Interview with Vitaly Sochnov and Yulia Dolgina
It is not always easy to be an international student, but it is good to know that there are people who try to make this experience as smooth as possible for us. To give them their own voice, and to let the international community of the university know them better, HSE Illuminated interviews Vitaly Sochnov and Yulia Dolgina. They are leading figures when it comes to supporting international students here at HSE.
Vitaly is the director of Centre for International Student Support in Moscow. Yulia is the head of International Student Support Unit in St. Petersburg.
So, let’s meet the people who drastically improve the experience of international students at our university.
HSE Illuminated: What sort of support does the Centre for International Students Support provide? What can an international student expect from this office?
Vitaly: So, as far as it concerns International Student Support Center in Moscow, we provide support to our international students such as solving problems on extracurricular issues. Usually, these issues are not academic ones.
We organize some orientation and adaptation events for newcomers because the question of adaptation is more important for newcomers. But sometimes the sophomores have some problems that can be related to some specific period of studying, staying in Russia or abroad, so we try to answer their questions as well.
Also, we try to react to all situations that concern “troubleshooting”. For example, sometimes the students lose their migration documents – migration card, registration and even passports. Then they come to us and we provide support. We used to accompany them to the police station and then to migration services, but then we created the specific guides students can use to solve such problems.
We try to contribute to an international environment in the university
As far as it concerns English-speaking students, we always remind them that if you do not speak Russian, please find somebody, your friend, or your mate who can help you to speak Russian and to translate whenever necessary, and to put some words in Russian documents when required.
Also, as a part of the Department of Internationalization in Moscow we try to contribute to an international environment in the university. For example, in dormitories we monitor the linguistic environment of Russian-speaking and English-speaking spheres. We checked if general documents were available in English. Unfortunately, many of them were not. In this case, we cooperated with our colleagues from dormitories to fix the problem, and I think for now it is better than it was.
Yulia: I will speak about St. Petersburg. Well, I am the head of International Student Support Office which is only a part of the International Office in St. Petersburg.
Officially my department organizes different types of events for international students, supervise HSE International Ambassadors project, we prepare all sorts of informational support for international students. Recently we began to organize monthly regular seminars for our colleagues where we explain how international office works and what are our responsibilities.
In real life if international students have any type of problems, we can be the first point to contact. You can connect with the Student Support Office and report an issue, and afterwards we can just put the student in touch with the needed person or department.
We do not say something like ‘you know, this is not our responsibility’
Vitaly: We also coordinate all issues that can be related to other spheres of questions like medicine, etc. Sometimes students also send us study questions, which we usually just forward to program managers.
HI: Although you have already answered this question, just to be clear, what sort of issues should not the international students ask you about? You already said that you can direct the questions towards the correct office if it is not directly within your sphere of responsibility.
Yulia: We do not say something like ‘you know, this is not our responsibility’. No, we just try to find the responsible department/colleague and address it to them. Because that is the only way it works.
HI: Is there a difference between the sort of services provided by the Moscow and St. Petersburg offices? For example, should the student from St. Petersburg ever contact the office in Moscow, or we are to contact the St. Petersburg one all the time instead?
Vitaly: We had the experience when, for example, some students came to Moscow as the inter-campus mobility program participants, and they had some problems with a migration card. Our office helped these students.
Also, we together have some meetings where we share our experiences in general. So, I can talk about some problems and about ways of solving these problems to them and they can do the same to me. Two cities have a lot in common.
I think as far as it concerns the federal law, it is like the same way, so international students can have similar problems.
HI: What sort of extracurricular activities are available for the international students at HSE?
Yulia: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic there are not so many, but we try to do our best. So, every month we have one or two events which are shared on our social media. Usually, they are connected to some events that happen globally. For example, in March we had the Women Empowerment Day and we had quite a discussion about this topic. We have a schedule of our activities for all international students, that are held by international office.
I think that is all that we can have because we cannot gather with more than 50 people. So, it is hard to arrange something because I know that students are tired of Zoom or other online meeting programs. Ultimately, if we have some activities, you can find more information about them on our website and we also send emails.
