Esuna Dugarova, the SPbU graduate, originally from Buryatia, is a policy specialist in gender equality and sustainable development at the United Nations Development Programme (New York). She holds a PhD in Asian Studies from Cambridge University and a BA in Burmese and Chinese Studies from St Petersburg University.
Esuna has authored over 40 publications and published her first award-winning book “The Star of the Nomadess” in 2017. She is a laureate of the Chevening award in recognition of her achievements in international development, and speaks 7 languages (Buryat, Russian, English, Chinese, French, Spanish and Burmese).
In this interview, she shares her success story and the advise that she would like to young graduates.
Which skills are required to be successful in your job?
In my view, it’s a combination of substantive knowledge, interpersonal dynamics, and mental resilience. Firstly, it’s important to establish yourself as an expert in the field with solid technical knowledge, strong analytical mind, and in-depth understanding of issues. At the same time, it’s vital to think strategically by looking beyond short-term needs, see a big picture, and identify far-reaching implications. Yet knowledge alone is not enough to advance in a career, and one needs to apply and articulate it across different contexts and to a wide range of stakeholders.
For this one should develop sound interpersonal communication skills, which involves the ability to build trustful relationships with a sense of solidarity and mutual respect. One should also be flexible and be prepared to go beyond their comfort zones and have courage to take risks, especially in highly volatile times in which we live and work today. Above all, to sustain success not only at work but also in life, I think it’s critical to strengthen mental resilience and cultivate compassion both as self-care and support to others.
As the COVID-19 crisis has shown, being compassionate, mindful and caring is more valuable than ever. I believe that this has become a core part of new leadership where well-being should be prioritized over mere efficiency. Ultimately, the further you move up the career ladder, the more important it is to stay true to yourself and your values.
How does the University prepare graduates for the job market? In what ways did you personally benefit from studying at SPbU?
It depends on a subject, students’ capacities (both technical and soft), and the overall economic situation and market needs. For example, today we live in the era of a digital revolution where digital skills in business development, product design or data analytics are particularly in demand among employers. Developing these skills is essential to enter the labour market and navigate in a highly competitive environment. I think that overall the University provides a good foundation for students to build specialized knowledge in their respective domains, and offers resources and opportunities to develop necessary skills and competencies. How young people apply them is subject to their ability to frame, market and operationalize their knowledge and skills in a professional environment.
In my case, when I graduated with a BA in Burmese and Chinese Studies from the University, I was able to identify job opportunities in academia (such as teaching or translation), industry and business (such as commercial activities with Asian markets), or an international department within the public sector. I was however interested to pursue postgraduate studies and deepen my expert knowledge. Thanks to the University and my professors, I was well equipped with the knowledge and understanding of Myanmar and China, which served as a stepping stone towards my PhD at Cambridge University. The knowledge of these key emerging economies in turn opened opportunities in the field of international development and gave me a competitive advantage when I applied for a job at the UN.
Your professional activity is very rich and diverse. How did you manage to take your current position?
When I completed my PhD at Cambridge, I first got a job at the London School of Economics where I was involved in a project on highly skilled migration from the BRICS countries to the UK. Then I moved from academia to the development sector and entered the UN system first in Geneva and in a few years applied for a new job at the UN headquarters in New York. All vacancies were advertised publicly, and I went through highly competitive recruitment processes with thousands of candidates. I didn’t have any connections when I moved to England, so had to rely entirely on my own efforts to find opportunities, build a network, and develop my professional profile. From my experience I can assure that hard work, perseverance and willpower get rewarded eventually.
What makes your work special? Do you enjoy what you do? What are your plans for the near future?
In my team, I lead data analytics and research on policy issues including gender equality, poverty reduction, social protection, climate change, and digitalization. Based on this, I provide policy guidance and advice to over 100 UNDP country offices regarding the implementation of corporate strategies, and produce technical reports and policy papers with recommendations. Another key function of mine is the coordination of the Gender Steering and Implementation Committee, the highest-level institutional mechanism composed of the head of UNDP and Assistant Secretary Generals, where key decisions are made.
