– Lina Rusch sincerely shares her experience, main impressions, surprises and denied stereotypes of Ukraine
1. Where are you from? What is your affiliation?
I am currently studying Global Communication & International Journalism (Master’s) at Freie Universität Berlin and Saint Petersburg State University. I occasionally publish journalistic articles, most recently for Deutsche Welle, but I am not affiliated with a specific media outlet. Between 2010 and 2014 I studied International Relations & International Organisation at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
2. Where did you study in Ukraine (department, university, etc.)? What is the international academic mobility programme you applied through (if any)?
I had the chance to study at Yurii Fedkovych National University in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, in the first half of 2013. I took courses at the Faculty of History, Political Science and International Relations (International Relations department) and took Ukrainian language classes with a lecturer from the Philology Faculty. The framework for my stay in Ukraine was the EMERGE Erasmus Mundus scholarship scheme (European Union). Later, in September 2013, I also took part in an autumn school at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. During this study stay I was sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Another summer school at Kyiv Mohyla Academy followed in summer 2015, again sponsored by DAAD, in cooperation with Robert Bosch Foundation.
3. What motivated you to choose exactly this education institution? What documents did you have to submit? Was the application process difficult?
I had applied for a variety of mobility schemes at my home university, not only to go to Ukraine, but also to Turkey, South Africa and Spain. The EMERGE mobility was a bonus, that I immediately applied for when I first heard about it because I had been studying Russian next to my studies and developed an interest in Eastern Europe as a whole. I didn’t have any contact with Ukraine prior to choosing this mobility, but I was very curious about it. As a plus, the programme offered a generous scholarship that would cover any expenses. This was not the case with other mobilities.
There had been a number of Ukrainian universities on the list for the EMERGE programme. I had applied for Chernivtsi National University and one of the Kyiv universities because they offered International Relations courses, which was a requirement of my own university for approving my stay abroad. The application process was not difficult, but a lot of documents were required. I remember that the deadline was extended because few students from Western Europe were interested in applying for mobility schemes similar to mine in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.
The selection process took a long time. I had already accepted a study offer in Madrid when I got the news that I was accepted to study at Chernivtsi. I was able to decline the Madrid offer, though. What was difficult about actually getting there was the visa process. Although the international office in Chernivtsi did everything they could to help me and prepared all the documents on time, I was not granted a student visa by the Ukrainian consulate in Germany. The reasons were not transparent and Ukrainian law seemed to be contradictory to student mobilities in the second semester of the academic year at the time. Therefore, I had to enter the country as a tourist. A solution had to be found locally at the last moment of my allowed 3 months stay as a tourist to give me a permission to stay and finish my studies. It was very hard on me emotionally.
4. What project were you working on?
During my stay, I took several regular Bachelor/Master level courses. I also worked on my own project, a term paper about Ukraine’s complex interdependence with Russia and the EU in relation to the EU Association Agreement that was, at the time, still expected to be signed by the end of 2013. This research also motivated me to take part in the above-mentioned autumn school in Kyiv that was also about Ukraine’s position between the European and the Eurasian Customs Union. Lately, in connection with the recent summer school, my focus was on post-Maidan developments and challenges of the country.
5. What are the fundamental differences and similarities between Ukrainian and foreign higher education system experienced by you during your stay in Ukraine?
As for similarities, I was very lucky to study at the university that was architecturally stunning and located in a beautiful small town, similar in size and cuteness to my city in the Netherlands. Both universities were established educational institutions with a long history and proud self-identification.
As for the education part, I noticed that studying particularly International Relations in a small town, quite remote from the capital was possible in both systems. But I had the feeling that my colleagues in the Netherlands saw this as a temporary stop before they would eventually move to the capital or any other big city in Europe, where they were sure they would find a job in their field. In Ukraine, it seemed more as if only very few students would “make it” and be able to find a job in that field. Most people were expecting to find a job in an unrelated field and likely stay in that small city. Thus, I felt like there was a mismatch between the output of the education system and actual market demand/opportunities.
As for teaching, I found very different approaches. While the Dutch system required a lot of independent reading and writing and had very few contact hours with lecturers, the Ukrainian experience was more like school for me. In Ukraine, students would go to class everyday and would spend long hours there, or were required to do a lot of homework. Small class like groups that go through the years together, teachers that mostly give monologues and do not expect students to actively participate in class. It also felt like passing requirements were slightly lower than in my home system.
6. What stereotypes have you had before your arrival in Ukraine (if any)? What interesting aspects in the life of Ukrainians did you discover for yourself? What surprised / impressed you?
To be honest, I have known very little about Ukraine, let alone about the Bukovyna before I went there. I had been to Russia and Georgia and got an average knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union and how the main countries developed after that period, but not really specifically about Ukraine. The months before my trip to Ukraine I coincidentally lived in the house of a German ex-politician and honorary consul for Ukraine in Germany, who spoke very positively about his experiences with the country and the people of Ukraine, which was a nice introduction for me, actually.