Vitaly: As for Moscow, we also discussed this important problem with our colleagues from the Student Initiatives Support Centre. Those guys are responsible for some student activities. Many events, big festivals were transformed to online ones and, as far as I know, the number of these festivals is lower in comparison with for example last year before pandemic situation.
But we really hope that our lives will be back to normal again soon and I think that many international students who are abroad now will have an opportunity to come here to Russia to join us properly.
HI: It is hard to adapt to a new country and a new academic system. What type of orientation programs do you create to combat this, and are there any plans for more?
Yulia: We had an orientation in January for our exchange students. They are not the biggest part of the international students at HSE but still we had a huge online presentation for students where we try to explain all the spheres of life for students who are unfortunately all online now.
We had several chapters about life in St. Petersburg, about education, university and information systems students must use.
Afterwards we had a long Q&A session where students could ask their questions. As far as I know there are also some questions students ask afterwards. And we can organize Something else. We do not always understand what is needed if students do not share their opinions and needs with us.
Vitaly: We do the same. We organize the orientation sessions and tell our students about aspects of life in Moscow, dormitories, students’ activities, etc. As for academic issues, I agree that they are really important and when we had our life before pandemic, our study offices had the specific events for their own students, including international students also.
For example, last year we organized our sessions online and we knew that many of our students could not come to Russia already at that time and we specifically asked our colleagues from the study offices to join the orientation sessions and make a special presentation about the LMS system, online study process, etc.
So, we provided a specific time for educational issues in our orientations, and I do not remember how much time exactly, but for approximately one hour, our colleagues from study offices provided all necessary information to our students.
HI: Unfortunately, not all the documents at HSE nor all its webpages are available in English. Are there plans to hasten the translation of such pages?
YD: If it is a big deal for students, of course we will try our best to translate them. When we check our website and our social media, we know that we are responsible for the fact that it should be translated to English because we work mostly with the international English-speaking students. But when it comes to other webpages of the university, we do not know which pages and what sort of information international students are looking for, and which one lacks translation. So, if there are any such websites that you know of, please let us know and we can ask that department to fix it. It is just a question of contacting the International Office.
Vitaly: Yes, this question is important, because it is a big deal not only for different departments, but also for all university environments. We also try to do our best and just try to communicate with our colleagues who are responsible for their own websites so that they take care of the problems in them. Especially when a specific department is responsible for their own website, we simply try to contact them so that they can fix it. They can have no English version or poorly translated English versions or something like this, which we try and help with. If we continue our work and the university will continue its push in this direction such issues will be fixed. I think we just need some more time to make it better.
HI: There is an emergency line that the international students can use to reach out to you when it is deemed necessary. What sort of situations should trigger such a call on the student’s side? Can you perhaps give a few examples of the sort of calls you received?
Yulia: Any type of emergency, really anything. It can be some educational questions; a part of the questions relates to texts that are not available in LMS system or something like that. Also, students ask if they can come to Russia at the moment. There is a lot of information in media for students that they can come, but just somewhere below in small letters you can find that only citizens from 25 countries can come and most of the people, including our students do not usually read from the beginning until the end.
So, we receive a lot of messages and phone calls from students saying that they want to come, they are ready to come, and that they will come, so they just tell me that they are coming and then we have to talk to them and say: ‘you should check the information for your country; if it is not open please do not try to come here.’
You just need to go down and read it. Also, there are a lot of questions on other issues. For example, some people call to say that they have lost their passports, or that they are lost in the city, they do not know where to go or what to do, and for us all of them are appropriate questions. There are no requests to which we say, ‘you know what, I am not working right now’ or ‘I am busy and that is not an emergency.’ We have this emergency number, and we are ready to react to all types of questions. To some of them we can answer ‘yes, you can wait and call us in the working hours, or you can come to our office or just write a letter’. But if there is an emergency, we react like it is an emergency. So yeah, all types of questions are welcome.
Vitaly: As for Moscow we also have the emergency line telephone number for our center and let me give you some historical facts. First of all, the emergency line was created for some extreme situations or some specific problems but now this telephone number can be seen by all students in our website. It is so easy to reach, like a public telephone number for those students who may have some questions and now students call us for absolutely any questions like ‘where can I apply for my student ID pass’ for example.
