Mustafa Serdar Karakaya and HSE Illuminated

Tyler Cobb interviewed a current HSE Master’s student and former writer for HSE Illuminated, Mustafa Serdar Karakaya.

Mustafa Serdar Karakaya and HSE Illuminated

I recently interviewed current HSE Master’s student and former writer for HSE Illuminated, Mustafa Serdar Karakaya. He was one of the main reasons why I also applied to become part of HSE Illuminated, so I wanted to shed some light on why he made the choice himself. The questions I posed to him during the interview will be divided into two parts: those related to Russia in general, and those related specifically to HSE Illuminated.

Mustafa Serdar Karakaya 

Mustafa is a student of the Global and Regional History Program at St. Petersburg campus. He participated in HSE Illuminated project last year and is eager to share how it was.

Part One: Coming to Russia

Where/what did you study before coming to Russia?

I double majored in History, and English Language and Comparative Literature in Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey.

What made you decide to study in Russia?

It is not the weather, that is for sure. On a more serious note, Russian education is quite tough, and after seeing some other (easier) systems, I decided to challenge myself and maximize the benefits of an MA program. Moreover, I wanted to learn Russian properly, though admittedly that second aim was not so feasible thanks to the intrusion of Covid-19.

Why did you choose Saint-Petersburg/HSE?

I already had a wonderful experience as an exchange student at HSE St. Petersburg, and all my Russian friends and professors told me that studying in Peter would be the best decision ever, if I was going to study somewhere in the Russian Federation. Turns out, they were right, though admittedly I could not find a chance to experience other parts of the country yet.

Did you have any experience with Russia/Russian language/culture/etc. before coming here?

I always had a couple of Russian friends around me growing up and in the university, and then I took three classes of Russian to reach a comfortable level to hold a small conversation in it. I was interested in Russian literature as well but sadly I read them in Turkish or English. Hopefully one day I can read them in their native tongue.

What were you most excited about/afraid of when first coming here?

I was excited about anything and everything to be honest. Food, people, education, museums, architecture, history… You name it. I was not really afraid of anything, I mean, there are weird stereotypes about any country and its people but I did manage to see a fair bit of the world (a good selection I would say) and as someone who comes from a country without the best representation in media I knew that those stereotypes were wrong more often than not.

How is Russia usually perceived where you come from?

It is known as the country where all the tourists come from. Well especially lately since there is a drop in the variety of tourists coming to Turkey due to Covid-19 restrictions.

How was it different from your expectations?

I was certainly a bit cautious with my expectations, though I did not necessarily fear anything. It ended up exceeding those expectations to say the least. People were so much nicer than I could hope for, at least the ones I met. They were even trying to help me out with my extremely broken Russian, and sometimes took their time to translate stuff on their phone etc. It was a livelier city as well, with highly cultured people that sometimes made me question if I really was a student of history to begin with or not.

Would you like to live here for a longer time?

I actually would. It was sad leaving St. Petersburg earlier than I imagined, and now I still study online so I do miss the city dearly.

Would/do you recommend it to others?

I certainly would. I made a lot of good friends both in St. Petersburg and in HSE. It was noticeably better when I was actually there physically though so that is something to keep in mind.

What was your favourite part about living in Russia?

For me it was the architecture for sure. I am not really into art, but I love seeing wonderful buildings one after the other, belonging to different styles and Russian cities certainly have that mix, ranging from “cool European” Tsarist period ones to Soviet’s quirky cement based structures.

Part Two: Writing for HSE Illuminated

Had you been a part of student organizations before coming to HSE?

I was quite active in student organizations in my previous university, Koç University in Istanbul. I worked as a secretary for the Cinema Club and the Archeology Club, then making a move for the presidency of the International Student Club. As its president I organized many parties, trips, and orientation-related events for hundreds of international students and exchange students that visited Koç University every year, for two years to be precise. I especially loved my work with that latter club where my skills were best utilized to say the least. I was interested in such opportunities in HSE SPb as well, this time as an actual international student myself but pandemic had something else to say about it!

What made you decide to write for HSE Illuminated?

Honestly, at first it was just the fact that I enjoyed writing in my free time and that HSE Illuminated had positions open for all students that could write in English, offering project credits that I needed no less! After my first semester, I was actually pretty hooked on the idea of seeing my work being published on a student newspaper of sorts, so that got me back for a second round.

Did you have any prior experience writing articles?

I did. One of my majors was English Language and Comparative Literature which involved many tasks in composing prose of all sorts. Moreover, it is more of a hobby of mine to come up with short essays on issues I am trying to figure out somehow, so I do it in my free time as well.

How would you compare the difficulty of writing articles to your expectations?

It was certainly not that difficult. As long as one likes writing and has some stories to tell I think HSE Illuminated is a great project to apply to. You do not have to be a perfect writer or a perfect story teller, but a mix of both in some necessary amount would be enough.

What was the hardest part about writing for HSE Illuminated?

For me it was coming up with new topics and making time for it in my weirdly busy schedule. Staying at home during the quarantine meant that I could technically have more time for myself, but somehow our course load increased as a response to that and I could hardly had the time to scratch my head at certain times. Moreover, staying at home for that long, and away from Russia and HSE meant that I could hardly find new topics that were relevant to my peers and myself.

How would you review your overall experience with the project?

It was quite the project to work for, as in my experience everything just worked. Both supervisors knew what they were doing, and that made it easier for me to actually come up with satisfactory works for them. It was a nice project that enabled me to work on some issues that I actually cared about, which is always welcome.

Would you recommend HSE Illuminated to other HSE students?

Yes, in a heartbeat, especially for all the foreign students out there that are trying to find a decent project in English language. Even though I got all my project credits already, it was originally my plan to continue applying to HSE Illuminated. I would have applied until they had enough of me! However, life got in the way and I had some extra (unforeseen) life “projects” to deal with, leaving me with no extra time in my schedule to take on some more responsibilities.

Interview by

Tyler Cobb