Becoming More — How HSE Improved Me

When I made the decision to look for a way to leave and study abroad, I did not know that I would leave so soon. 

Becoming More — How HSE Improved Me

Things happened so fast. And while I am not saying that HSE is flawless, because no human institution is flawless, not to talk of an institute of learning, but I am grateful. I am grateful because of the intrinsic changes that are happening within me. Changes, which although personal now, might lead me beyond my expectations. Although I have had some challenges and certain levels of difficulties, I haven’t regretted coming to HSE University or coming to Russia. I have met incredible people here; roommates that became brothers, members of my class that I can hang out with, talk to and laugh with. And there is nothing as precious to the human soul and spirit, especially that of a foreigner, like knowing that you’re accepted where you are.

COVID-19 pandemic was catastrophic, and the world will not forget it easily, but it was the pandemic that intensified my dream of leaving Nigeria, coupled with educational breakdown, where the University staff in Nigeria are on industrial strike. I had been admitted to study Education and Political Science at the University of Ibadan, one of the best universities in Africa, and which still remains one of my revered institutions of learning, but because University staff had shut down Nigerian universities, we were unable to resume. All the joy of finally getting admitted after six years of graduating from Secondary School, was beginning to disappear. Although I was working with an organization, an experience I still very much cherished, I desperately wanted to resume because I am getting old.

Few weeks after the Nigerian government and the University teachers reached a partial agreement, which the government did not keep on a long run, the industrial strike was called off. But boom, COVID-19 struck. Then, a lockdown happened. The only consolation for me was the books I had with me, and my family. I have the loveliest family on earth.

No work, although we were still being paid our salary, thanks to my bosses, Mrs. Rosemary Olayiwola and Mr. Abraham Eyeruroma. I had finished reading the books with me, and I started looking for where more to learn something. It was then that I discovered Coursera. I started looking for topics that interested me. I saw a course on International Relations, which attracted me. I can audit the course, yet I desired to be certified, but I didn’t have enough money to pay for the certificate, so financial aid became the only reasonable alternative.

It was on wanting to apply for financial aid that I checked the university offering the course. Well, it’s either European or American university, I concluded. Russia was not in my mind. The course happened to be offered by HSE University. I decided to browse about the university and discovered it was in Russia. I did not check further. I submitted my financial aid application. After fifteen days, my financial aid application was approved by Coursera.

First week, after I started taking the course, I was intrigued by the teacher. I still very much hope to meet that professor that taught that course, and to thank him, because it was his detailed analysis of the topic that made me start browsing about HSE University. I read everything on HSE University that interested me. I checked the university on Times Higher Education (THE) ranking, and it was well ranked. I checked other recognized organizations that conduct university ranking, and they, the organizations that are doing the rankings, had a good place for this University that is teaching me on Coursera. It started there.

I applied for the first entrance exam. And I couldn’t meet the History requirement. So, I was not admitted. I was not happy though. It was in the process that I discovered the HSE Global Scholarship Competition, currently known as HSE International Olympiad. As at then, the Olympiad allows both secondary school leavers and secondary school graduates to compete. I applied. I worked hard. I competed. When the result came out on the 13th of December, 2021, I won. There was no better Christmas gift than that. I was screaming and shouting and weeping, altogether. Here I am, a student of the University that I fell in love with on Coursera because of COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown. As much as I know, the pandemic was a blessing to me, without it, I wouldn’t have discovered HSE University.

I had spent just a semester in this marvelously diverse university with renowned faculty and a practical, afterschool, labor-based curriculum. Looking back now, comparing who I was and who I am becoming, I can only imagine what I will become before I leave this university. These aren’t about the hours spent in lectures and seminars, because we’re actually spending so much, but the soft skills I have honed within this period.

These soft skills are very much needed for survival and adequate contribution in the real world. They are just as important or even more important than one’s GPA or Academic ranking or rating. I will highlight some of these skills that I have enhanced within these few months of being in Saint Petersburg as a student of HSE University.

