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'Going on a Mobility Helped Me to Know More About Myself': Anna Kostrova on Semester in Czech Republic

Anna Kostrova is a fourth-year student enrolled in the 'Sociology and Social Informatics' programme. In the autumn of 2021, she left for Masaryk University in Czech Republic under a student mobility programme. In this interview, Anna shared her impressions on studying abroad with the HSE News Service.

From Anna Kostrova’s personal archive

From Anna Kostrova’s personal archive

Why did you decide to participate in the mobility programme?

I have always wanted to know what it is like to study in another country. I think that student mobility is like a demo version for someone who is planning to do a Master's abroad—it shows you what to expect before taking up a more serious step.

I also wanted to overcome my inner fears. I have always been afraid to speak in English despite the fact that I am studying in an English-taught programme in 'Sociology and Social Informatics'. Having been immersed in an international environment where everyone speaks English I was forced to finally start speaking the language.

But this semester abroad was not all about pushing myself outside my comfort zone. I also met amazing people all over the world and got a chance to truly explore the culture of the Czech Republic.

How did you get into the programme?

Well, first of all, I applied with a portfolio and a motivation letter. By the time I applied, I had a high GPA, teaching assistantship, and one published scientific article. I also participated in various educational and extracurricular projects.

However, it seems to me that the admissions managers paid more attention to my motivation letter rather than to my portfolio. Actually, I think the former is the best way to present yourself. My rules of thumb are the following. I put a quick self-introduction in the first paragraphs—this helps the admissions managers to see my motivation before getting to details. For instance, I wrote about how I became interested in sociology, and how I came across the educational programme at Masaryk University. Besides, I studied beforehand a list of courses taught on this programme in order to understand what knowledge and skills I would get from that. In motivation letters of this kind it is important to prove you are the one to go on the mobility (mention your specific goals and interests), and write why you have chosen this particular university, how this programme will help in your academic studies or professional career.

What difficulties did you face?

It may sound cheesy, but I was that rare person who did not face any difficulties at all during the mobility abroad. Perhaps, it went so smoothly because I had all my travel documents prepared in advance. My advice would be to start collecting all the necessary documents as soon as possible, as well as checking in which city the consulate of the country you are planning to go is located.

This will help you get a visa almost immediately after receiving an invitation from the university. With everything else, it’s better to stay in contact with your programme’s study office and the student mobility support department. My visa was ready in two weeks—yeah, that fast! It was also easier for me because I live in St. Petersburg—there is a Czech consulate here, so I did not have to travel too far. But for those who are not from St. Petersburg, it is better to take some extra time to get to the consulate.
Getting insurance was the only difficulty I faced. The thing is there is only one company left in the Czech Republic that can issue insurance for a temporary stay. I bought my insurance from another company without knowing about new regulations coming into force. Fortunately, everything ended well. I had bought the insurance before the new rules went into effect. So it is wise to have your finger on the pulse in relation to the latest news of the country where you will spend the next six months.

How is the training organised, and what is the difference between studying at Masaryk University and in HSE?

Well, during the entire semester I attended in-person classes. The only exception were classes by professors from Austria. During the new coronavirus restrictions, they could not come to the Czech Republic, so we had to follow their classes online.

The start of the training at Masaryk University starts later than at HSE: around the end of September. So this gave us some extra time to attend course presentations and sign up for the ones we liked.

It turned out that the semester was much shorter than in HSE. Do they manage to give enough material during this time? Actually, yes. This is one of the differences between HSE and Masaryk University. For example, when studying sociology, within the framework of one subject, we study literally everything related to it. If this is a data analysis discipline, we simultaneously study social network analysis, methods, and factor analysis. At Masaryk University, things work differently—you will more likely find a separate course dedicated to each specific topic. As for me, focusing on narrow areas makes it easier to delve into the study material.

All in all, it seems to me that studying at HSE is more difficult! Masaryk University has a different grading system: you can either pass an exam or hand in a couple of homework assignments, and that's it. At HSE, the workload is much higher. Every week you need to hand over some assignments, read scientific texts. During the semester in the Czech Republic, I lost the habit of preparing hard for each and every class.

What surprised you the most about the Czech Republic?

It seems to me that the Czech Republic is similar to Russia in many ways. Listening to Czech people speaking, I heard many words similar to Russian, since both languages belong to the same root of Slavic languages. 

The only cultural thing I noted is that in the Czech Republic supermarkets close early, around nine in the evening. When you work or study late, it is sometimes impossible to have a normal dinner. Say, you need to buy everything you need in advance. But I was saved by vending machines in the hostel.

What helped you adapt to a new environment?

Well, most of all, other international students made me feel welcome. At the beginning of the mobility, it is definitely worth visiting the orientation week for students to get to know everyone. Together with new acquaintances, it allowed me to explore the city or even the country. It was also a huge plus that most of my peers spoke English fluently.

My social circle in the Czech Republic was pretty multinational. During the mobility, I managed to live in two different dormitories. This allowed me to meet students from different countries. I lived together with people from Vietnam, then Morocco. I also managed to find a common language with Croats, Albanians, Slovaks, Poles and many others. Be prepared to meet students coming from all over the world! I think that a student’s social circle depends on the dormitory where they reside.

Have you had time to travel around the country?

Of course. I managed to travel around the Czech Republic and visited other European countries as well. There are a lot of small towns in the Czech Republic. It is difficult to single out the best one, because they are all unique and beautiful.

Znojmo, a city on a hill near Brno, made the biggest impression on me. It is an insanely beautiful and green city, boasting a rich history. There you can see old castles and churches. It's a pleasure to go for a walk there! 

In the centre of Brno, there is a huge park where you can feed deer and boars with carrots. Also, from Brno you can reach Vienna and Bratislava by taking an hour and a half-long train ride!

How has your monthly budget changed since moving to the Czech Republic?

I will start with the accommodation, which formed the biggest part of my expenses. Dormitories in the Czech Republic are more expensive than those of St. Petersburg – HSE. About 11-15 thousand rubles a month.

Food expenses are exactly the same as in St. Petersburg. For example: in Russia, I used to spend about 6-10 thousand rubles on supermarket food per month. In the Czech Republic, some products are even cheaper than in Russia, others are about the same. For example, chicken is cheaper there.

I spent about 10-15 thousand rubles on travels. This is taking into account the fact that I managed to travel to several countries by train, often with an overnight stay.

How did mobility change you? 

Going through such an experience makes it difficult to remain the same. Even before the trip, I had been told that the new environment and acquaintances will expand my inner personality—it is often said that in Europe you cease to feel internal restrictions.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, I didn't feel it. While travelling in Europe, I constantly thought about whether everything was fine with my documents, whether there were new restrictions in the country.
But something has changed in me. My pace of life in the Czech Republic has slowed down. I enjoyed every moment, but at the same time I managed to do everything according to my studies. For me, mobility is an immersion in oneself. Thanks to this experience, I began to better understand my desires, reconsidered my values, and overcame my fears.