need to have proven experience in the UN's volunteer programme. So, for now, my plan is to complete several years of service in my current position and start applying for the UN's main board positions in Europe or Russia.

— Do you have any interest in creating your own non-profit organisation?

— I think such plans might appear in the long run. I like the entrepreneurial sphere, and I even have a relevant education in commerce. At some point, I will get around to this. Still, before I get there, I need to learn a lot and get hands-on experience.

— Are you planning to apply to a doctoral programme?

— It is very difficult to combine full-time studies and work. I chose work. In my current position, I conduct research, so I feel that my research ambitions are being fulfilled here.

Doing a doctoral programme is an important life step for me, but so far, it is more of a formal one. I will definitely return to the matter, but first, I want to choose a topic for research related to my current work. I do not want to give up my career or be torn between my academic career and my current one.