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Yuliia Chykolba: "Don't be discouraged by rejections when you are starting your career"

Yuliia Chykolba has had a fascinating professional career that has taken her to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Since completing her MA at the Department of War Studies, she has worked in conflict zones helping local civil society organisations to secure grants and providing training and logistical support to minimise risk to those on the frontline. She recounts her journey back to Ukraine, her home country, amid the ongoing war.

You have had a truly inspiring career so far, working in challenging environments in roles related to risk management, security, and strategic communications. Can you tell us more about your work in Ukraine?

Yuliia: My professional journey has been rooted in international work, primarily in conflict zones. I returned to Ukraine due to the full-scale invasion, and I have dedicated considerable time to volunteering, as well as capacity building for local civil society and paramilitary units.

Particularly with non-governmental organisations and the UN, I have been involved in various initiatives assisting local civil society organisations in securing grants from major aid systems. This includes providing training in risk management, Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) creation, and frontline engagement. I have been also working in mine awareness and first aid training to minimise risks for those on the frontlines, as well as logistical support, including equipment and drones, for volunteer units.

Now, I work as a Liaison Officer at the Centre for Information Resilience, a non-profit social enterprise committed to uncovering human rights abuses, countering disinformation, and combating online harm against women and minorities. Previously, I served as a Consultant at International Location Safety (ILS) in Kyiv, and as Explosive Ordnance Risk Education Manager at the charitable organisation, Halo Trust, also based in Kyiv.

What are some projects or initiatives that have played a crucial role in shaping your career

Yuliia: After returning to Ukraine in May 2022, I assumed the role of Project Manager at the Halo Trust, a British charity focusing on explosive ordnance risk mitigation. I spearheaded the expansion of the programme from two and a half teams to 11, establishing partnerships with the government and implementing comprehensive quality management systems and training programmes. Witnessing the teams successfully operate on the front lines in Kharkiv and Mykolaiv Oblast has been immensely rewarding.

Another notable achievement was co-hosting the Trumanitarian Podcast alongside ACAPS Director Lars Peter Nissen. This Ukrainian series, comprising four dedicated episodes, delved into critical issues like failed localisation processes and the colonial mindset affecting humanitarian aid in the UK. Despite the challenges, the podcast enabled me to join a league of experts, addressing issues such as lack of accountability to affected populations. I encourage people to listen as it sheds light on a sobering, yet essential reality that demands reflection.

Given the security environment is constantly changing, how do you manage to stay informed about political, military, and economic trends around the world?

Yuliia: As a practitioner, it's essential to stay realistic about staying relevant while juggling a dynamic workload. After the full-scale invasion, I made a conscious decision to focus my professional attention on Ukraine, Russia, and European security, narrowing down my areas of expertise. Despite my heart being in Afghanistan, I have consciously reduced my engagement with political updates there.

To be updated I listen to podcasts like the War Studies Podcast and read insightful pieces on Ukraine, particularly from Professor Lawrence Freedman. I prioritise reports and analytics over academic articles for their concise and time-efficient nature. I also leverage my knowledge of the Ukrainian language to follow military analytics from local bloggers. Platforms like LinkedIn and others help me stay updated through insights from both professors and professionals. Occasionally, I turn to books for a broader perspective, although they tend to be less contemporary than the latest analytic reports available online.

How was your experience studying an MA in Conflict, Security and Development?

Yuliia: I earned a Chevening scholarship, which is a UK Government scholarship for foreign students, and it covered all the costs of my MA. The experience was a refreshing departure from my recent assignment in Iraq as a Risk Education Consultant at the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS). Although I wasn’t a fresh graduate as I have been working in the field since 2016, the classes offered valuable theoretical weight to my hands-on experiences. What stood out the most was that it wasn't a typical top-down approach. Instead, it was about people with experiences sharing, learning, and evolving together, making it a significant part of the whole experience.

Beyond the classroom, the true value lay in the fantastic group of people I connected with during my time at King’s College London. Despite the challenges of COVID, we formed lasting bonds. Even after leaving London, one of my classmates dropped by Ukraine for volunteer work. It's fascinating how everyone went on their own global adventures, mostly still navigating the security, humanitarian assistance, and conflict resolution world.

How have the skills or knowledge gained during your MA contributed to your current role and the projects that you have been involved in Ukraine?

Yuliia: King’s has significantly contributed to my professional journey. In my sector, it is widely recognised, and I believe that my role with the International Committee of Red Cross in Syria immediately after my studies was facilitated by the King’s diploma.

While experience played a vital role, the educational background mattered, making the job acquisition smoother. Currently, as I transition from the humanitarian sector to security, the concepts from my studies at King’s prove invaluable. Initially unfamiliar with International Relations theory, now I find myself drawing on these concepts when discussing political fluctuations, political analysis, and specifically political risk management. Another significant aspect is the systematic approach to thinking and writing, which greatly enhanced my ability in roles that involve proposal and report writing, deep analysis, and research.

Can you share a memorable experience during your MA?

Yuliia: I recall a funny anecdote from my time at King’s that encapsulates the diverse perspectives we brought to the table. One of my classmates, a graduate from the University of St Andrews, and I, with a background in law and finance in Ukraine, sat in a London bar reflecting on our studies. I found the course theoretical and craved more practical examples, while he deemed it highly practical with endless case studies, making it challenging to distill general theoretical concepts. Our perspectives, quite literally opposite, made us laugh. However, as the course progressed, particularly with the core module in conflict security and development, the balance struck became evident. There was enough theory to conceptualise trends and systematise knowledge, coupled with a wealth of practical case studies exploring specific conflicts, countries, and challenges. The experience of zooming out from years of fieldwork provided me with valuable reflections that we don’t usually make while we are working.

What advice would you give to students who aspire to pursue a career like yours?

Yuliia: The course has been instrumental in building friendships and sharing experiences. While I didn't secure jobs through direct connections, I drew upon these experiences during interviews and tests. For recent graduates entering the UN or humanitarian aid sector, it's crucial not to be discouraged by the initial slew of rejections. Job applications in this sector often play out as a numbers game, especially for newcomers. The knowledge gained from the course, though valuable, may not automatically translate into landing that first job, and that's completely normal.

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