Here we present stories of some young academicians who have found their way to Tartu University. We ask visiting students from Asian countries to share their experience of studying and living in Estonia. Likewise, we share stories of UT students who have gone abroad to Asian countries.
Iverson Ng - "A Hong Kongese crush on Europe"
When I woke up in Brussels, Europe was never the same again.
It was the last day of the EU-funded study trip to Brussels when Brexit came to realization in June 2016, sparking debates on the future of Europe as we sat at the breakfast nook in Saint Nicolas Hotel. We didn’t expect our meeting with officials at the headquarter of European External Action Service would conclude with such historical event. But it was already written. So did my unfinished journey in Estonia.My choice of studying in Estonia seems to be an unshakable destiny as I have a glimpse of the inexplicable past.
Two years ago, I had an exchange semester in Denmark as a student journalist, witnessing the biggest migrant crisis for decades to come. Six months later, I went to Europe again for a study programme on European affairs, followed by a week-long visit to Estonia to overlook my study options. And now, here I’m again.
The year of 2015 was the time when my ties with Europe became inseparable. I remembered it was a dream come true to travel around 21 European countries when I was an exchange student in Denmark, enjoying the greatest degree of freedoms while getting first-hand experiences in interviewing parliamentarians in Brussels. The exchange semester wasn’t just about leaving my trails from central Europe to the Balkans, stretching across the Scandinavian countries, but it also led me to a turning point in life–conducting a journalistic project in the occupied region of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
Since then, I couldn’t distance myself from what I saw in the occupied region as everything broke out after the end of Ukrainian revolution in 2014. While it toppled the previous government, hundreds of civilians wounded and ceased after three months of protests. When I came back to Hong Kong again in 2016, I found a missing piece of European puzzle which I left behind in the sole Baltic State that I didn’t visit among those 21 European countries–Estonia. I met an Estonian national from the University of Tartu as I was about to finish my bachelor degree.
Excited, I began to connect the dots to formulate my possible path to stay in Europe for good. So I took a comparative politics course about post-Communist countries in Europe which shed light on the most famous movement that restored the independence of Estonia–Singing Revolution. I also enrolled a training course to prepare for a simulation of the meetings of heads of states of the European Council to discuss the refugee crisis in Europe. That’s how I started to think about getting a Master degree in Europe.
With much surprise to those friends who heard about my travelling experience, I went to Estonia for the first time after the Brussels trip in 2016. My Estonian schoolmate showed me around Tallinn, Tartu, and Pōlva, giving me a glimpse of the most progressive post-Soviet country which brands itself as a Nordic state. Among all, Tartu was the only place which could offer me the most relevant program with the best conditions of living as a student–affordable, compact and tranquil (compared to Hong Kong, one of the most crowded cities on earth). I arranged a meeting with an academic staff who offered me much insight on the EU-Russia Studies. Then, I prepared to work in Hong Kong for a year before starting to apply for the MA program.
“That’s it,” I thought. I could imagine living in a city where 1/5 of residents are students, cash doesn’t flow as frequent as the flow of internet usage, and forests are meant to be covered by Wi-Fi. Everything is too good to be true.
So here I’m again. A Hong Kongese crush on Europe, immersing into an ocean of knowledge in European affairs and Russian foreign policies. Apart from traditional academic training on critical thinking, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies also provides a range of opportunities for political science students to plan for their future career paths, including development seminars which have a series of tailor-made coaching sessions for each student to cater their needs.
But the most valuable learning experience lies beyond any traditional setting of classrooms. With a class of students from 16 countries and five continents, there are more than lessons to learn from the peers. Our EU-Russia Studies class is truly global with remarkable stories from each of us, dwelling across the world with different backgrounds from journalism to social activism, not mentioning expertise in numerous academic fields. This is a match made in heaven.
“Could there be a better start of the new chapter of life than this?” I wondered.
I looked out of the window in the middle of the night, imagining the proudest history I was about to write for years to come. Perhaps, one day, when I wake up in the city of Tartu, the world would never be the same again.
Written by Iverson Ng, 28.09.17
The blog piece first appeared in the UT Blog: http://blog.ut.ee/a-hong-kongese-crush-on-europe/
Doing an Erasmus+ exchange in Asia: Andrew Whiteoak's experience in Taiwan
Andrew Whiteoak is an MA student at the University of Tartu. He is majoring in International Relations and Regional studies, with a special focus on Russia and an interest in nuclear deterrence. Therefore, it came as quite the surprise when Andrew announced that he will be flying nearly 8000km away from Tartu to do an exchange semester in Taipei.
