Meet Smriti and Moneera: young researchers exploring the impact of COVID-19

The UNESCO and UNESCO Chairs Youth as Researchers (YAR) initiative in response to COVID-19 was designed to be a six-month-long venture. As with many things pandemic-related, the project stretched and grew to new heights, resulting in a nearly two-year commitment from youth. We talked to Smriti Khemka (India), a YAR Youth Researcher, and Moneera Yassien (Sudan), a YAR Youth Steering Committee Member, to better understand how this initiative has changed their perspectives.
Meet Smriti and Moneera: young researchers exploring the impact of COVID-19

In 2020, young people from around the world voluntarily joined teams of like-minded peers to make a difference in an otherwise chaotic time. Many youth, such as Smriti, joined for this reason, but to also meaningfully occupy their time. As Smriti explains, “Because the pandemic had just begun…I had a lot more free time…I had enough time to do my PhD and do some other work…[YAR] was going to be an interesting avenue to explore and develop my ideas [for my PhD].

For Moneera, the project was not only monumental in addressing the pressing global crisis, but also for youth engagement itself: “For the first time, I genuinely felt that I [was] involved as a young person in a UN project… the project is led by the vision of young people,” highlighting UNESCO’s leadership in meaningfully engaging global youth.

The research field needs a refresher and [YAR] could be that refresher, especially in policy spheres because research and policy [are] about reflecting human lives.

This opportunity, new to the UN system and to young people, ended up leading to a unique capacity building opportunity for YAR participants. Smriti explains: “YAR gave me the opportunity to explore the impact of COVID-19 while it was happening…never before had research occurred during something that was ongoing, so it was interesting to see how the experiences of young people were happening and changing at the same time.

Moneera, who came to the project with more of a coordination role, has previous research experience herself. She reflects on how she thinks that UNESCO and the UNESCO Chairs are changing the research process for the better through the implementation of this program: “Young researchers are left behind…you have to establish the regular researcher path…it’s not the right way…because as we have seen from the YAR experience, valuable insights came out of youth-led research.” Smriti agrees: “When you apply to anything, it always says you need experience, but because of this [YAR] platform, it was so much easier to interact with [intergovernmental organizations].

To achieve the solutions-based focus, it was essential that the results and recommendations from the initiative be shared at the policy level. With that in mind, two policy-sharing sessions were orchestrated for the youth researchers. The first focused on individual project outcomes was conducted with success in the fall of 2021. Most recently, a final high-level policy sharing session was conducted where youth representatives shared collective project recommendations to policy officials. Young people from around the world were in direct conversation with policy makers from around the world. The idea itself was unprecedented, but so was much of 2020 and 2021.

It was very nice to see youth talking about their own issues because it felt more relatable, even if it was in a different part of the world.

While lessons were learned at the sessions, youth researchers shined at the opportunity to represent their voices to officials and to each other. This meeting was a chance for youth researchers to see their projects, recommendations, and discussions come to life. Moreover, it paved the way to open additional opportunities to these youth researchers by giving more visibility to the program and the hard work of the program participants.

For Smriti and Moneera, one such opportunity included the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum, which occurred a few weeks after the Policy Conference. The Forum provided a platform for young people to engage in a dialogue with Member States and other actors on concrete actions to respond to COVID-19. Smriti spoke on a panel that amplified youth perspectives on the future of education (SDG4), while Moneera spoke on partnerships for the goals (SDG17), drawing on youth expertise and youth perspectives. For Smriti, “It was so many different perspectives coming together in one place…You always read studies about these researchers and organizations, but it was very nice to see youth talking about their own issues because it felt more relatable, even if it was in a different part of the world.

Through her YAR experience, Smriti also presented about the impact of COVID-19 on school closures in South Asia at the Comparative and International Education Society Conference and wrote a special focus chapter about youth responses to COVID-19. “YAR has been a lifechanging experience in terms of my professional development because it gave me a lot more opportunities than just one YAR,” Smriti explains.

This is a testament to UNESCO and the UNESCO Chairs fulfilling one of the main goals of YAR initiatives: capacity building. After this program, young researchers are using the skills they strengthened through the project as they continue their journey beyond YAR to influence future research and policies.

YAR High-Level Policy Conference - Impact of COVID-19 on Youth
COVID-19 - Youth As Researchers Initiative

Youth As Researchers (YAR) global initiative on COVID-19

The Youth As Researchers (YAR) global initiative on COVID-19 connects and engages with young people to conduct research on the impacts of COVID-19 on young people and the responses young people have implemented to tackle these. UNESCO’ Social and Human Sciences Programme and the UNESCO Chairs at the National University of Ireland Galway and Penn State University lead a consortium of youth-led or youth-related actors to support the research through training, mentoring and coordination.