Please tell us about what you do back at home in Belgium.
I am a graduate of the University of Liège: in my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees I majored in modern history, which I followed with another Master’s degree in political science. After completing my studies, I went on an internship at the Belgian embassy in Lebanon. This was a good starting point for me: because it was such a small embassy, I didn’t just have to sit at my desk doing boring tasks. Instead, I had the opportunity to accompany the Belgian ambassador and first secretary to really important meetings with the Lebanese government to tackle the implementation of the mine-clearing program, and with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to work out the solution for the influx of Palestinian and Syrian migrants to Lebanon, among others. Thanks to this experience, I discovered what it takes to work in diplomacy and world politics.
After that memorable trip, I decided to go and work in Russia. I found a Belgian program that offered grants to people wanting to acquire job experience in the BRICS countries, which was ideal for me. Stereotypes made their presence felt; many of my acquaintances were asking me whether I was sure that I’d be safe in Russia. I replied that I was sure that I’d be as safe here as in any other BRICS country. There is of course the opinion that Europe is the safest region of them all. But after a series of terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, Europeans begin to understand that a zero-risk country is no more than an illusion.
Why did you decide to give such an internship a go?
I craved for a new adventure, a new experience, because sometimes I get tired of Europe where everyone thinks the same. Traveling helps you discover different points of view, form independent and critical thinking. I wanted to see something different from the European way of life. Visiting such places as Lebanon and Russia gives you a fresh perspective on things. Before fully starting out as a professional, I wanted to experience something else, so this trip seemed like a no-brainer. Besides, I come from a family that is super international: I have relatives in Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, so I see no big difference in people living the other side of the border. That’s why I wasn’t afraid to come here.
How did you decide on a specific place to intern at?
From the Russian side my internship was coordinated by a company ProfIntern; it helps young international specialists, graduates and students obtain work experience in Russia in the form of unpaid internships in a range of fields. It is this company that searched for my internship placement. This organization works with young people from all over the world. Usually it chooses the most motivated candidates which seek a real-world professional experience.
Initially I didn’t have that much of a clue of what was it that I could choose: for example, I knew that I couldn’t intern in politics because I didn’t speak Russian fluently, I only started to learn it a month before my trip. So I considered opportunities where I could speak English, which isn’t always possible in the BRICS countries. In effect, it’s not a bad thing when somebody presents you with a ready-made solution, instead of you searching for it on your own: that way, you could find something completely new, something you didn’t think of before. I’d been more focused on diplomacy and doing research in this field because I know it well, though I can’t say that it’s the ultimate dream career for me. Interning at ITMO University proved to be a very valuable experience as it allowed me to get a closer look on volunteering. I wasn’t that into it back home in Belgium, and doing it here prompted me to delve into the specific of volunteering in both countries. That made me discover a very interesting field I wasn’t familiar with before coming here.
What did your internship imply?
My internship was socially oriented; I worked at the Student Initiatives Development Office, but not only with students. Some of my time there was spent on studying the volunteering movement in Russia.
One of my major projects was with a group of students who organized the international ecological camp in Yagodnoye. Parallel to that, I continued to work on my Russian to be able to use it in my communications at work. I also hosted seminars where I talked about the difference between volunteering in Belgium and Russia.
During my internship, I had to work with documents and learn project management. It wasn’t so much about social project planning but rather project management in general; I had to understand what I skills I needed to develop and employ to work with students effectively.
How is volunteering in Belgium different?
We have many kinds of volunteering in Belgium, but the system itself is very different from that in Russia. For example, Belgian universities don’t usually have a student initiative support department similar to the one I worked in at ITMO. Should a student decide to become a volunteer, they have to search for a volunteering association ready to take them on by themselves. There are volunteering activities that are as common in Russia as they are in Belgium, of course, like helping people in hospitals, but when I did my research comparing the situation with volunteering in the two countries, I looked for challenges that would be special to Belgium and Europe in general.
In Europe, many people are involved in volunteering in the social and civic spheres. I’ve already talked of the migrant crisis caused by the war in Syria. As of today, our legislation doesn’t always manage to address what’s happening appropriately. That’s why citizens are trying to help refugees, perhaps not by adapting them fully, but by caring after them: making the places they stay in more comfortable, helping them overcome the red tape they face when applying for necessary documents (Belgium may be a small country and everything, but its bureaucratic system is very complex), and organizing education for their children, who are in the country illegally and thus can’t attend regular schools. Refugees are also offered a choice of which of the three Belgium’s official languages they would like to learn, or they can learn English instead. According to the latest figures I’ve seen, about 30% of Belgians serve as volunteers, with many volunteering initiatives centered in Brussels. It’s an interesting and unique experience shared by many other Western European countries: the problems societies in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany face are pretty much similar.
