“I would say: be as active as possible but do what you are interested in.”
Paula graduated in 2019. She is currently studying Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po in Paris. Even now, she is willing to take part in BISLA activities and help current students with any questions they might have regarding graduate studies and her experiences. She came a long way since she started studying at one of the best universities in the world. How did she manage to get there and how did BISLA help her on her way? All of this will be answered in the following interview.
Thank you for agreeing to this. To start with, we would like to ask you about your internship at Bratislava Policy Institute. What were you doing there, and could you please explain what Bratislava Policy Institute is for those who do not know it?
Bratislava Policy Institute is a think tank and independent research institute. One of the main goals of BPI is to conduct research studies that can consequently provide relevant outcomes in the areas of extremism/radicalization, migration or minority studies. When I was interning there, another role of BPI was also organizing events such as public debates for instance. In a nutshell, I believe that BPI’s work is to inform the public and make them more aware of the issues that societies are struggling with – political extremism, human rights violations, disinformation… I got the opportunity to work for them because PhDr. Michal Vašečka, Ph.D. (sociologist and a professor at BISLA) offered me the internship (thank you for that!) during the summer of 2018 when BPI was only starting. They organized several events, one of them was called “Večer Michala Vašečku” (Evening of Michal Vašečka). I remember that it was about once every two weeks or maybe once a month. Michal was the host and the debates were always intriguing since he has a great ability of creating stimulating and informative debates. I enjoyed the idea of producing a meaningful public discussion that is accessible to broad public where you did not even have to pay any entry fees! So, you literally just go to some small coffee shop, sit, watch and enjoy the debate. He used to have many different guests from various professional backgrounds (academics, medical doctors, sociologists etc.). As an intern, I was helping with organizing and overseeing the events - assisting with anything, setting up the event, inviting the guests… In May 2019, BPI organized a FREEDOM FESTIVAL which took place at Nová Cvernovka. Festival’s main theme was artistic freedom. And again, I was helping with the organization and preparation of the event. The whole internship for BPI was amazing professional as well as personal experience, and I am truly grateful for it (thank you Vierka, Inka and Michal!). Now when I look back at the BPI internship, I appreciate the nice and friendly professional environment because, as far as I am concerned, it is not that easy to find a workplace with such atmosphere.
And what about your current internship with UNESCO in Paris? How did that happen and what is your role there?
Currently, I am not working directly for UNESCO, the official title of the job would be an intern for the Permanent Delegation of Slovakia to UNESCO. And how did I get to know about it? It was through networking at Sciences Po. One of my friends was interning for them and when he was leaving he told me that they are looking for someone new and so I applied, I had an interview with my current boss (Madame Jarmila Fréud), and I got the internship. Unfortunately, during my internship I was not lucky enough to meet the actual Slovak delegate for the delegation because the former delegate (Mr. Igor Grexa) passed away during summer 2020. However, new delegate should be coming to Paris office soon. I am working for and with my boss; the official title of her job is Chargeé de mission. My internship is primarily an executive administrative support for the Slovak delegation office to UNESCO. I am following Slovak delegation’s as well as UNESCO’s agenda, attending (now virtual) meetings of intragovernmental bodies, safeguarding communication of Slovak delegation with different relevant bodies (e.g. UNESCO secretariat, other permanent delegations of member states to UNESCO, private sector, NGOs etc.) As my boss puts it, the best words to describe what the Slovak delegation is doing that we are like a “good quality post office” - we are communicating and reporting UNESCO’s agenda to relevant Slovak government authorities … So, for example we are attending meetings about SDG goals, development, education, artificial intelligence ethics - later we create reports from those meetings and then we are sending it to the competent government authorities in Slovakia.
Do you enjoy it?
Yes and no? It is great to see and experience something completely new. Who would have thought that one day I will be interning for Slovak delegation office in Paris? I wouldn’t, ha-ha! All jokes aside, it is an enriching professional and personal experience. Prior to COVID-19 tightened restrictions, I enjoyed visiting various UN buildings in Paris, attending the meetings and actually seeing and experiencing the decision-making processes of UNESCO in person. I also enjoyed working in the environment of truly international community and people with diverse backgrounds and nationalities. So far, it has been a positive experience but honestly, I do not know if this is something that I would like to pursue as my future career path. I have never seen myself in a diplomatic field, or working for a Slovak government for that matter, but I believe that it is a valuable and exclusive experience that taught me a lot and improved my communication and organizational skills. In the future, however, I see myself in an NGO sector.
You are studying at SciencesPo/PSIA. Could you tell us more? How did you get there? What was the admission process like? It is one of the best universities in Europe.
