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How to Make the Most of a Double-Degree Programme

Ekaterina Zhizhina, student of the Master's programme 'Business and Politics in Modern Asia', shared her impressions of Ca' Foscari University (Italy) and the specifics of studying on a double-degree programme.

How to Make the Most of a Double-Degree Programme

Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Zhizhina

Following an interview with two students who took part in the double-degree programme under the agreement between HSE University and Ca' Foscari University, master's student Ekaterina Zhizhina shares her thoughts on the exchange programme.

— Why did you take part in the double-degree programme?

— It was interesting to me to look at the educational process in another country and get to know another culture. Ca' Foscari is one of the best universities in Italy, which was a decisive factor for my choice.

— What is the educational process like in Italy? What courses did you take? 

— At Ca' Foscari University, I had to choose five courses: three electives and two core courses. For example, in the first semester, I opted for Marketing in China, Finance in China and Business Law in China. In the second semester, there were only two core courses on China left, and I additionally took a course on Italian. To be honest, during the non-language classes, we did not look at China in particular, but studied processes in general. But we had several examples and tasks related to China.

— Which courses were the most useful and interesting? Why?

— For me, the course 'Finance in China' was useful because we studied how a company's budget is made and calculated, as well as hedging and financial basics. I also liked the course 'Business Law in China', as we were taught the foundations of international law, which will come in handy no matter what country you work with. We had a very helpful textbook on contract drafting. I am sure I will refer to it multiple times during my work.

Personally, I would not recommend the course in Marketing—even my Italian group-mates were not very happy with it. Firstly, we had to buy a very expensive textbook, and it had to be the most recent edition. Secondly, they taught us rather basic and obvious things.

— How is the educational process at Ca' Foscari different from HSE University?

— We should discuss teaching foreign languages separately, as all Italian universities use this system. The main problem is that there are too many people in the language study groups. For example, 300 people could attend a lecture on the Chinese language, but there were also small groups of 20 people. That is why if you do not sit at the front, the lecturer may not notice you or ask you anything until the end of your studies—here, everything depends on your self-study. For instance, during the course on the Theory of the Chinese Language, homework was optional. There was a task to record a video, but we did not have to do it. Unfortunately, there were not as many exercises to consolidate the material and practice various syntagms as we have at Russian universities.

In addition, we were divided into small groups of ten people for the practical classes in Chinese. We played games, showed sketches, and prepared public performances. It was focused not on political, economic or business vocabulary, but on making us feel comfortable in front of an audience. This was very useful to me, as I had never done anything like it in class.

Moreover, HSE University has the Chinese club, where you can practice Chinese in the speaking club '麻辣茄子'. Unfortunately, at Ca' Foscari University, there are no such activities or clubs where you can get to know other students who study Chinese.

In general, the educational process at Ca' Foscari University is as follows: you attend classes and lectures, but you either have no interim assignments at all or have one test on the whole course or several small group tasks which you do not have to present to your group-mates. At HSE University, it was different: there were more presentations, team work and tasks, so we had to work constantly during the whole semester. Ca' Foscari University has some courses with a similar approach, but I did not take them.

It is also essential to mention different approaches to the work of the study offices. In Italy, at the beginning, it took them a long time to answer us, and they might have forgotten to sign some documents. This never happened at HSE University; everyone answered quickly and efficiently. So, those who are going to Italy should understand this and always monitor the process. The same thing might happen with your dormitory or thesis supervisor.

I can single out another peculiarity—the size of groups. There were 80 people in our group, but due to the fact that each of us had an individual schedule, I did not see the majority of my group-mates at all.

— Can you learn Italian for free?

— Yes, but it is better to do everything in advance so as not to miss out. In August, you will get a letter offering you to register for a course in Italian from scratch. I did not notice it and was not able to sign up. At the beginning, there will be a lot of people in the group, but later on, those who are not interested will leave. The classes were hard for some people, as the lecturers used the communicative method and taught everything in Italian. Moreover, the Italian classes lasted for about two or two and a half hours with a short break of a few minutes. The course was helpful and interesting. If I did not understand something, I searched for explainer videos on the internet.

After completing the basic course, you will have to pay for the next level, but if you skip one (for example, after A1, you move not to A2, but to B1 immediately), the course is free.

— How did the exams go? How long did the examination period last?

— In Italy, the examination period starts after all the classes are finished and lasts up to the middle of February. You have two attempts for each exam. Even if you fail both of them, you can easily retake the exam in summer. The Italians do not worry much—they can completely skip the exam in winter if they simply do not want to go. We had consecutive translation in Chinese as an exam, while we had written tasks for all the other courses.
In addition, Italy has got a very interesting grading system. They have a 30-point scale where 18 is the minimum. If you get 17 points, you will have to retake the exam.

