Cornell University

International Programs

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Student Profile

Interview with Polina Schwartzman, BS ILR '09

Tell me a little about yourself?

Polina SchwartzmanI was born about 200km from Kiev, Ukraine, in a town called Cherkasy and lived in the USSR until I was four when my parents decided to apply for a visa to the United States. In the USSR my parents were barred from a lot of activities because they were Jewish. When my parents decided to apply for the visa it was right before the fall of the Soviet Union and they thought there would be a lot of political disruption. As a minority (because Russians don't see us as "Russian" but rather they see us as minority Jews), my parents were afraid we would be targeted so we applied for refugee status in the US, which was a big risk for us to take. If for some reason we weren't accepted we would become "Refuseniks." They would take away our citizenship, passports, and the communist government would know we wanted to leave, which was bad because they were the ones who allocated all the jobs. But fortunately we were granted an exit visa and we immigrated to the US as refugees.  

How was your experience growing up as a Russian immigrant in the US?

Polina SchwartzmanMy first language is Russian and then when I came to the US I learned to speak English, even before my parents did. Having two identities and knowing two languages when I was growing up was difficult because I always just wanted to fit in, but eventually there was a turning point when I realized that knowing two languages fluently was pretty cool. Then I realized that I could use this international aspect of my identity to my advantage in my studies and for a career.  

How does having this dual Russian/American identity fit into your ILR career?

Coming into ILR I was really interested in the relationships and struggles between unions and management. Also I guess that because of my dual identity I am more sensitive to other people's situations having been an outsider myself at one point, so it is easy to relate to some of the more human concepts we learn about in ILR.  

Since I am interested in considering employment and labor issues from a more international perspective my personal background is a constant reminder that labor issues are not tied to one geographic area, but are interconnected.   

Last semester you worked for the HR department at Bear Stearns in London. How was that experience?

Polina SchwartzmanWell…I went to Bear Sterns for a credit internship last semester to gain a sense of what was happening in the international business world. As you probably know the core focus of the business wasn't doing so well, so the London branch was trying to expand the company into more European markets. Unfortunately Bear was acquired by JPMorgan because of issues tied to the American subprime mortgage crisis. 

While I was there, the most interesting thing was seeing Bear go through a merger process and considering what that means in terms of international HR. In the end it was really sad to see people laid off, but I guess it gave me a perspective on how important HR is and why ILR is so important for the workforce in these times of economic transition.

Did you ever get to use your Russian skills while working for Bear Stearns?

Right before Bear collapsed they were recruiting analysts with a Russian background so that they could expand into the Russian market. For me that was really cool because I got to use what was particular about my international experience in order to contribute to the organization. Sorry, but I can't be that specific because of my confidentiality agreements.

Do you have any interest in returning to the Ukraine or Russia to work?

I kind of want to go back but there seems to be a lot of instability there now. It would also be hard to go back and find an interesting work opportunity there for me at this point, but after grad school I might try to reconnect and explore some type of multi-national business and law connection for my career. I think it would definitely be interesting to live there to see what my life might have been like if I hadn't emigrated.

Conducted by Blair Lapres, BS ILR '09

- Interview with Polina Schwartzman, BS ILR '09

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