Things I Wished I Knew before my Freshman Year

With personal experiences, Daniel Akabueze shares what it is important to know during your first semester.

Photo by Joel Mott on Unsplash

Photo by Joel Mott on Unsplash
© Photo by Joel Mott on Unsplash

I know it is February, but permit me to wish you a Happy New Year. The truth is that if after writing these e-magazine articles, no one cares to read them, the magazine would have gone into extinction. Our magazine is still active, functioning, and with increasing aspiring writers like myself, and these are possible because you cared to return to this page to find something that might interest you, either by clicking on the link that was shared, or by typing the web link of the magazine. Thank you very much.

Daniel is my name. A Nigerian student, studying Political Science and World Politics at HSE University Campus in Saint Petersburg, on a State-funded basis. In my last article, ‘WHY HSE’, I wrote how I got the scholarship to study here, and I equally wrote about the possible means you'd possibly use to get a scholarship to come and study at the university.

This article is one I never wanted to write. Maybe, not that I do not want to write it entirely, but that I think it will be better to write it much later. Maybe, during my final year as a student of the Higher School of Economics. Or possibly, as a fresh graduate. Or possibly, if I will be returning, as a master student. My decision to write it now is still in sharp conflict, because I am not sure I am entirely done with some of the experiences I will be sharing. But because it is entirely for the first semester of my freshmen year, and I will not be a freshman in a first semester in HSE University again, I believe I am seventy percent equipped to write about this.

This article is for incoming students of this university, or prospective students of any university globally, because whether you are in The UK, or The US, or any part of Europe, or studying in part of Africa, or Asia, or you are coming to Russia, you are going to have the same title that I had. Freshman. You are fresh in knowledge and experience, and it does matter little if you emerge as the next global Rhodes Scholar or Fulbright Scholar. Of course the title will be doubled if you will be studying in a country other than yours. An International student. I am obviously not saying that your experience will be the same as mine, or that you will necessarily make the mistakes I made, or exhibit some of the ignorance I exhibited, or be afraid of some of the things that scared me, but I believe that you can find something helpful from my experience. If not helpful to your definition of helpfulness, but you'll find something interesting from this writing. In discussion with some students of Master’s degree students and a final year student of bachelor program, I discovered that this article will also help you if you’re coming as a grad student.

The first semester of my freshman year was not the best of it, even though some of my classmates might have different opinions, but sincerely, from the beginning of the semester, which was divided into two modules, to the end, I was constantly having mood swings, happy now, and sad afterward. Ebullient in a particular class, and an idiot in another. Feeling as an overcomer this moment and the next moment my sense of trepidation will be heightened, as my stomach tightens after another class.

I recoiled in my bed several times, irritated, weak, unmotivated, not willing to get up and do anything academic. In some cases, I watched class time pass by, because there was no push or drive at all to attend the class. Some of my long-term childhood dreams began to decipher, I started dreaming of settling for what I never wanted to settle for. The matter worsened when I started thinking about quitting. The only thing on my mind was just to pack my belongings and leave. I was almost depressed. I knew that going to The US might be the next alternative, as going back to Nigeria wasn't an option. Not that I wouldn't like to go back home, but the freedom of expression and acceptance of nuanced opinion that HSE University gave me is lacking in Nigerian Universities. Having realized how hard I worked to come here, and because I did not train myself to quit easily, I decided to stay through. In mid-November, 2022, I typed a consultation letter to HSE University psychologist, asking for available space. Of course, I didn't visit the psychologist anyway, this may not be a good idea for some people, as professional help may be beneficial, but I felt that I can handle my sadness or mild depression by myself, and I did, eventually.

These are some of the things I wish I had known before starting the first semester of my freshman year in this beautifully diverse university, with students that came from different parts of the world.

The difference in educational system

The first thing and the most important that disrupted and hardened the first semester of my freshman year was the fact that I was not careful enough to realize the difference between Nigeria's educational system and Russia's. It was a nightmare. I was attending classes waiting for the mid semester test and end of the semester examination, not knowing that this is not the way HSE University operates. Some courses would require you to speak in class, and that will be graded. Weeks had passed before I picked myself to talk. I would speak so much during online class, but folds up, so invisible and so defeated in physical class. The worst is that I had teachers that I had difficulties understanding, but participation was part of the grading blocs in those courses. I sucked in some classes, wishing for them to just end, so that I can take my bag and go back to the dormitory. I would take time to read, very meticulously, the seminar texts, only for me to come to the class, having no idea of what the teacher is saying, because of the teacher’s accent. It also occurred to me that some of the teachers I had during the first semester did not even understand my accent, so speaking even when I got a hint of what was being discussed, became a burden. My advice here, which was what I learnt later, is to listen to the contributions of others. Understand what they are saying, and then, make your own contribution. I complained heavily about a particular teacher. The more I complained, the more I got scared of attending the class, and then, the dislike of both the course and the teacher was increasing. Please, do not do this. I am doing very well now. But I wished I had known this before coming to HSE University.