Also, we have some experience when students called for really extreme situations. For example, when somebody was robbed or had some suicidal behavior.
Students can use this telephone number whenever they want and sometimes, they call us even at night, probably from countries within different time zones.
Yulia: I think the main idea of creating this emergency line was just to let our students feel confident that they can get the support whenever and wherever they need it. So, in any cases you can think of you have the emergency line to reach out to us.
HI: What sort of projects are you working on now? Should we expect anything exciting soon?
Yulia: It is difficult to choose just one project. A lot of projects are very good. For example, now we were going to organize the Global Classroom project where our students talk to school children from schools in St. Petersburg and they just tell them about their backgrounds and about their countries, about their way of life, culture, everything they decide to share with these schoolchildren. I think that is a very good initiative but nowadays they cannot do it because schoolchildren are also very tired of Zoom meetings and classes so we should wait.
Also, now I am working on our new website and a new student handbook because we want to prepare for a new life after the pandemic, so all the needed information will be in this guide because we really want them to come here confidently.
And we launched the buddy project this year. If you have not heard about the buddy project yet, there are buddies who help international students to feel better in a foreign country, inform them about the city. But it is the Zoom era so that is not very needed and that is why we decided that every buddy will have an international student and that they will work online. There was a kind of support for every international student from a buddy so I hope that we can continue this project after the online era. The last but not least is Café Culture project - this is a regular semi-formal event, where we discuss different social, cultural educational topics. What I like about this event - anyone can suggest a topic and become a speaker. We have many more projects to come, hopefully offline.
Vitaly: As for Moscow, first of all, I would like to share with you the result of finished projects that we had not so long time ago. In February for example, we finished the project where we created guide materials for legalization procedure for international alumni because some of them need to legalize their diplomas.
Some of our alumni were not here when they finished their studies, because some of them were on mobility programs abroad. When the pandemic started, the borders of Russia were closed. So, the students had their final exams online, but they could not get their diploma physically and some of them who needed to legalize their diplomas could not do it in anyway.
To fix this, we started a project to create some step-by-step guide materials on how to deal with this situation, and how to do the legalization procedure online. We just checked all necessary information from educational departments and embassies, and we wrote a step-by-step guide for them, and translated it in English.
We are always here to help you in anyway
The main idea of this guide was that students who cannot arrive to Russia could find some friend or a mate in Russia and through the power of an attorney give them the necessary rights so that these friends or mates can do the legalization for them. We already had positive experience of using these guide materials by two students.
As for another project I think I will share some ideas with you that we have for current year. So, we have a project in which we analyze the customer journey of international students, when it comes to using the university websites and documents. The main idea is to analyze the web resources and all services that can be used by international students and understand how easily international students can use them. For some international students, some scientific services that are available for Russian citizens may be unavailable.
So, we started checking all our websites and websites of other departments. We want to put some attention into the type of information which would be useful for international students. We want to create websites that are full of correct and understandable information. We hope that after this work our international students will have less questions.
HI: Finally, as experienced professionals in the field, what would you suggest to the international students at HSE to do during their time here? This could be an academic, professional, or extracurricular tip and/or trick, anything that comes to your mind really.
Yulia: I really think that the student life is one of the best times. I had a really great experience when I was a student, so I wish that all the students enjoy their student lives and just take all the opportunities they have because you are all students in one of the best universities. Just do not miss all the knowledge you can receive here and soak in all the environment. I hope that you will all be happy and educated students.
Vitaly: I always recommend putting more attention on such things as migration law in Russia because it is really important, and it is too hard sometimes for international citizens in general and not only for students. I hope that in the future our government makes it more flexible.
When we analyze all the problems we deal with for international students, most of them are related to migration services.
Also, I would recommend trying to be yourself. And do not hesitate to come to Yulia’s or my department because even if you are shy, do not forget that we are always here to help you in anyway.
I hope that this interview was as fun and informative to read for you as it was for me whilst conducting it. We would like to thank our interviewees once again and are looking forward to hearing more from them and the wonderful work that their offices carry out soon enough.