I had some silly stereotypes: that Ukrainians are very similar to Russians, that all girls are beautiful and blond and little did I know that Ukraine is so diverse in its history and culture. The first days in Ukraine actually confirmed stereotypes more than anything – at the airport in Chernivtsi I had to drag my suitcase off a truck, it was cold, there was no heating or water at my student dorm and similar experiences. But overall I can say that I overcame silly stereotypes like the ones I named and tried my best to meet Ukrainians and understand their ways of life.
I was definitely impressed with how people managed their daily lives in a city with quite bad infrastructure, small wages in comparison to the cost of living and little contact to “the outside world”. Moreover I was really impressed with how people dealt with this Soviet/post-Soviet authority-people nexus on a daily basis.
I was surprised to be welcomed so warmly. Actually, I was the only exchange student at the whole university that semester. I was surprised by the cultural richness and complexity of Chernivtsi and Western Ukraine in general. I was stunned by the beauty of country and architecture.
I think my further endeavours, living in Russia now and having experienced the madness surrounding Ukraine in the past months (from afar but yet so close), have again taught me many things about the country, the comparison with Russia couldn’t me more striking. I really felt like I had some advantages analysing these events having lived in Ukraine, knowing something about its people and history.
7. What are the main impressions of the city, campus, higher education institution? How did you settle your everyday life? Are there any preferences, bonuses for students, faculty of your higher education institution?
The city is beautiful and like a hidden gem. I loved it from the beginning and during the transition from winter, over spring to summer, the city unveiled its striking beauty. I lived in the dorms, where I had a special status compared to the other students. Instead of sharing a small room with one or two other people and a bathroom with the whole floor, I had an own small apartment in the dorm. I was very much aware of this luxury, but I also paid a lot of money for it. I was welcomed by both the International Office and my own faculty with warmth and excitement. Because I seemed to be the only exchange student at the faculty, even at the whole university, everybody was so nice to me and eager to show me everything.
8. Can you mention three main reasons for studying, working or living in Ukraine as for foreigners?
1) Witnessing a rapidly transforming country (for better or for worse) finding its path
2) A special and unique experience, different from the “usual” Erasmus experience
3) Interesting history and politics
9. What do you consider to be the most attractive in Ukraine to visit the country?
It is hard to say from today’s perspective. Then, it certainly was the curiosity about the unknown and the understanding that Ukraine is full of stories and realities in flux. Today it is about being absolutely essential to understand what is going on in Ukraine also from within the country. Thus, to me, the attractiveness lies ultimately in exploring a country that other people know rather little about and comparing media-transmitted stereotypes and narratives with real-life impressions.
10. From your perspective: do Ukrainians share the European values? From your personal point of view what part of the civilization space Ukraine is?
This is a difficult question because I don’t actually believe that all Europeans themselves necessarily share “European values”. In the part of the country where I found myself there was a large population that, if I understood correctly, wants to live a dignified life in the same way they perceive life in Europe to be like. In that sense notions of freedom, rule of law and democracy were strong and dominant. But it is not far fetched to argue that certain practices (as opposed to values) were contrary towards those ideas and I cannot say that I am absolutely convinced that those mentalities will eventually converge with European ones.
I find the civilizational question equally difficult because it requires thinking in civilizational terms, which is foreign to me. Ukraine is, of course, a part of Europe, geographically and culturally (mostly because to me it is not Asia and it is not the Middle East) but it was also a part of a former Eastern empire that as such, on the whole, is not that same Europe to me.
11. What are the main achievements and problems of the Ukrainian state in your opinion?
Last time I went to Ukraine in August 2015. Reflecting on my impression from then, achievements include that the nation building process is ripening, but the problem is that it is overripe now. Ukrainians all over the country can now identify as members of a nation and there is a strong sense of wanting to give something back to that community, accelerated by war and aggression, of course. But from a European perspective that tendency is also going too far, and notions of exceptionalism, militarism and victimization are somehow blurring that picture Ukraine seems to have of itself, to me. Obvious problems are furthermore a lack of real reforms and a vision for the future of the country, or at least deadlock in implementing these visions (albeit for obvious reasons).
12. Are you planning to return to Ukraine? What do you consider it is worth to implement to Ukrainian universities from the foreign education system?
I will return to Ukraine, without doubt. Developments in Ukraine are the core of my research agenda and my professional interest. It would of course be desirable to return to a university system that has significantly more funding channelled into it from a government that truly cares about educating a progressive, self-critical independent young generation, to allow for more research, better implementation of Bologna standards and more engaging teaching. This can only be done when lecturers, in return, get a significantly higher salary for their work and youngsters are given real opportunities on the job market to encourage them to develop themselves.