As Andrew's exchange semester at National Chengchi University is now already behind him, we asked him to reflect on his time in Taiwan.
You spent your fourth semester of MA studies in Taiwan. Why Taiwan?
For an International Relations student, the opportunity to spend several months in Taiwan was an exciting prospect. The ‘Taiwan Issue’ does not receive much attention in Western media, and many people don’t know a great deal about its precarious international status. The chance to speak to scholars, fellow students and ordinary people on the ground was very appealing.
Under which program was the exchange organized? Was the application process complicated?
My programme was the Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility. As you might expect with any programme that involves generous funding, there is a fair amount of paperwork to get through. It isn’t especially complicated, but it will take some of your time, as you need to sign/scan/send several documents both internally and externally to the host university. However, the staff at Tartu’s Study Abroad Centre are very helpful and willing to help at every stage. A key bit of advice would be to get your travel docs sorted as early as possible.
Usually students go abroad to see a different country and culture. But you were already a foreign MA-degree seeking student in Tartu. Why did you decide to leave Estonia for a semester?
It wasn’t a long held ambition to study abroad as an already international student: I just saw the email listing the possibilities for my programme and thought, ‘why not?’. As great an environment as Tartu is for living and learning, the prospect of experiencing an entirely different culture and learning first-hand about Taiwan was difficult to resist.
Its been a few months since you returned. How do you look back to your time in Taiwan?
Very fondly. It passed by incredibly quickly. As I write it feels like no time since I was finalising my application a year ago. I learned a lot, had some great lecturers, met some fun and interesting people and saw nowhere near enough of beautiful Taiwan.
What were the largest contrasts compared to Estonia or Great Britain?
Public transport is excellent and very cheap in Taipei. That is definitely not the case in the UK, which is mostly privatised - go figure. Also, rubbish bins are notoriously tricky to find, but the streets are incredibly clean. On that note, refuse collections are carried out by workers driving musical garbage trucks. Like a British ice van, on hearing its tune, people scurry out of their apartment buildings to throw their rubbish in the back. There's a different tune for recycling too!
What did you enjoy most in Taiwan?
The food is up there: the fact it is so inexpensive to eat out was great. The default friendliness too. Even though average English language proficiency isn’t as high as in Estonia, locals always tried their best to help, utilising hand gestures or translation apps with varying degrees of success!
From an academic perspective I found issues surrounding collective memory, interpretations of history and national identity particularly interesting. The recent events in the United States surrounding controversial statues has echoes of the longstanding debate over what to do with representations of former dictator Chiang Kai-shek. Many statues have been removed, but not destroyed: it is still a sensitive issue, with large swathes of the KMT (the current main opposition party) still holding the former leader in high esteem.
What surprised you the most?
Possibly Taipei’s very healthy post-rock and shoegaze music scene, with several local bands regularly gigging at various alternative music venues in the city. Having the opportunity to catch live 90’s British-esque noise/dream pop once or twice a week was highly unexpected!
How would you compare studying at National Chengchi University and Tartu University?
Classes are a standard of three hours, punctuated by ten minute breaks on the hour signalled, a little oddly, by Big Ben-style chimes over the campus-wide PA system. Strangely, sleeping in class is not completely unacceptable as it would be in the UK or Estonia. One Taiwanese student suggested it showed you’d been working hard!
Unlike Tartu, NCCU is on a distinct campus, rather than being distributed around the city. Taipei is a sprawling metropolis with a population many times that of Estonia. Going out at night could be difficult to coordinate as the city is so vast. If you do make it out and you can afford a few drinks (an average beer might set you back €6, and by ‘average’ I mean the equivalent of A le Coq Premium!) you may end up at a KTV, or karaoke bar, which seems to be a very popular past time, and less in an ironic way like it is in the UK.
What was the most valuable thing that you learned? What did you gain from a semester abroad?
I think you always gain from visiting or living somewhere new, even if you have a terrible experience, you can at least take away future anecdote.
In Taiwan I especially enjoyed hearing the views of other students, both local and international. I got fascinating insights from people who had grown up in societies quite alien to my own and gained a far deeper understanding of Taiwan and its politics than I could have hoped for from afar.
I now have many contacts, both students and professors, who have said they are more than happy to help with any of my future studies. This is very reassuring as I begin to put together my thesis: knowing I have trustworthy, willing sources should I get stuck or need a local perspective for something i read in the news.
What would you say to other students considering a semester abroad?
