Master’s Degree
10 min

Foreign education helped me to fundamentally change my career path

After graduating as a journalist in Russia, Tanya Shcherbakova decided to pursue an international career in the non-profit sector. For that, she clearly needed a foreign education.

After getting a Master’s degree in Italy, Tanya became a UN volunteer and now works in missions all over the world. 

Why I decided to change my profession 

I have been writing poetry since childhood. In response to my question “How one becomes a poet?” my mother, a school teacher of Russian language and literature, answered that the usual way is to get published in a newspaper. I started writing small articles and news reports, participated in competitions and won prizes. Since I was about twelve, I knew that I would become a journalist. 

While earning my degree as a journalist in the Moscow State University, I also interned in many places, studied one term in the university of Sevilla under a students exchange program, and got a job in a news agency. On weekends, I worked as a volunteer in a mental health facility situated near my dormitory. The patients organized their own broadcasting, and I taught journalism to them. Journalist work is fascinating, you travel a lot, delve into different subjects, and meet new people. But I lacked a sense of mission in my work, I did not feel that what I’m doing makes any difference. Volunteering gave me what journalism could not.  

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After graduating from the university as a journalist, I went to Madrid for a year through the European Solidarity Corps volunteer program. I worked in a small non-profit organization, setting up communications, administering activities, and organizing volunteer camps for foreigners. It did not take me long to understand that the non-profit sector is exactly where I see myself in the future.

My journalism degree could land me only a Communication Officer position. But what I really strived to do was to coordinate projects that really make people’s lives different. To have a chance at finding such a job, I needed to get an additional education abroad.  

I thought about a Master’s degree in Great Britain, applied for the Erasmus Mundus scholarship, but did not get it. And then, my Italian friend asked me why I do not want to study in Italy. In the Italian magistrature, you can attend only those lectures that you want, prepare by yourself, and visit the university only to take the exams. Education in Italy is not expensive; besides, my boyfriend was living there. 

One of the formal requirements for entering into Italian university is to know the language at least at B2 level. You can demonstrate a language certificate, or take an exam in the university. My Italian was roughly at B1 level, but the entrance test was rather easy. Students with bad command of Italian were accepted, but had to attend additional language class for one term. My knowledge proved to be sufficient, and I got enrolled into a program in Italian.  

Entering and completing an Italian Masters degree program

I entered the “International relations” course of the political studies department (scienze politiche) of the Roma Tre university in Rome. The program had three branches, “General politics and the European Union”, “War and armed conflicts”, and “International Cooperation and Development”. I chose the latter. 

To enter the Masters degree program in Italy, you need to have enough credits for the chosen specialization in your previous diploma, so it’s hard to change your specialization. I lacked the law unit credits, so I took several courses on the EU structure and the human rights on Coursera and demonstrated the certificates. It worked: I obtained the necessary credits without even passing the exams. 

The curriculum comprised history of international relations, demographics and development, history of Africa and the Balkans, ecological economics, and history of political movements. These are the fundamental subjects for anyone who wants to pursue an international relations career. 

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Studying proved hard for me, for several reasons. First of all, I lacked knowledge of international relations history as compared to bachelors of that specialization. I had to read more than my peers to keep up with the program. Second, I still had some problems with language, so preparation took a lot of time. Third, exams in Italy are entirely different from what I was used to: you don’t get exam papers - instead, you may be asked any question; you have no time for preparation, and you absolutely must read all the books that are on the list. 

The highest score at the Italian university exam is 30 points; you need to get at least 18 to pass. If you do not like the result of the exam, you may discard it and retake the exam. My inner perfectionist rejoiced at this: sometimes I discarded even 27-point results. For example, the “Democratic procedures” exam I had to sit three times. 

My Master’s program took two years to complete. I passed most of the exams in my first year, and planned to do an internship abroad in the second. I took part in Torno Subito program funded by Lazio region, an international internship program for students and graduates aged 18 to 30 years legally staying in Italy. 

