Chevening’s 13

Thirteen Georgian hopefuls are on their way to the UK as you read this, financed by Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to continue their graduate studies as a part of a long-running and overwhelmingly successful, on a global scale, Chevening Scholarship program. In the last 25 years, over 250 scholars from Georgia have benefited from it; a number which would likely have been even higher had the winners not had a tendency to drop out at the very last moment. This year, for example, the financing was in place to cover 18 scholarships, but Georgia lost several spots when, even after activating the reserves, they could produce only 13 people ready and willing to go. On a positive note, we have interviewed twelve of them, and they are every bit as deserving as one would imagine: bright, talented, eager to learn, and bringing their life stories and experiences to the table.

Ninutsa (Nino) Nanitashvili will be studying Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics and Political Science, having found her true calling in “bridging tech with social good”. The 26-year-old, who has earned a B.A. in Sociology and Mass Communications as well as an M.A in Public Policy, has managed to build a network in the budding startup ecosystem in Georgia, creating a team of like-minded people, and is not afraid to dream big. The main challenge she identifies, and hopes to get tools to tackle, is achieving commercial sustainability in the projects she’s involved in. A self-proclaimed cheerful workaholic, Ninutsa manages to balance her workload and social life with the help of the robust support system of parents, siblings and friends. Now that the LSE will be adding studies to her already overflowing plate, her husband and biggest cheerleader is leaving his job in Georgia and relocating to London to stand by her.

Michael (Misho) Golijashvili is 26, too, but his life path is distinctly different. Born in Akhalgori, he joined the thousands of IDPs when he was too young to understand what was happening, as the family fled to Tbilisi. Perhaps the feeling of helplessness and inability to change anything on an individual level that he describes as his biggest fear and driving force, is what pushed him into a military career. A 4-year degree in West Point Academy instilled discipline and values of “duty, honor and country”, as Misho explains in somewhat scripted phrases – one gets the sense that he is repeating the points made many times before – to him, by him. His field is Intelligence and Securities Studies at King’s College, London, so we talk of the upcoming studies and the security field in Georgia where he hopes to work one day. Since Misho is the first male Chevener whom I get to interview, I ask about his take on the gender composition of the group: 10 females, 3 males. He says he’d be comfortable with any ratio, as long as it is merit-based, he says in a straightforward manner.

The UK Embassy-provided demographic stats show that over the years, an average of 72% of the Chevening applicants have been female, with males slightly boosted for the winning, up to 35%. I found it perplexing: where are all these brilliant women in Georgia’s public life? Why don’t we see more of them in top positions, both in the government and in private corporations? That is the question I ask all of the class 2019/20, and the answers go along the same lines: women in Georgia are more driven and geared toward self-development. Tiko Kurdghelashvili, 33, who holds a Ph.D in English Philology, the highest academic rank among the group, mentions that at the interview stage, in April, most of the male applicants have yet to select three universities, as required by the Program. For a Kaspi native who is heading to Birmingham to study Special Education Management, this is a lapse in organizational skills. Tiko won the scholarship on her second try, but last year’s setback only served to increase her enthusiasm and motivation. Finding her way in a field that is barely supported by the Ministry of Education, misunderstood and stigmatized by parents and students alike, she laments not having sufficient knowledge to deal with autism, cerebral palsy, PTSD (post-2008 war) and other conditions that she has come across, or helped fellow teachers with. Setting high standards for herself and constantly striving to improve, Tiko is sure to absorb every bit that the university program will provide.

Two Cheveners who hail from Borjomi, Mariam Chaduneli and Ana Beridze, have picked LLM programs in Scotland: Innovation, Technology and Law at Edinburgh, and Environmental Law at Dundee, respectively. Ana will suspend her LLM in Business Law at Free University for a chance to study environmental regulations and help shape relevant policies in Georgia upon return. Mariam leaves behind her full-time work at the Ministry of Internal Affairs to concentrate on cybercrime and data protection, approaching studies with the same impeccable professionalism and work ethics as her role model, Roger Federer.

Mariam will be joined in Edinburgh by the youngest in the group, Koka Kapanadze, who is set to study Public Policy. The 23-year-old Tbilisi native’s work experience revolves around Parliamentary Committees, covering issues from sexual harassment and domestic violence to labor policy and mediation. Koka plans to concentrate on labor rights in his thesis, and to change parental leave regulations in Georgia, citing a “very selfish prospective, as a future father”. His biggest champion, confidante and friend, his older sister has been a powerful influence, impacting Koka’s views through sacrifices she had to make in her career in order to raise children. Unlike many of his peers, he doesn’t go to the “making an impact” or “raising awareness” clichés when asked about his biggest achievement: instead, Koka recalls saving a random person’s life by performing CPR.