One of my projects which was launched recently is the first global policy tracker that monitors government measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic from a gender perspective. I led research and analysis of this tracker at UNDP and together with other colleagues developed a methodology for data collection and analysis. It has over 2,500 measures in 206 countries and territories in social protection, labour market, fiscal policies, and violence against women. We plan to expand it and integrate climate change, digitalization, policy budgets, and political participation.
I enjoy what I do as long as I see value that my work is bringing. In the near future I plan to continue working at UNDP, develop my experience, knowledge and skills further, while tapping into new areas and opportunities as they arise.
Was is difficult to adapt in the new environment and new countries?
Not really. If you are open to new opportunities, respectful to people around you, make efforts to learn about local culture, traditions and mentality, it will surely reciprocate. Each time when I find myself in a new environment, whether in London, New York, Mumbai or Yangon, I recognize that each place has its unique heritage with fascinating history and outstanding landmarks. When your mind is unlocked, you are more flexible and adaptable to a new context. And the golden rule is when you smile at the world, the world smiles at you.
What are your key memories from studying at SPbU?
I still remember vividly the very first day at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, which I described in my book “The star of the nomadess”. We just arrived with my mum by train from Ulan-Ude which took nearly 5 days. We were walking in a long corridor on the second floor of the faculty, and I was running like a child, jumping for joy, and exclaiming: “Mum, do you feel the aura of these walls?! What an ambience here!” My mum just smiled in response. My entrance exams were to start in a few days and I wasn’t even sure if I would be accepted, but I felt special energy in the air of the faculty and that energy gave me power, motivation and drive. And that feeling of excitement, eagerness to learn, and willingness to embrace this new world accompanied me throughout my studies at the University.
Is it important to keep in touch with your Alma Mater, the professors and alumni after graduating?
Yes, staying connected with Alma Mater has never been more important. We live in an interdependent world where we rely on each other, and especially at times of crises, such mutual support and networks become a critical safety net.
To me, St Petersburg University is not only my Alma Mater. It embodies continuity of the Buryat intellectual tradition, which is deeply embedded in our cultural heritage. Some of the greatest Buryat intellectuals, such as Tsyben Zhamsarano, Mikhail Bogdanov, Elbekdorzhi Rinchino, Bazar Baradiin and Gombozhab Tsybikov, studied and taught at St Petersburg University prior to the October Revolution. They left an important legacy for my people, and I am proud to be part of this tradition and keep it alive in the 21st century.
I’m also in touch with my wonderful professors, Kasevich Vadim Borisovich and Yanson Rudolf Alekseevich, who paved the way for my intellectual development. Each time when I go back to St Petersburg, I always visit my faculty and meet my professors.
I’m also in touch with my groupmates and fellows from other faculties across the University. And it’s heartening to see how they have grown in their professional and personal lives. For many of us, the University has been the place which shaped the way we are, and apart from knowledge it enriched our journey with precious long-lasting friendships.
According to you, which initiatives should the University and the Alumni Association develop?
I think it’s important to nourish connectivity between students and the labour market to support them in launching their careers and developing relevant networks. This could be done, for example, through internships, apprenticeships, or on-the-job trainings. It’d also be good to help young people develop diverse skills through the provision of free or subsidized professional courses, and strengthen exchanges between departments across the University and other institutions. Students with academic career interests would benefit from grants to conduct research and participate in international conferences where they can learn from their peers and share good practices, which in turn would generate returns on this investment to the University.
The Alumni Association could invigorate connections between alumni across the world by organizing interest-based discussions on professional topics, catching up over informal ‘coffee chats’ to get to know each other, making calls for joint innovative projects building upon alumni’s unique experiences, and creating initiatives that bring positive social and environmental impacts.
Could you give advice to the young alumni regarding their future employment?
Be pro-active, bold and positive. Expand your network and broaden your horizons by participating in interesting events and conferences, write directly to potential employers, identify relevant speakers at events and talk to them about the opportunities available and what you can offer. Be open, creative and flexible: you may start in one area which may not be well-paid or appealing but has the potential to equip you with relevant knowledge and contacts, so try it and explore opportunities from within while keeping looking around. And in whatever you do, be yourself, trust your instincts, and never give up.