Kateryna Yermak’s first acquaintance with the student group AIESEC, which has chapters in 1100 universities in over 100 countries and territories around the world, happened casually. “I walked into a Kyiv-Mohyla Academy classroom where an AIESEC presentation was going on,” she says. “That was the first time I got acquainted with the organisation, and the first time I thought of becoming a member of it,” says Yermak, a first-year Mohyla student. Her filling out the group’s application was a fateful first step: three years later she was AIESEC’s Kyiv chapter president. “I’ve learned that my student life was less about my university than about my experiences in the organisation,” she says now. “And I saw that the more you give to it, the more you benefit.” That seems to have been the rule for most Kyiv students who have gotten involved with AIESEC, which is an acronym for Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et
Academics are great, but there’s a place for hands-on knowledge, and that’s what Ukrainian students, with some international help, are out to get
Commerciales. The group offers its members seminars, classes, internships, and networking to help them learn how to apply their educations practically and get a good start in their eventual careers.
Indeed, it’s the real-world experience that ambitious Ukrainian university students seem to join such groups for. “Students have to be responsible when they’re working on this or that project, or else they won’t stay in AIESEC for long,” Yermak says. If they do manage to make it through the rigorous training sessions that AIESEC sets them, students often are given a window into a bright future. Often, their AIESEC affiliation leads to their being sent abroad to work for international companies in the West. "But bear in mind that all of them come back to Ukraine, Yermak says. "They're full of patriotism. They get excited about opening representative offices in our country." Just a few years ago, talented young people who went to work abroad tended not to come back. That they eagerly come back now is a sign of the times and an indication of how fast things are changing for the better here in Ukraine. Another reason students join AIESEC is that they want an extra
It's a symbiotic process, with organisations and students filling each other's niches, so to speak
curricular chance to tease out their own perhaps hidden skills and see what they're best at and like most. Ukraine is a country in which students very often earn three diplomas in different subjects, seeking to hedge their bets about what life and the job market have in store for them and what they'll choose to do. This isn't a completely positive phenomenon, as running in different directions at the same time can prevent you from ever finishing the race - you're likely to get held up somewhere on the crossroads. "AIESEC is ideal in this situation, because when you become a member of it you have to choose whether you want to participate in this or that project, and they could all be radically different from each other and have nothing to do with your education," Yermak says.
A Symbiotic Relationship
A constant problem in Ukrainian institutions of higher learning is that they often don't have a budget for the projects they suggest their students do. There might be a bit of money around for students to participate in mock parliaments or trade UNI0N organisations but even at the most prestigious and well-financed universities it's just that - a bit. That where organisations like AIESEC, grounded as they are by foreign money, come in. "Big international companies have an obvious interest in supporting AIESEC projects," Yermak says, "because they're trying to create good employment candidates. They're growing new leaders." So it's a symbiotic process, with organisations and students filling each other's niches, so to speak. For their part, big companies today are mindful of the imperative that they have to be socially active, practicing philanthropy and sponsoring youth projects of the sort that Ukrainian kids are looking for.
Soviet culture has imbued Ukrainians with a special attitude toward collective work: even many younger Ukrainians are imbued with the idea that collective labour is the best sort, and that there's no difference between a friend, a crony, and someone you do business with. They've got a sort of ideal of collegiality in their blood, even if Soviet work culture didn't always rise to the ideal. Another thing that international organisations can do, then, is to make sure that Ukrainian kids' cultural inheritance is effectively complemented to allow them to participate in the international business culture that's taken root in Ukraine since independence. One thing that becomes very noticeable in the work environment of a foreign company in Kyiv is the difference in cultural attitudes between Western and Ukrainian workers. Sometimes the barrier is difficult to overcome. "AIESEC has been in Ukraine for 18 years, and fostering [the correct] corporate culture is a very important contribution that it's made," Yermak says. "We go to different international conferences together and participate in activities that make our collective stronger and friendlier. In my opinion, this sort of thing is just as important as leading a variety of different projects."
Young and Inexperienced
Every student who joins AIESEC does so for his own reasons. You might have your own long-term business project in mind and you're looking for professional advice or financial support for it. On the other hand, you might just want to try out a lot of different professional areas and see which one fits you the best. "All our projects focus mostly on management, public relations, people development, and IT," Katya says. "And it's far different from the education you get in a university classroom, as it's more practical and more up-to-date". Academics are great, but there's a place for hands-on knowledge, and that's what Ukrainian students, with some international help, are out to get.
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