A valedictorian graduate of GAU, with Quantitative Finance under her belt, Ana Bakuridze, 25, would like to make an impact, too, but “not on the scale of being the first person on Mars”: she’d be happy to have her own securities brokerage firm in 10-15 years. Until then, this bubbly Batumi native would try her hand at NBG, Georgia’s Central bank, writing regulations and developing international markets. That’s after she gets a Finance Degree at the University of Manchester, of course.

If you’ve been following the Facebook page of the UK Embassy, you’d notice that the photos of the September 3rd farewell dinner show only two male winners. The third, 29-year-old Beka Phutkaradze of Batumi, is already in London, as his Master’s in Finance started mid-August. Unlike most of the Georgian Cheveners, he doesn’t need much adapting to life abroad, having lived in Poland for several years. In that time, Beka completed not only his undergrad and graduate degrees in Finance at Kozminsky University, but also three-plus years of experience working for the local branch of Citibank. Upon return, he hopes to transform state-owned enterprises into modern corporations with western values and vision.

While London and Edinburgh have multiple members of the Georgian class of 2019/20 descending on them, Nino Gorgiashvili is the only one heading to Cardiff, Wales. The sociable 28-year-old, hailing from the small Lagodekhi village of Apeni by the way of Rustavi, has a B.A. in Business Administration and Finance, but chose Computing and IT Management for her Master’s degree. Her long-term goal is to improve online educational programs and ensure their accessibility in rural areas, especially remote ones, such as Racha, the region from which her ancestry is traced. Nino knows of the educational opportunities being vastly different not just up in the mountains where villages are cut off due to harsh weather conditions for several months a year, but also in rural valleys, having spent most of her childhood and early schoolyears in the village. Lucky for her, her dad’s job took them to Rustavi when Nino was 14, and she got more opportunities which led to undergrad studies at the Georgian-American University. Ambitious, but “not too much, or else you’ll overestimate yourself” and amicable, Nino doesn’t find the prospect of spending a year away from family for the first time all that daunting. In fact, she plans to bring a flavor of Georgia to Wales, introducing culture via culinary exploits, with staples like khinkali and khachapuri!

The oldest in the group at 41, Gvantsa Meladze is a seasoned professional with a very unique story of passion, pioneering and patriotism; her achievements span from being a managing partner of the Regional Development Association and Export Agency to consulting both the private sector and the government on policy issues. With an academic background in Economics and an MBA from Caucasus University, Gvantsa is seeking a degree in Comparative Public Policy at Edinburgh: her goal being to move beyond the economic targets and policies driven by the electoral cycle. She plans to dive into the methodology that is geared towards sustainable, inclusive social policies; to have the voices of the marginalized population heard in a meaningful way. Gvantsa’s two kids, aged 14 and 9, initially questioned her decision, but she is true to herself, stepping out of her comfort zone, riding that development curve – not for the first time, either. In 1998, at the peak of the brain drain from Georgia, she came back from the USA, leaving her family there, readjusted to the life of hardships, and interned at a computer school, getting into website design before it was cool – all that at the age of 19! Biggest achievement? “Being happy with who I am,” she says.

Likewise, Natia Zoidze, 28, has come to the conclusion that “you cannot please everyone, nor should you”, and is not seeking external validation. This is no small feat in the culture where women apply to high-level positions only when they’re significantly overqualified, and if accepted, have to work twice as hard to prove their worth. Natia will take on an LLM in Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University in London, to ensure that those who haven’t been afforded the full protection by the state, who have been persecuted for gender identity or religious affiliation, get justice. Intelligent and compassionate, she is pragmatically content with the incremental changes, and plans to roll her sleeves up for NGO work once again upon her return from the UK.

While most of the Cheveners I’ve spoken to learned of their applications’ success back in June, Keti Vashagashvili got her Final Acceptance Letter literally the day before we sat down for an interview. She knew she was in reserve, but had very little hope left by August 17th, when she got a congratulatory email and realized there was little time to tie all the loose ends. With an M.A in Media Management and Journalism from GIPA and years of professional experience at various TV stations, Keti has filmed and directed several successful projects, from a Channel 9 documentary on the tough life of a homeless mother to a US Embassy-financed short on urban development. It comes as no surprise that she will study Journalism and Documentary Practice at Sussex, with plans to return and cover a wide range of topics that her NGO is involved in. A classical self-doubting perfectionist, this 37-year old Tbilisi native gets encouragement from her family – her husband is a feature filmmaker and understands her need to develop professionally. As Keti’s biggest fan, her 9-year-old son, put it, “all kids need successful mothers!”

A diverse group as they are, the Chevening class of2019/20 is united in one goal: to get a quality education and return to Georgia with skills needed for the country’s progress and development. We wish them the best, and hope to follow up with them in the fall of 2020.

By Kyra Devdariani

09 September 2019 16:16