It is funny that you say that it is one of the best universities because a lot of people (not from academic field) do not know that – or at least the ones I have encountered. When you tell somebody (outside of France) that you study at Sciences Po, everyone is like “Sciences Po? I just know Sorbonne”. It is nothing special for them! In France, it is the other way around. The admission process was crazy!! It was stressful and demanding. Once they told me that I am admitted, the amount and kind of documentations they needed was just ridiculous. It was the only school I applied to after BISLA. But I had a backup plan because the deadline for Sciences Po was February, so by the time they would tell me that I am not admitted, I would still have time to apply to some other university. I was thinking that “I am going to give it a shot and let’s see what is going to happen”. I worked hard on my personal statement because you need to bear in mind the fact that the admission committees are admitting you based on that. I guess it differs among various universities but SciencesPo/PSIA does not interview their potential master students and since there is no interview, you need to include everything that you want them to know about you. You need to show knowledge, show compassion, show your motivation, and everything in one letter that should not exceed one page (single spaced 12). That was the most challenging part and I remember re-doing my personal statement many times until I was satisfied. For a review/feedback I gave it to multiple people at BISLA and Dagmar was the biggest help, she was amazing with everything (thank you Dagmar!). So, personal statement was one of the things and CV was another. If they see that your grades were not straight As but then they look at your CV filled with extracurricular activities, they will see that this person was interning there and doing that for the school, they will see that there is a good reason why you do not have straight As. That is another thing - being active outside of school hours. I guess that's it. I knew that I wanted to go to some better university abroad and so I was trying my best to achieve that by being part of activities at BISLA, being part of different projects such as travelling to South Africa or attending various conferences for instance. Just bear in mind that you have many opportunities at BISLA to be part of so many great things. Take the opportunity, do it if you have the chance because if you want to go studying abroad (at a good university), the competition is high. Thousands of people are trying to get into the program, and only hundreds (in some programs dozens) are admitted. But of course, enjoy your life and do not focus all your energy on stressing about it.
How was your trip to South Africa?
It happened in 2018. We were there for approximately three weeks and we were traveling around South Africa and conducting interviews for oral history research. It was a collaboration among different universities - there was BISLA, a Hope college from Michigan, and Forman Christian college from Pakistan. What we as students did (under professors’ supervision) was conducting interviews with local people - we had guidelines, clear instructions - we had prepared for it before going to South Africa. It was a memorable experience to talk to so many different individuals on an utterly different continent, talking about very harsh topics such as the apartheid, and hearing about it from persons who experienced it. South Africa adventure was actually one of the reasons why I chose to pursue my master’s degree in human rights. It was captivating to hear from local people how they perceive the importance of human rights. Despite all the atrocities some people have experienced there, they learned to forgive the perpetrator, fascinating, isn’t it?
So, you are studying Human Rights and Humanitarian Action?
Yes, Human Rights and Humanitarian Action. I concentrate on the European region and global risks (that would be in other words Intelligence). Human Rights and Humanitarian Action, that is where I have my core curriculum but my faculty (Paris School of International Affairs/PSIAs) is implementing the interdisciplinary approach of teaching - very similar to BISLA. And I think that interdisciplinary approach is very beneficial, especially for undergraduate students, however, I wish that my masters would be even more human rights focused. When I started attending my current university, everything was happening so fast – admissions, finding accommodation, moving abroad, settling down in a foreign country etc. I wish that someone from BISLA would go to SciencesPo and then contact me and I would try my best to give them all the tips that I had not had and try to make sure that that person would have even better experience than I.
What are your plans for the future?
I think that this is a pretty tricky question, since how can one know for certain what may the future bring? I have never liked these questions, ha-ha. Anyway, I do see myself in an NGO sector, or in institutions that are trying to help the underprivileged members of society. I believe that human rights do have the potential of tying members of the society together as well as enhancing the solidarity and compassion among us. To achieve that - we just need to cultivate the values of human rights more. I am planning to get more experience abroad - wherever that might be - and then potentially come back to Slovakia and focus on the Roma minority. I would like to do some meaningful job – whatever that might be - but for me personally, the meaningful job would be about people for people, if that makes sense. Oh, and I will definitely learn some other foreign language too!
To circle back to your time at BISLA, you sound like you were very active, you went to South Africa, and to the UK conferences… What advice would you give about your time at BISLA to current students?
I would say: be as active as much as possible but do what you are interested in and for young BISLA students: take as many opportunities as BISLA offers. Be active, intern, try it and enjoy the journey. Why not?
Thank you so much for your time, Paula.