It is as much about taking in life outside the classroom as it is inside. What can appear initially benign, such as the name of a street or a free handout at a museum can be quite significant. Just by being there, you’ll be learning by default, whether it’s noticing a cultural ritual on your walk home, such as burning fake money in the street, or seeing politically-divisive stickers and graffiti in a bar at 2am. So in short, just go for it!
Any recommendations to students going abroad? Something you wish you had been told beforehand?
Be aware of any host university bureaucracy: unlike Tartu, registering for courses can be quite cumbersome. Make sure you know all the deadlines for registering and dropping courses! While the minimum is 15 ECTS, it's s worth doing one or two extra courses if they interest you. Learning as much as you can about the host country from local experts is really rewarding.
I’d also say not to put off visiting that museum, national park or nearby temple because you think you have months to do it. It’s very easy to get bogged down in work toward the end of your exchange and you risk running out time. See as much as you can as soon as you can. Join clubs and societies if you can or use something like Couchsurfing events to find local hiking trips or attend language exchange meetings. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times!
PS: If you are interested doing a similar exchange in Asia, then there is still time to apply for the 2018 spring semester. You can apply to universities in the People's Republic of China, Republic of Korea, Japan, India and Israel. The deadlines are the 5th and 10th of October, depending on which program you apply to. Read more about it HERE.
Qiyun and Chi - working together with the Department of Geography and it's Smart City project
Sun Qiyun and Yuan Chi are exchange students from Shanghai University (People´s Republic of China). They have come to Tartu to partake in courses of the Urban Planning: Changing Cities and ICT module offered by the Department of Geography and to be a part of the department’s Smart City project.
I met with the young gentlemen to hear about their experience so far. At the time of our meeting Qiyun and Chi had only been in Tartu for around two weeks.
What is your first impression of Tartu and Estonia?
Qiyun: It is so cold here. (both laugh)
Chi: It is currently around 10 degrees in Shanghai.
How do you manage with the cold?
Qiyun: We just stay in the dormitory, except for classes. (both laugh again)
What do you study?
Chi: Back at home we are Masters students of Communication and Information Engineering.
Why did you decided to come to Estonia?
Qiyun: My supervisor at Shanghai University, Wan Wanggen, who is also the Director of Smart City Institute, has a cooperation with professor Rein Ahas*. He sent us here to do research work with professor Ahas and to set up further collaboration.
Chi: We also cherish this opportunity to get to know many people from different countries and to improve our English.
How would you compare the lectures in Tartu with those back in Shanghai?
Qiyun: There are fewer students in class and it is more active here. More participation is needed.
Chi: In Shanghai University, a course may have more than 30 students, but here some courses only have five students. There is also more conversation with the teacher. Because everything is in English and our major is not geography, it I can be quite difficult at times to express ourselves and to understand everything fully.
Qiyun: There is also more homework in Estonia.
Besides the weather, what has been the biggest difference between China and Estonia?
Qiyun: It is very crowded in Shanghai. In Tartu, the population density is much smaller and the air is fresh. It is very comfortable to buy groceries here as there are many supermarkets and few people. It takes a lot more time in Shanghai.
Chi: The city landscape is also different as the buildings are much smaller than in Shanghai.
Had you heard of Estonia before?
(a moment of awkward silence)
Both: No! (we all laugh)
Qiyun: We did not have much knowledge about Estonia beforehand, but many of our Chinese friends here have told us useful information about the country and how things are done around here.
What are your expectations for the 3 months?
Qiyun: We will first take part of the lectures and then do research together with the professor. Hopefully we can also visit some places, meet new people and to learn some English.
If suddenly another Chinese student needs to come to Tartu, what would be your one recommendation to him or her?
Qiyun: Bring more clothes!
Chi: You must take more clothes, it is so cold. You will also get more knowledge from the classes and have an opportunity to travel around.
Qiyun: I just want to add that you will have a good experience and meet many people of other European countries.
*A comment from professor Rein Ahas:
Director Wan Wanggen is an old associate of ours and we currently have joint research projects. For example, we are conducting research about mobile and social media based management of emergencies.
The people of Shanghai University Smart City Institute have great interest in our research and methodology. They focus more on computer science, whereas we deal with geographic applications.
We also want to improve our study-cooperation. Qiyun and Chi will be helping out with our Smart City project. One of our research projects focuses on the influence of job volatility in Tartu. We measure the movement of respondents through smartphones. They have the relevant computer science background and we need this input to analyse our large amount of data.
Written by Mart Veliste, 23.02.17