CRITICAL THINKING: This, perhaps, is one of the most important soft skills that I have inculcated as a student. Being able to realize that an opinion isn’t just about yours. That there are various points of views to a particular thing. Being able to realize that what I might consider to be charmingly profound, is seen by another as not well articulated and balanced. Before now, my ideology has always been “It is this way”. But HSE University, through some of my classmates, has taught me that it could be that way as well. That saying that it is only this way, without giving thought about the other way, or accepting that there may be another way, or appreciating the known other way, is just a ritual of oblivious blindness that glows in self-deception. Most times, I will leave some of my classes, still immersed in the thoughts of what has been finalized already. Thinking that I could have arranged my speech in a proper intelligent way. The first time a student disagreed with me in class, although he didn’t totally understand what I said because of my accent, I almost froze. In my mind, I was like “Guy, say your own nah. Do you have to disagree with me to prove a point?” But sincerely, that was a good thing. In fact, it is the best thing. While I don’t skulk anymore to avoid making contributions in class, I now give careful thoughts with what I say, while making contributions.

Another aspect of this critical thinking is my increasing desire for practicability. I am from Nigeria. And most of the examples given about Nigeria are not always pleasant. So, whether I am reading a text about The UK or The US, or Germany, I am always thinking about how to apply some of the good things I am reading to my country. This critical thinking skill contributed to other skills that follow.

HSE made me who I am.

EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION: Though it appears as though I am my own therapist. It is neither perfectionism or self-praise. It is just an acknowledgment of what I discovered. I discovered that I started speaking not just to be listened to, but to be heard as well, and also for action to be taken on what I said. I started writing my posts on social media with measures of self-consciousness, trying to tick all consequential boxes; informing, educating, and at most, not harming anyone, which I learnt from a course I took in first and second module of my freshman year; The Fundamental of Academic Ethics. Communication is vital in our contemporary world. We must be able to speak and command the attention of the audience, to write, and command readership. I am not saying that I am a communication expert. What I am saying is this; I am a better communicator than I used to be before this time. I am a better communicator because HSE University and some courses require active participation, and not just active participation, but graded active participation. At first, I was not particularly pleased with the act or practice of grading of participation, I believe some students are participating simply for the grades, myself included, during the first and second module. I don’t like to speak in class, because I believe that knowledge should be more reflective and not a glamorous theater of ‘who know better’ where people merely talk and talk, most of the times, repeating what has been said by another student, but HSE University believed that knowledge needs to be both reflective and equally expressed. I struggled my way and myself into that act of speaking, and now, I believe I am making more sense, than I have been before now.

EMPATHY AND SERVICE: Even though I had started giving back to my community before coming to Russia, but HSE University, through her glamorously and well-articulated course curriculum and interesting professors, has indirectly challenged me and made me realize that the best I can do is to give back. Giving back is central. In the words of the Nigerian Economist and the Director General of the World Trade Organization, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, during her commencement speech at MIT, said ‘Education is a privilege and with that privilege comes a certain set of obligations and responsibilities.’ I came to HSE University to gain a skill that will help me make some living, but just the few months of studying here, the priority has shifted so fast, that I am more concerned about my country. Most of my recent conversations with young Nigerians like myself, those that I have some measure of influence over, has been how we can contribute towards solving our problem.

I was in an Economics class where the professor presented a graph about the economic growth and decline of countries. I watched that graph with sadness, because my country was so down the slope. And the downwardness was not because Nigeria is devoid of what can take her above many western countries, but the lack of political will and the chilling appearance of lackadaisical attitudes towards educating the people has so much haunted my country that we’re becoming some sort of caricature.

When I got to my dorm room, I spent that night thinking about my role. And I am grateful that the hunger is building up. Not just that the hunger is building up in me, but other young people like myself are beginning to catch the light of emancipation. The light is so bright and so revealing. The light that we, as a country, aren’t that bad and shouldn’t desert our country, but we need to make concerted efforts towards changing the narrative. I am not sure that this enlightenment that revealed the empathy and sudden love for my country would have been possible had I continued studying in Nigeria. HSE University made it happen. And I wish HSE University can do more, such as lowering the requirements of the International Olympiad for high school students, so that young Africans that left high school before realizing this opportunity can participate in this Olympiad.

I have three more years to stay here and I am becoming more intentional to dig deep through every available well of knowledge and information there is in HSE University, both in the class and the library. Hoping to serve my country through serving the university. I am optimistic. Yes, there are challenges, but I am not backing out, because to back out or to give up now, is not just giving up on myself but also, giving up on my country. And I hope, so earnestly, that in years to come, I’ll so proudly say, “HSE made me who I am”.

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Daniel Onyekachukwu Akabueze