Natalia Zaytseva Talks on Student Exchange, Studying at Two Universities, and Sporty Finns
Natalia Zaytseva is a fourth-year student of the 'Law' programme. She went on an academic exchange to Finland in autumn 2020. Studying at the University of Helsinki, she got a clear understanding that there are no problems she would not solve. Natalia told the editorial board what sights she saw and what impression a 'demo version' of graduate studies made on her.
What made you decide to go on the exchange semester?
This was the second time I had gone on an academic mobility programme. I went to Italy when I was a third-year student, and I loved it a lot. So I thought that having one exchange experience only would not be enough.
Besides, I would like to change my major and try to get a Master's programme abroad after graduation. So I was curious about other professional fields. Studying abroad, you can deepen your knowledge in your major as well as in the interdisciplinary fields.
I decided to go to Finland because the list of universities and countries corresponding to my field was not long. As I know, law students rarely participate in student mobility programmes. When I was inspecting the list of universities, I noticed that the University of Helsinki had a vacant slot for a law student. So I applied there.
How did your study change?
There is a long period between the application process and the start of the mobility. Your syllabus might change during this period. This is what happened to me at the beginning of the academic year at HSE St. Petersburg. The School of Law introduced Land Law as a mandatory course. It is hardly possible to replace subjects like this at foreign universities because they do not teach Russian law there. Eventually, we agreed that I take this course remotely.
Classes at the University of Helsinki were online, so I combined them with HSE's courses. When the courses of both universities were overlapping, I was forced to negotiate with lecturers, who would not always make a concession. One lecturer in Finland did not let skip the classes even if you had a valid excuse, but the majority had a more tolerant attitude. In the end, I did well in my exams, and no problems occurred.
Classes at the University of Helsinki were in Finnish, and I had to choose master's level courses because they were taught in English. Besides, I had never dealt with European law, so it took twice as long to prepare for seminars.
I had even more lectures in Finland. We were given the materials, and then we were given tasks for individual work. We had to sit exams at the end of the course. We had to write essay exams, which differed from what we had at my home university. At hSE, we mainly do practice-oriented tasks where we solve cases.
Besides, the courses at the University of Helsinki were shorter and more intensive. This approach to studying was new to me, and I felt emotional pressure. I felt tense because of the hectic pace of studying.
What is the difference between Russian and international students?
I think there is a bigger focus on individual work in Finland. You will never witness a situation when your groupmate says, 'Let's do this task together and help each other'. Everyone works solo, and you feel more responsibility. There is no one to count on, which means that you should prepare for classes exceptionally well.
In general, I find some resemblance between Russians and Finns. But at the same time, I did not really get to know Finns, because they are quite private people. For example, if you are having a meal in the canteen, they will never sit down next to you to join you for lunch. If you do so yourself, they will consider it rude: coming to the canteen alone means that you want to be alone for a while. Besides, they do not often come up to chat, so I made more friends among exchange students.
Name three things that surprised you the most
There are many public spaces in Helsinki where people can study and have a good time. St. Petersburg does not have many places like these. I liked the Central Library in Helsinki — it is impressive.
I think that Finland is a very advanced country. Here, even a student canteen caters for vegetarians and regularly updates a menu. I found it very extensive. Unfortunately, it is quite a challenge to find good-quality varied vegetarian food at a reasonable price.
Finns adhere to a healthy lifestyle. I frequently saw people running or riding a bike at various marathons. Also, there are a lot of people with their families walking in the parks. Besides, almost every dorm has a gym and sauna with free access, and many students ride bicycles instead of using public transport.
What difficulties did you have at first?
I came to Finland a bit later than expected, so I missed the welcome day. It was a student meeting, during which they had a city tour. It was possible to meet other students, but I was not able to join.
There were no more live events after, and we were studying remotely. I was sitting in the solitude of my room and did not know how to make friends. It felt lonely due to the pandemic restrictions. But then I started getting to know people in the library, canteen, and things got better.
What did you spend your money on?
Most of the money I spend on housing. Unfortunately, in Finland, as in many other European countries, they do not provide students with dormitories. Even if they do, it is costly.
I also found myself in a tricky housing situation: the service I used for renting an apartment provided me with a room without any furniture. I was forced to bring an air mattress and then buy the furniture I needed. Apartments are assigned among students according to their requests. However, you get the accommodation offer only once, and you have no choice but agree because you cannot replace the apartment you had been assigned.
In Finland, all services: cellular communication, Internet, transport, replacement of keys — almost twice as much as in Russia. I had not known about it and got very disappointed when I faced it. Therefore, I would recommend taking your budget planning very seriously!
Two places to visit in Helsinki
This is one of the eldest and most famous parks in Helsinki. It is located in the very city centre. You can have a really great time there: visit an overlooking the gulf cafe and climb up to the observation deck, which offers a breathtaking view of the city.
Central Library Oodi
Even though the universities are closed because of distance learning, it was allowed to visit libraries. Oodi stands in the very city centre. The library is open for everyone: locals and tourists are welcome. It was quite convenient, because it works all week, even on weekends.
The library is multifunctional. It has not only reading areas but also co-working spaces and various workshops. For example, there is a zone for sewing and printing pictures, a game centre, a cafe, and much more. Besides, it has a very modern design, and for this reason, it is one of Helsinki's main attractions.
What did you learn from your study abroad experience?
Now I feel that no problems I would not solve. I used to solve complex bureaucratic issues and tried to make new friends while being in very difficult circumstances. In general, these moments were some sort of challenge, but it was interesting to deal with them.
For me, academic mobility is a demo version of studying abroad. I learned many new things, which I find useful for applying to master's programmes abroad. This experience gave me an understanding of which direction I should move in next.
If you are thinking about going on academic mobility, I recommend you to think about your goal. Take a look at the most useful courses in advance, check if they are taught at the university you want to go to. Examine the prices and get ready to gain your own unique experience.
Prepared by Dina Vasina,
a third-year student of the programme 'Sociology and Social Informatics'.