Have you ever dealt with environmental issues before?
I’m not a huge specialist in ecology, I know only so much because everyone in Europe is involved in it one way or another. Even if you’re not massively into all these things, you still lead a more or less eco-friendly lifestyle, though mass consumption remains a significant problem. But I’m still critical as to what Europe does in the field of ecology because I think that our recycling efforts are overestimated. For example, we may have 40% of all garbage recycled, but it’s not something we should be proud of; we know our limitations and problems, and lots of things still need to be changed. What we achieved is only a first step towards solving that issue, and this is not enough. Many Europeans are aware of the urgency of the problem and trying to change the situation for the better.
That said, I’ve lived in Lebanon, and can say that the situation there is much worse. Walking on the beach, you notice all these heaps of rubbish dumped so close to the sea that you can’t even approach it. We need people who’ll want to make a difference because we can’t keep on expecting for someone to magically solve the problem for us.
What did you work on with the organizers of the Ecological Raids international camp?
The camp’s primary goal was to deal with the old waste present in the area of the Yagondoye sports and recreation center, but there isn’t that much waste there now that it’s being cleaned away regularly, so we were deciding on how to build the future trajectory for the project’s development. We tried to generate new ideas and techniques that could be applied to and implemented in the camp. I came up with an overview of eco camps in Belgium and all over the world, listing some suggestions for Ecological Raids in conclusion.
Today, the project’s goal has shifted to raising awareness for the eco-friendly lifestyle. I think that what makes this task especially topical is that not everyone understands the value of such an activity. One student told me that her parents see what she does as weird and don’t get why she bothers spending time on it all. Then there is the goal of making the camp itself as ecological as possible, not only in terms of the message it’s spreading, but also improving on its internal processes such as housing, cooking, eating, consuming resources and the like. Apart from that, the camp will soon have its own official website.
A separate task for us was to establish a network of partners around the camp. In line with this we attended the international volunteering forum Dobroforum, which introduced me to some ecological initiatives going on in St. Petersburg and its vicinity. I saw that many people here are striving to be proactive, to do something, and there’s undoubtedly a need for creating links with different associations. Because as the community develops, new opportunities appear, and you can’t attract serious partners if all you do is keeping a group on VK. That’s why we’ve prepared special partnership offers which we’re now sending to potential partners.
Was there something that surprised you in working with Russian students and management in general?
There were some technical things that we approach differently back home. For example, I’m used to printing documents out to then mark the points I see as important. I’ve also never worked in Trello and social media before. Here, students discuss everything on VK, so I made a VK account and talked with them there. Back home in Belgium, we mostly communicate via email. I was also surprised by how big a role Google documents play in the working process; I think that it’s not always safe from the information protection perspective.
What kind of tasks did you have during your internship, other than coordinating the Ecological Raids project?
I had to figure out how the volunteering process is organized, what are the structural departments responsible, and how it compares to what we have in Belgium. Another important task both I and regular department employees had to deal with was registering an international chapter authorised to accept international interns; the only way it’d been possible to do this earlier was via third-party organizations. When the new chapter will be given the green light, young specialists from all over the world will be able to come to ITMO to intern in a wide range of fields, making direct arrangements with the University.
The work was many and varied. For one, ITMO students from Nigeria won a grant to host a range of events for their student club, and I helped them developed a cost sheet based on the funding received. These students came up with the idea of immersing their fellow students into different cultures, so they plan to hold different thematic events to do this.
What skills have you developed thanks to your internship?
When you’re trying to adapt to a new country, it boosts your social skills. Despite the fact that I have a good level of English, it doesn’t always lead to success; you need to develop other, less obvious, adaptation mechanisms to get by. My internship was as much of a challenge for me as it was for my Russian colleagues: I was the first intern from abroad to ever work in their department.
When people look at your CV and see internships such as this, they understand that you’re capable of easily adjusting to new conditions. I know lots of people in Europe who can never be forced to leave their neck of the woods, they’re always sitting at home, and I’m not okay with that approach. Going on long-term trips also makes you more responsible; you stop thinking in stereotypes about others and open up to new experiences, and this is very valuable.
In the course of these three months, I majorly improved on my Russian, so that now my coordinator can send me documents in Russian confident that I will be able to wrap my head around them. At first, all of our documentation was in English.
What are you planning to do when you return home to Belgium?
This is a difficult question. I’m constantly looking through job postings, so here’s hoping I find something to my taste. I’m interested in politics and political science, and also lobbying. Part of my family lives in Lebanon, so I’m not ruling out returning there for my next adventure.