I won a grant and went for a six months internship in Bangkok, working for a Save the Children non-profit organization in the children’s rights protection department. We helped to promote a law forbidding corporal punishment in families. In Thailand, this problem is still relevant even in schools. Despite the already adopted ban teachers still may slap a kid in the face, spank them, or hit their hands with a pointer. 

Upon my return, I started to write a graduation paper, at the same time doing an internship in a non-profit organization Aicem in Rome, doing research for a project aimed at improving the sanitation conditions in Burkina Faso. We also pursued a project fighting islamophobia in Europe. 

Post-Master career: Myanmar and Cuba

After graduating from my Master’s program, I was picked for participation in the Servizio Civile Universale project in Myanmar. It started in Italy as an alternative to military service, but evolved gradually into voluntary work for the benefit of the country. Servizio Civile participants — both Italians and legally residing foreigners — participate in educational and charitable project in Italy and abroad. The state pays them a kind of a monthly allowance. For participants of the projects carried out abroad it amounts to about USD 1700 per month. 

In Myanmar, I worked as a project manager: I was in charge of two projects, and assisted in several more. My projects were dedicated to digging wells in the arid regions, and helping internally displaced persons in the east of Myanmar to get new professions. Internally displaced persons are citizens of the country who due to various reasons have to leave their homes and seek shelter in other regions. We set up three-month courses to teach them some high-demand skills - to install air conditioning systems, or to sew school uniforms - so they could find themselves a job, instead of selling snacks in the streets or crossing illegally the Myanmar-Chinese border. 

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Within several months after the project started, my supervisor was transferred to Palestine. The new one arrived only in half a year, so I had to perform tasks way above my qualification. I participated in negotiations, interacted with the government, drafted agreements. It was a real pain to do all this for the first time, having absolutely no experience, but I learned a lot. 

After Myanmar, I returned to Rome and stayed there for a while due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, I was selected to participate in the  UN volunteering mission in Cuba. First I worked remotely, but after a while I managed to move to Havana. Here I work as a resource mobilization specialist, writing funding requests, maintaining existing relations with partners and sponsors, and networking. 

I also manage communications and monitoring - we ensure that all our efforts could be described through their results. For instance, “we held a training session for 80 persons” is a vague description: we need to know how many trainees had their lives change for the better, and in what way. 

Most likely, my Cuban contract will be prolonged for another year, but I’m not sure whether I want to stay here or not. I monitor open vacancies, and will apply as soon as I see something interesting. I haven't’ decided yet, should I pursue a career in the UN, work with an embassy, or return to the non-profit sector. For now, I would like to work some more time in the developing countries, and then, maybe, go back to Europe. 

Working with a non-profit organization is extremely rewarding, because you see the positive results of your actions right away, and may try yourself in different roles within a project - the non-profit organizations are always short-handed. 

But non-profit organizations have scarce funding and lower salaries. For example, the salary of a junior level worker in a NPO usually is USD 800-1200, but in the UN even a youth volunteer is paid USD 1600-1900. A specialist with three to five years of experience under the belt may count upon a USD 2000-3000 salary, but a young specialist with two years of experience will earn upwards of USD 5000.  

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My advice to those eager to change their profession by receiving an education abroad 

Make an informed decision. Before quitting your job and spending two or three years of your life on getting a Master’s degree abroad, make sure that you really want to switch to this new sphere of activity. Make research, draw up a list of positions, and try to find an internship related to your prospective profession. 

Ask those in the know. Speak to at least three people having relevant work experience. Ask them about pros and cons, how their working day is structured, what tasks they perform. We tend to paint a rosy picture of some professions: for example, a job in international relations appears to be thrilling. Of course, we save the world, but most of the time we make spreadsheets, write funding requests, and get bogged down by routine tasks. 

Don’t be afraid of change. It is hard to change your life, when you have already built a successful career in a particular area, and now you cherish your stability. Or you may think that it’s already late to change anything at your age. However, answer yourself, are you happy with the line of work you do? Are you ready to pursue it for another 15-20 years? If the answer is “No!”, get down to business: explore the opportunities for studying abroad, and soar to new heights on your new career path. 

Author: Tatiana Shcherbakova