Barbara Kelemen

Barbara Kelemen: “BISLA gives you so much space to do anything you wanna do“

Barbara Kelemen graduated from BISLA in 2017 and continued her studies at London School of Economics and Peking University, where she earned double masters. Currently, she is working as a research associate at Security Intelligence Consulting Company in London. It has been three years since she left BISLA but she has remained in touch with the school ever since. Today, she decided to share her experiences with us.

My first question would be: Could you tell us about your internships while you were still studying at BISLA? We found out that you had internships at the US embassy and then in the Office of the Public Defender of Human Rights. 


Yes, sure. Actually, my first internship was with Transfúzia - a NGO focused on transgender issues. It was in the first year, it was nice but as you said the internship at the US embassy was probably the most aligned with my professional goals at that time, which was working in international relations. The thing with the US embassy - I am not sure if it works still in the same way - started with them searching for interns for a specific department, so when I was there I was in a political/economic section, which was great and they do a lot of work on human rights and Roma community. It was really interesting and there were trans-Atlantic negotiations that got stopped by Trump. And then the Public Defender of Human Rights. There the internship was more focused on PR activities - managing social media accounts and so on. It was not all that aligned with my interests, but it was interesting to see the nature of the work of the Defender of Human Rights in Slovakia.


You said you worked for an NGO dealing with transgender rights? How was that?


The NGO is called Transfúzia. Back at the time Dana A., who was leading the sociology course at BISLA in our first year, invited one of the leaders of the organization. At the time, it was great, but in a way it was really challenging because I have never heard anything about transgender problems before, so it was really interesting as we got to know the legislation around those issues in Slovakia. It was about five years ago, the conversation was nowhere near  where it is today, and even today, not everyone is talking about it. Unfortunately, people perceive this as a threat to traditional values in Slovakia, but back at the time a handful of people were interested and were kind of activists in that sense. It was really nice, but as a first-year student I think that it was really challenging, but at the end of the day there was a point to it, so it was really good.


So it has come a long way since you actually did this. I mean in terms of transgender rights.


I think that my personal evolution kind of started from human rights. My deep interest in these issues and work for NGO and then later throughout my studies, I realized that in Slovakia, working for an NGO is really challenging. So for having a bigger impact, I kind of moved to a more institutional way of doing things. At least back then, there were a lot of issues, NGOs were fighting with logistics and legislation and getting grants for research. You had to be really dedicated to the cause and many times your impact would be really limited. So from there, I moved towards a more institutional way and I am now doing security, which is almost not related at all.


And after BISLA you moved, and you did the double masters. Could you tell us more about it?


At BISLA I did an exchange, I went to Hong Kong in the second year, and then right after I did the double masters between London School of Economics and Beijing University, so I did a year in China and a year in London. I graduated last year, then I spent three months in Berlin working for another institute, and later moved back to London to work for this company.


So, about your job at the security firm. Could you explain what you do and where you work?


It is a private intelligence security company based in London. When I was at BISLA, I did not know that much about political risk and security. In my second and third year, I started to realize that I want to do more with security and we had a course on terrorism. I started to look at security and political risk, which means that you are practically applying your knowledge of politics in the region to do security analysis - what is going on in that region and then providing it to clients. I am covering the Asia-Pacific, countries like Indonesia, that part of the world. It is kind of like working for a newspaper in terms of the tempo, you have to report every day, if there is any crisis in your region it has to go to your report. The report has to be academically informed, so it is actually quite a hard job because you have to write like an analyst, not like a journalist. You have to know about what you are writing, it is also very fast-paced and there is rigorous methodology.

When I was in University, I went to see a few of these career days and I met a guy from this company. I got really interested and I think I did about three interviews. I was discouraged after applying for a third job position, I thought I would never get into this company. One day, they sent me an email and they said “Oh, we saw your CV in a database, we have a position for Asia if you are interested”. So, a very optimistic story in my opinion because I always thought that they just delete your CV and they never keep it in the database. It took me about three times to apply to finally get in, so never give up, I would say.


You have already written two academic articles. Were they related to the Asia-Pacific or to something completely different?

I think that it is somehow related. There is the Central Europe Institute of Asian studies which is based between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary. It is one of the first NGOs working in Asia and I started to work for them three years ago. At one point, my boss was saying “Oh yeah, let's write an academic article together“. It is more like an intersection. It is still Asia - China and the Middle East. The first one was on the Uighur, Muslim countries not being that vocal about it, and the second one was about possible future of terrorism against China in the Middle East. It is related to the same research interests. If you are really dedicated to some part of the world, politics, area, or whatever it is you are focusing on in your studies, you start to build off your profile in what you do, in your research interests. And if you are interested in writing academic articles, working for think tanks and so, you have to double off your profile because there are so many people who are writing about these things, and there is a certain amount of consistency you have to pursue.


I would like to ask you about BISLA and your memories. What were the things that you appreciated the most about BISLA?


It is a lot of stuff: people, not only classmates but also professors. I just see it now after studying at other universities, the relationship with professors is completely different. For instance, the rector, Samuel, people like him just made the environment so great. And one of the things that I repeated so many times over the years, BISLA does not necessarily push you to do a lot of things, but gives you so much space to do anything you wanna do. There is always an opportunity if you have the initiative to do something, they would be so happy to help you to realize your dreams. Il Ponte, for example, was just an idea and then it became reality because the rector was so happy to have something like this. The second thing is just the building - the living room, the kitchen, the garden. Having classes in the garden are just such nice memories, hanging out in the living room, cooking together as classmates. It is super nostalgic.


So, you co-founded Il Ponte?


Yeah, it was me and two other classmates and we still have the Facebook group back from the days, so we sometimes send screenshots, and we are like “Man, Il Ponte stepped up so much”, you know, all the posts on Facebook... Now it is great, all the things you put out and the Instagram content, I am like “Wow, this is really good”. I am proud, it is like our child.


We are glad you approve of our work with Il Ponte, it’s nice to have a confirmation from someone involved since the beginning. Thank you so much for doing this interview.