Key Members of the AIS: Interview

Representatives of Association of International Students HSE SPb talk about the association and their plans for the future.

Key Members of the AIS: Interview

It is well known to international students that the Association of International Students of HSE St. Petersburg (AIS) is a platform that aimed to make a society of international students at university. Since the association was created, it has helped numerous foreign students to overcome difficulties at the university. In the process of its development, the AIS accomplished outstanding achievements and came across some challenges as well, especially in the environment of the widespread pandemic.

Today we are going to have a discussion with our panelists about their work in the AIS. Let us introduce to you - Vlada McCormick and Ilyas Sadykov.

Good afternoon! Thank you so much for attending our meeting. My name is Hu Naiyu. Sofia and I are going to have a panel discussion with you on the topic of the AIS. If you don’t mind, I will start with the first question. What is the original aim of the AIS? When was it established? Has it changed over time?

Vlada McCormick: It was established a few years ago, it was a small platform. It didn’t have as many events as it is having now. For example, the main event of our association before the COVID-19 was culture day. It is a huge event that gathers a large number of international students. When we first introduced this event a few years ago, summit meetings were not held among students yet. But during this years, since the meeting was launched, it has become a popular meeting that all fresh students from Russia, Central Asia or other countries to participate in. It created a multicultural environment for international students. We have already held some of the meetings in Tashkent, some in Kazakhstan and some in Latvia. Our members inform fresh students of our university, of living in Russia. So it has changed over the years because as I remember a few years ago our organization didn’t have a definite and clear plan. We just set a goal to help communicate with international students but these years our members have come up with a lot of new ideas. So now we have more events for international students to join in.

We know that there are several departments in the AIS. Which ones do you think are the most developed and which ones are not performing as expected?

Vlada McCormick: I think the most important one is about the tutors’ team. Tutors are second-year international or students from Russia who are volunteers for freshmen students in matters of study at the university, life in Russia and so on. A few years ago they were not as significant as now. But two years ago tutors started to have some events with curators. As you know, curators are a large and essential part of the non-academic life of students in every studying program. And tutors have more communication with them. So, tutors are one of the biggest parts of the AIS that developed significantly over time. Since tutors have close contact with freshmen students, this is also one of the most important departments of the association.

So, tutors for international students is like curators for Russian students, right?

Vlada McCormick: Yes, but they have to know all things about migration, registration, documents and all of that. In few words, curators responsible for non-academic events while tutors are more responsible for integration into Russian reality.

How do international students feel about integration in Russia especially about studying in it? Is this a popular enough destination? Perhaps you are disposed of by some kind of statistics.

Vlada McCormick: Based on these summer meetings we can say that students have many fears related to their future arrival in Russia. They share their experiences, and we and the tutors try to help them, listen and solve their problems. Even if their questions may sound silly, we understand their fears, because it is a completely new country. Life in Central Asia is very similar to life in Russia. But it is much harder for students from the Baltics, Europe or Africa to understand Russian lifestyle, because life in the countries of these regions is very different from Russia. So the association tries to inform all students about Russian realities. We had a meeting only in Central Asia and the Baltics. Students from there were already informed about what it is like to live in Russia. For them it was not something fundamentally new, they had some ideas, and we only help them with their fears.

Now we have an initial understanding of the AIS that basically it assists foreign students especially freshmen to deal with their problems as newcomers. And throughout your work, which part of life do you think has the greatest impact on foreign students studying in Russia and how did you help them deal with these problems?

Ilyas Sadykov:  I think that almost all international students would experience culture shock when they first come to Russia. And our tutors make every effort to help them with it all the time. Last year we provided service for HSE students in Saint Petersburg to help them with study problems and immigration problems. And we noticed that sometimes foreign students can have problem with talking to native Russian speakers as well. Some students, honestly, don’t speak Russia at all, so it can be difficult when they try to communicate with Russian people. We helped them with that as well.

Vlada McCormick: I suppose the greater shock is related to study because through my work I found that so many students don’t have an idea how much they will need to accomplish in HSE. The system in HSE might be quite different from what they have in their own countries. So I think they are shocked more by dealing with deadlines, online courses, projects, sessions and exams in their academic life here. Besides study, living in Russia is another serious problem because it is not easy to get accustomed to a particular environment in a foreign country. That’s what I think about the main obstacles that international students might come across.

Are students shocked by the pandemic? Maybe they have some new fears? Perhaps there are fewer foreign students in Russia now? Or has a general interest in studying in Russia declined?

Vlada McCormick: Our foreign freshmen do not have the opportunity to come to Russia, which is why they miss so many events; they miss the opportunity to plunge into the atmosphere of St. Petersburg. Tutors communicate with students through social networks and emails. Sadly, they don’t have the opportunity to come, but I hope they can do it next year. I don’t think that there are less foreign students in Russia, because I think that they did not expect that they going to spend their first year studying online. Probably something will change next September. We all hoped that we would start the previous September normally. Therefore, we cannot be sure that in the next school year our life will return to the norm to which we were accustomed to before the pandemic. So to my mind, I think that there will be less foreign students coming to the country.

What are the most common challenges for the association itself? Does the university management help in solving these problems? Any other partners, organizations?

Vlada McCormick: Regarding help, we certainly have received much warm help. For instance, this year when the pandemic COVID-19 was spreading wildly in Russia, we attempted to negotiate with counsellors and asked if they could offer help for international students. The main aim of our actions is always to put them under protection and actually, we have successfully achieved it. And finally, at this moment we have reached a consensus. Now our international students have the opportunity to get vaccinated. So, yes, we get help from HSE management. As for challenging events, the saddest thing is that we lost our Culture Day. Usually, we have two Culture Days at the end of May each year. But last year due to COVID-19 we didn’t get the chance to hold our Culture Days. What a pity! After all, it is the most important event of AIS. I don’t know if we are going to have the chance to hold Culture Days this year because rules are changing all the time and we have so many restrictions for this event which needs to gather a large number of students. I think we will need to contact the office to clarify if we are allowed to have this year’s Culture Day. So for me, the saddest thing is obviously about missing events. I hope next year we are going to have normal events as usual.

I participated in the event of Culture Day once. It was very memorable. Maybe you have some kind of online alternative to the Culture Day or you have some other big event in an online format?

Vlada McCormick: We have not planned anything yet, as we do not have enough experience with this type of event organization. If we are faced with a situation where the restrictions will be extended, we will start to come up with something for the next year. But I hope that the restrictions will become less and less stringent, and we will return to normal mode as quickly as possible.

And the last question, since more and more foreign students started coming to study in Russia, are there any new projects being prepared after all students go offline? And what are your forecasts for the next year regarding the operation of the association?

Vlada McCormick: Well, I think we are going to have a big culture day to celebrate if everything goes back to normal. And I hope that our tutors can be more integrated because last year they didn’t have the chance to gather and share their experiences of helping fresh students. So next year we plan to have our tutors integrated into one curator team so that they can have more opportunities to help freshmen students. That’s what I’m planning on. I guess also has something to say regarding this topic.

Ilyas Sadykov: Maybe next year we will invite tutors not just from Central Asia. We want to invite more tutors from other countries like Turkey, African countries and countries from other parts of Asia. They can help students from their culture so the tasks can be more targeted. If this goal can be realized, I think it will become the strength of our organization.

Thank you for joining us today. I believe our discussion today will attract more talented foreign students to the AIS. It is a pleasure to have this discussion with you and good luck to your future work in AIS!

Interview by

Sofya Vyalkina

Naiyu Hu