Why leaving the research site is important for a political scientist

I received inspiration and motivation for this article from two important projects that I participated in this summer which will have a long-lasting impact for me and for my country (Ukraine). Hence, this article will speak concisely about two interesting stories that can make the life of every political scientist brighter and more vivid and turn the boring summer days into active and truly fruitful ones.

Back in April, I applied to help organize an important project that would help to bring the most talented Ukrainian teenagers together and establish a network of enthusiasts. These people would share the passion and motivation to deliver different projects and make their community better. The project was a simulation of the Model United Nations, where teenagers could learn how the organization works by representing a certain UN country and debating different issues, taking into account the political stance of the country they represented.

The group photo of counsellors and campers in the camp “Moloda Gvardiya”, Odessa, Ukraine. Photo: Camp Model UN 2018/Matthew Yarbrough.

In the beautiful city of Odessa on the Black Sea, I and 20 other American and Ukrainian volunteers had around 70 talented students from every corner of Ukraine, all of whom were passionate to learn about international relations and diplomacy and to improve their public speaking skills. My personal motivation beyond volunteering at the camp and helping campers understand global trends was to share my own experience in international relations and democracy, as well as to teach campers how to look for opportunities in the world. I was also interested in getting to know more about the problems that the current generation of teenagers is overwhelmed with, how they define their values, how teenagers set their priorities, and how they identify themselves in general.

I was also very aware of gaps in the Ukrainian education system and had a strong desire to teach the campers about academic honesty and plagiarism. In dealing with future school graduates, I also found it necessary to teach students how to write a letter of motivation, with the latter increasingly being the main requirement for entrance to good universities. These are the crucial things that our system of education very scarcely touches upon, or even omits, and thus leaves serious holes in student education, does not meet the current needs, and leaves students unprepared for life. In addition, we as counsellors were helping the students with the Model United Nations procedures and pushing them forward towards finding a consensus on the different issues with other participants. Consequently, I was strongly motivated to deliver this knowledge that I had obtained throughout my studies abroad to the teenagers and tell them about different interesting opportunities abroad, providing my own example as a student of the University of Tartu.

Photo: Camp Model UN 2018/Matthew Yarbrough.

As a political scientist, this project was interesting for me, especially in the context of networking with the progressive and talented students and giving them my personal guidance in regard to their future. It was also about understanding more about the implicit problems of our education system and getting to know the challenges that the teenagers face at this point of life. Thus, it was interesting to me to see whether I could be helpful and efficient somehow. Given the difficult times that our country is going through, I believe the young people could become the catalyst for transformations in the country, as it happened once in Estonia. It is also a thing that in our country we have, in my opinion, a traditional and outdated approach to knowledge as a concept. To most Ukrainian teachers, knowledge is something that can be conceived of only from books. I believe, however, that knowledge is quite a complex phenomenon which embraces many key elements, and the traditional approach in the Ukrainian schools and universities has long ago lost its value, since everything around us is changing rapidly and a purely theoretical approach to serious issues cannot produce any ideas of significance or validity. I believe that organizing different projects, encouraging volunteerism, socializing with people of different cultural backgrounds, and engaging in informal education opportunities constitutes the modern paradigm of knowledge. While working with the teenagers, I emphasized the importance of being involved in different projects and leaving their comfort zone, which not a lot of teachers would encourage back at their schools.

All in all, this 8-day camp was a serious asset and important project in my country, in which I was honoured to participate. It is not every day that you can get inspiration from talented students and learn a lot from them.

Me before the seminars, the introductory day. Photo: Taken by one of the participants in the EU study days 26th session.

Another project I was strongly involved with was located in the far east of my country, Kramatorsk, Donbas, about 30 km from the conflict zone. It was the project called “EU study days”, funded by the European Union, which is aimed at disseminating knowledge about the ties between Ukraine and its integration into the EU.  The main purpose of the project is to unite people who share a similar way of thinking and who are interested in learning about EU–Ukraine relations. Ultimately, it is about creating a big network of alumni who will become a critical mass and a catalyst for change in the country.

Given my interest in the EU neighbourhood policy, I was strongly motivated to get as much knowledge as I could from this event. In total, there were 40 participants who were passionate about learning about the European Union. The location was quite symbolic for this event. Travel some dozens of miles eastward and you are in a different territory, with people living on the other side of a barricade. For me, personally, involvement in this project meant a lot of things. First and foremost, it was about people with a similar way of thinking and optimism being able to change and influence the things in my country. Secondly, we had a lot of distinguished Ukrainian and European speakers who were directly involved with the transformations in Europe in general and in Ukraine in particular. I remember how much I took away from the class on Public Governance at UT this semester and the new public management reform. I also recall how passionate the debates about decentralization and good governance were. After this class, what could be more valuable than hearing from an expert who was implementing decentralization reform in Ukraine, and telling of the pitfalls and achievements of dealing with the reform. In addition, I had the great honour of speaking with David Stulik, who as press attaché of the EU Delegation to Ukraine kept track of all the transformations in UA and the EU.

Me and David Stulik, press attaché of the EU delegation to Ukraine, right after the lecture on EU – UA relations. Photo: Taken by one of the participants in the EU study days 26th session.

Moreover, as a part of the training, we were split into 5 groups of 8 people each, where we had to write a plan for the reform. In our case, it was the reform of higher education. We had to analyze the current situation in the country, provide the statistics on the issue in question, and show the concrete steps that could help to overhaul the current system of education.

The intensely dour days of the training proved to be really fruitful. Besides communicating with the serious and high ranking speakers, I was able to enter the network of people who have a similar way of thinking and desire to improve Ukraine. I believe this is really important nowadays since we live in an era where we need unity and decision among people despite the backdrop of problems that tend to disintegrate people. As a result of this project, several delegates (including me) will compete with other best participants to represent Ukraine in Brussels.

Me and other 2 best participants being awarded the certificates with honour. Photo: Taken by one of the participants in EU study days 26th session.

What is my main takeaway from these two great events? Through participating in these two projects I discovered that every event can bring you some interesting idea and value, and even though the project might seem finished, in reality it turns into a passive phase and keeps producing results from your work. As a political scientist, I received a better understanding of the implicit and explicit problems in my own country, which gave me even more motivation to study abroad and bring this valuable experience back to Ukraine.

Pavlo Cherchatyi is a first-year master student at the University of Tartu. He studies Democracy and Governance.

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