— What is the process for writing and presenting a thesis?

— You choose a thesis supervisor via the platform. You have to contact them or visit during office hours (by making an appointment in advance using a special form). In general, at the beginning, you discuss a thesis topic with a supervisor, then you upload the name and a summary to the platform. There were cases when thesis supervisors refused to accept students due to the limited number of places—you should take that into account and contact them as early as possible. I recommend personal meetings, as answers can take a long time via email.

— What advice would you give to students taking part in the programme?

— First of all, I would recommend figuring out what you want from this internship. Set specific goals you want to reach, because the time will fly by very quickly. My eight months passed swiftly. I would also advise them to actively meet Chinese people there, both among the students and the local residents. For instance, during one group class in Finance, I met a Chinese student who later introduced me to her Chinese friend. We often talked and went for walks, so I spoke Chinese more often than Italian. The girls showed me Chinese places, cafes, and recommended Chinese dishes.
Do not be afraid to make new acquaintances—people in Italy are very open-minded, so you can meet people in bars or your dormitory. Moreover, I recommend that you find Italian students who came to Russia via the double-degree programme. In St Petersburg, I was lucky to get to know students from Ca' Foscari University who helped me a lot later; they introduced me to their friends, who I contacted about many issues.

— How did you prepare for the trip? What do you have to do after arriving in Italy?

— I obtained a visa through a visa application centre, but you can do it directly via the consulate, which is cheaper. You can only make an appointment at the consulate by phone call. You need to find the list of documents on the website of a visa application centre and prepare by yourself.
I flew through Turkey on Turkish airlines. It all went great. You should think in advance about how much luggage you're bringing, because a lot will depend on your place of residence. But if you live on an island in Venice itself and not over the bridge (the Mestre area), you should know that you can only get there by boat and it will be difficult to transport heavy luggage. When the university sends you a 'buddy-list', you can consult your buddy in advance about the best way to get to your destination.

— What about accommodation? What options are there in dormitories? How much does it cost?

— I lived in a dormitory located in Venice itself and paid 362 euros per month, including utilities. There are two accommodation options: in Venice itself or in the Mestre area, which is over the bridge. The prices are lower there—you can find a relatively cheap flat, but you need to be very lucky, especially if you search for it online. You should also understand that all utility bills are your responsibility. In Venice, Ca' Foscari University has two dormitories. I lived in a double room in the dormitory for international students. I got there through the university's Housing Office, but I think I was very lucky, as they did not respond to many students.

To my mind, it is better to live in Venice and in a dormitory—there are cafes, gyms, study rooms and a lot more opportunities to meet people. If you rent a flat by yourself, in my opinion, you will not experience such an atmosphere. Moreover, you should remember that in spite of the lower cost of living, you will have to commute from the Mestre area to the university by bus every day, so you will have to buy a travel pass.

— What about other expenditures?

— There are cafes at Ca' Foscari University, or rather special dining halls for students where a set lunch (which includes three dishes) costs about 4–7 euros. If you cook, it will be much cheaper because near the dormitory, there are often fairs where products are very affordable. As for shops, before February, I spent about 15 euros, then a little more—20 euros. This was enough for me for about a week. But I did not limit myself; I attempted to try everything. The Italians often go to drink Aperol, which costs about three or so euros. They also buy snacks to go with it: small sandwiches called cicchetti, which cost around one or two euros. You will spend about three euros on breakfast. A typical Italian breakfast is cappuccino and a croissant. As for restaurants, you can expect to spend about 10–15 euros for a nice meal.

— What kind of budget should double-degree students have?

— You should put aside money for accommodation (about 350 euros a month). You should also calculate how much money you plan to spend on food and transport (a travel pass costs 27 euros), and consider the trips to Treviso in the second semester (it costs 4–7 euros there and back). Of course, you should take into account how much you are going to travel. If you plan to travel around Europe, flights are actually very cheap. You can buy a single ticket for ten euros, but accommodation will cost a lot.
In addition, you should understand that when you arrive, you will have high initial expenses. First of all, you will have to immediately apply for a residence permit (permesso di soggiorno). This is a card similar to a European ID and it costs about 130 euros, including all the letters and payment of duties. Second of all, when you buy a SIM card in Venice, you will have to pay for the SIM card itself and make an advance payment of two months (I spent about 40 euros on it). Moreover, at the dormitory, they did not give me bed linen. I also had to buy utensils. I spent around 100 euros on all that. That means that after arriving in Italy, in addition to basic expenses, you will need about 300 euros on extra and organisational expenses.