The difficulties of finding a group for group projects

This is another thing. This complaint or challenge is just not mine. I had interacted with some students who came to HSE University to study only to realize that it is a big challenge for most international students. Yes, the HSE policy of inclusiveness and diversities is obvious but work should be done to ensure that the native students are also inclusive as well. The inclusion may not be a problem for European students, this is a speculation though because I have not asked any European students, but students with skin color of chocolate like myself, and Asian students find this difficult. Cliques are quickly formed. People have those they want in their group. In Nigeria, the class representatives divide this group or the lecturer in charge, but here you're left to find the group yourself. I had to beg a particular teacher to divide the group by himself when one of such group projects was given, and the request was immediately responded to by another student. "I am not sure that dividing the group is the best. Some students will not like to participate fully". The teacher was gracious enough to divide the group by himself and said that whosoever that did not participate in the project should be removed. That saved me from spending so much time asking for groups, which, even before projects are given, are already formed. My roommate, who himself was a Foreign student from Asia, said it nicely, "Some groups are formed immediately after students read the course syllabus".

I remember a particular project, Communication and Media Competence, we were all in class when the teacher gave the assignment, demanding the work to be done in a group of three or four. Immediately after the class, I met a student and asked if they have a group and whether there is space for me to join. "Yes, but our group is already filled up". I was shocked and confused. What? Filled up? But the assignment was just given a few minutes ago? There is in-group stuff going on, and if you're not there, you are not.

Yes, I love my classmates, they have great sense of humor, and can be accepting sometimes, but the subtle "we don't want you here" can be telling. I learnt something meaningful and profound, which will be helpful as a career person. For you as an incoming student, try and make friends, if you can. If it is hard for you, like myself, speak to the teacher and let him or her know about your ordeal. If the teacher is not helpful enough, write to your study office and ask to be changed from the group you're placed in. There is a general group, which is different from that of group projects. I believe that HSE teachers should also consider this project group divisions, and do it themselves.

Democratic but not liberal

I read an interview given by an HSE student, conducted by the International Support Office of HSE University, Saint Petersburg. In the interview, the student spoke about the difficulties in adapting and the study process. I will not say that I had adaptation difficulty, if it is in terms of finding your ground, or creating your niche, or following your mind, but the difficulty is in the study materials and course formation. I learned that Education in developed countries is very liberal. That you can take classes that you find interesting, but that was not the case. HSE university is very democratic, there is freedom of speech, expression and diversity of thoughts and ideas are very much welcomed, but HSE is not a liberal college. I was overwhelmed with America’s liberal education, which made me think that it will be the same, until at the end of the first semester. We were told to choose whether to study Mathematics and Statistics in English or Russian. I double-checked and read the email carefully, to be sure that I read well. I texted one of the curators assigned to my class to verify whether we’ve an option to choose Economics against Mathematics. The response was negative. Till the moment of this writing, I do not yet know what to do about it. I don’t have any knowledge of mathematics but here I am, taking a seven credit loan of mathematics. I still pray it will not affect me and hinder me from my dream of what comes next after HSE University.

But it is fair to also say that the mathematics teachers assigned to us are lovely. Yes, teachers. Teachers because in HSE University and in most developed countries, lectures are different from class, or what is called seminars. Seminars is a small discussion class where students engage with the teachers in an active interaction. My first mathematics seminar was horrible. My classmate was solving the problems, and I was there wishing so hard not to be asked to contribute. But I was asked. The teacher called my name. And for the first time, I was in utter disbelief, not sure whether it was my name or another person’s. My performance was a disaster. I disappeared from the class immediately after the class. I wish I had known that despite the hatred and attempt to flee math-related discipline, that I will still have to take it.

I believe that you have had a glimpse from what the first semester of my freshman year was like. I had happy moments though: I visited some places with an acquaintance, who was also a classmate; I improved my communication and reasoning skills; I developed the habit of reading fast and understanding.

HSE University is renowned. I had listened to students from Ivy league colleges in the United States; Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and I had listened to some from University of Oxford and Cambridge and discovered that there are some similarities in the challenges.

Text by

Akabueze Daniel Onyekachukwu