Not a regular UN Youth Delegate – an interview with Polina Kempinsky

Polina’s journey has been exceptional. She is a graduate of Israel’s Leo Baeck Gifted Students Class, has a degree in “Philosophy, Politics, and Economics”, and became Israelis’ UN Youth Delegate at the young age of 22 when she represented her country in the highest decision-making body of the United Nations.

Polina has reached a couple of milestones in her journey, and she certainly appears to be on the right track to achieving her lifelong dream of joining the UN one day.  I had the pleasure of sitting down with her and hearing all about her experience as a UN Youth Delegate, and I was completely captivated by her achievements and her vibrant personality. 

In this interview, she reveals how she went from knowing nothing about the UN Youth Delegate Programme until two days before the deadline – to becoming Israel’s UN Youth Delegate, as well as what the experience means to her personally, the expectations and realities of being a UN Youth Delegate and how she perceives youth work.

“I think I’m not a regular Youth Delegate in that sense. I always wanted to work at the UN, it was on my bucket list, I always found it really cool, but I did not know anything about the UNYD Program. We have a week of holidays and I was a student, so I just saw this ad on Facebook that said ‘Become an Israeli Youth Delegate!’, ‘Two more days to apply!’, stuff like that. So, I just typed into their Google Form a bunch of things. They even had typos *laughs* and sort of sensed that I would never get it.” – says Polina. “ Then it progressed over time. For the next stage, I actually prepared and learned about the UN, how it works, and what it is like being a Youth Delegate.” Even though according to Polina, she does not fit into the regular Youth Delegate picture, she has something in common with every other Youth Delegate – she did a lot of youth and civic engagement, and was very passionate about the topic. She had been very active as a high school student and also continued after serving for two years in the army (another unique experience that young people in Israel go through). Regardless of the fact that she had no prior knowledge of the UN Youth Delegate Program, her experiences fit perfectly into the delegate role. 

Polina was born into a Russian immigrant family and is very proud of how her background has shaped part of her personality. However, similar to the Albanian reality, Polina says that Russian immigrants are expected to be engineers or doctors, and her decision to pursue a diplomatic career was an eye-opening experience for her community as well as her family, who winded up to become the strongest supporters of the career path she chose. Spirited as she is, Polina experienced step by step the whole UN Youth Delegate journey, and I had to ask her whether her perception of the experience as a Youth Delegate has changed, and if she would change something about it, she immediately replies: “we don’t call people who move to Israel immigrants, we call them ‘aliyah’, people who go up to Israel or something. So, bringing up these immigrant communities and saying ‘Look what we can offer you’ and like trying to create more opportunities for them.” And with this inspiring perception coming from her people, she says that going back, she would focus more on not only delivering the message upward but also backward and focusing more on her community. According to her, there is a lot of room to shape the role of the Youth Delegate and do things by following your own story. Many youth delegates care about completely different things, but that’s the beauty of it. You have the opportunity to speak up your own voice, in accordance with who you are.

Furthermore, she describes giving her Youth Delegate Speech at the UN Headquarters in New York and being able to talk about her parents’ experience in the former USSR as one of the highlights of her mandate. Sharing her parents’ story from a global stage, at the same time the story of many Russian immigrants, is Polinas’ way of giving back to the community. While being able to receive feedback from them made the achievement even more meaningful to her.   

However, in the long term, one of the perks of the whole experience was the ability to build meaningful relationships in a short period of time. She speaks very fondly of her relationships with other Youth Delegates. “Some of them are still very close friends of mine so we talk every week or every couple of weeks and I think that I don’t even have friends in Israel to whom I speak that often. Some of them are more of the distant kind of relationship, but you know that you can always reach out and then be able to sort of form this network which once in a while you visit. Then something comes up and you’re able to support one another ” Networking and sharing experiences seems to be a strong suit of the former Youth Delegates. For example, Polina was one of the founders of the “Covid-19 Youth Advisory Board” in Israel. She shared this experience with her fellow former Youth Delegates and helped them do the same in their own country. We can definitely say that this is youth participation at its best! Her hope is that in the next 5-10 years, they’ll be able to consolidate the  UN Youth Delegates Network. 

Life after the UN Youth Delegates Programme has treated her well, she tells me. As she puts it “I think that the title of “UN Youth Delegate” opens a lot of doors. A lot of people are much more willing to talk to you and to give you advice, so it really flattened the backup options I saw before me.” Polina also shared a couple of stories when bearing the former Youth Delegate status gave her the opportunity to make her voice heard at high political tables. However, instead of settling for diplomacy or politics, she went for different experiences, from working at the Ministry of Health’s Strategic Funding Division, to eventually working for Boston Consulting Group (BCG). She does, however, let me in on a little secret, and tells me that she still has that dream of working for the UN.

Before she was a Youth Delegate, Polina also had the same insecurities that we all face every day in our jobs, at school, when making such life-changing decisions-like applying to become the next UN Youth Delegate. She tells me that in Israel, the runner-up is offered another position within the Israeli Mission to the UN and that she thought that the runner-up was actually much more competent than her for the job. “He was a couple of years older, he was super confident, he had a lot of experience and was a very nice person. And I remember spending the first couple of months in the position just thinking “I am screwing it so bad and I am waiting for them to call me any of these days now and tell me that they were sorry but I was not competent enough for that. And we have the other guy right here, so he can cover for you.” So I was waiting for this to happen.”

Then the mandate went by really fast and overall it turned out to be a fantastic experience for her. 

To all those who share the same insecurities, she addresses this message: “I think that my main takeaway from this is that a lot of times we don’t see if we’re good enough or not and there is nothing to lose. The best-case scenario is that you become a delegate and that’s amazing, you learn a lot, and sometimes you think you’re not competent enough to do it or you screw up really badly. And that’s okay because you are in a very supportive environment. Worst case scenario is that you don’t get selected and you learn a lot about the UN. You meet a lot of interesting people during the process of trying to get selected and that’s also great. Polina tells me that the mandate does not end after those 12 months, but you sort of continue to do related activities. Because people will still come up and speak to you about different issues and you are still in a position to influence or inspire them. Most importantly, she considers that sometimes it is easier to do something after you hand over the UN Youth Delegate cloak. “I volunteered at a women’s organization, and I am currently volunteering for a Russian-speaking Israeli organization, and I’m really using the tools that I got as a UN Youth Delegate to do that, making a difference in my community after my mandate was over because of all the things I learned during my mandate”.