A foreigner everywhere: foreign students in HSE

In the big students’ family of Saint Petersburg campus of Higher School of Economics there are more than 5000 people. Every tenth of them is a foreigner. Indeed, foreign students make up about 10% of the whole number of people in HSE SPb. Four foreign HSE students shared their stories of habituation to the Russian-Petersburg realities and also told us whether it is comfortable to study on fully English-language educational programs of a Russian university.


1st year student, International Business and Management


1st year student, Political Science and World Politics


1st year student, International Business and Management


1st year student, Political science and world politics

Starting point

The path of each of our guests to the HSE can be called unique. They all came from different countries, had their reasons to come here, and all of them are associated with their own unrests, ambitions, and desires.

Alessandro: Actually, I wanted to live in Italy. Because I wanted to live in the same place for a long time because in Italy, I know everything, and I wanted to see something new. And I have lived in Russia for one year when I was sixteen. And I have been to Saint Petersburg and I really like it. So, I remembered Saint Petersburg when I thought about going somewhere else. And I had a friend of mine. He is studying here, and he told me that this university’s really good. So, I went to decide, I looked for some problems and I applied for management and for mathematics. I just came for management.

Kashvad: Initially, I was studying business administration in Spain. But in Segovia during the study, I wanted to figure international relations which is a branch of politics because I love politics. Certain events happened when I was studying in Spain. I had decided to leave university before my first year finished. So, it was May 2017 and the only university that still gave scholarships and selective applications was HSE. Mainly I wanted to study politics, it was my goal. And I saw ranking that HSE is giving quite high politics. I investigated the university and then I submitted my application without knowing was it actually positive or negative stuff.  So, I left my university in Spain move to Turkey after my application was done and then I got good news from HSE that I could come and study politics here.

Syutszya: I have been here for 2 years. I came here because I wanted to have a feeling like studying abroad and I had been learning Russian before I came here. So, Russian is an interesting language and I like the history of Russia. Besides, before I came here, I had fallen in love with one movie “He’s a dragon”. I heard then that HSE has really great sources of education, not so expensive and less Chinese. I choose to study here.

Cecille: I came to Saint Petersburg because I wanted to learn Russian. In addition, I really wanted to study Russian politics and thought about HSE because this university has a good ranking. I decided it was the best place where I could do that I found interesting, and chose it.

Initial impression

Before the university, each of the folks had their own hopes and expectations from the education here. And it is logical because they came to study in another country, far from home, and they had their own skills, standards, which they received in their schools before moving.

Alessandro: First of all, I didn’t actually know how the university works. I used to think that in university you just attend lessons and then you have an exam after some months. Usually, it is so, at least in most of the cases. You don’t need to attend lessons sometimes, you just have to pass the exam, and if you get a good mark, it means that you pass. So, I thought that it is the same here and I remember the first week when I didn’t go to the most lectures and two seminars, because of thought that I didn’t need to go there.

But then I understood that here you get marks frequently, teachers give you a lot of different quizzes, but I like it because it forces me to study

Generally, I found the study here is not so theoretical by comparing to Italian way of studying because there you learn more theory. And here you can superficially talk about something, so we are not getting in depth and I am not getting confused.

Kashvad: The biggest thing which surprised me when I came here was a quality of education. I had been living abroad before I came to Russia and I heard that the quality of education is low, but when I came here, I was surprised. Teachers interact with you, assist you constantly when you need any help, and I think because I came here from foreign background teachers really are supportive of me in order to make sure that I can blend with my classmates. Generally, I had a lot of questions about political science before coming. I found a lot of answers by learning more and just getting the direction of education. And I understood that I actually love to get more knowledge.

Syutszya: I made there a lot of friends, both Russian friends and foreign. In my group, there is only one guy from China and other international students are from Columbia, America, and South Africa. I just fell in love with my group because they are friendly, and we are very happy to be together. Another interesting story is that I got a lot of experience when I was a volunteer at the Economic Forum, our university being one of the participants in this event. I really enjoyed doing this part of the students’ activity.

Cecille: I love the way of teaching in HSE: teachers are very open to students, we don’t only use the textual materials in class, we have a lot of sources and we can talk about different topics with teachers and it is a really enriching experience for me. So, I have already gained a lot, I am learning a lot from people in my class and because they are Russians, I am learning a lot about Russian culture.

Relations with fellow students

It is often said that it is easier for foreigners to communicate with each other rather than with their Russian classmates. Allegedly, they form groups and rarely go beyond them. Whether so, our guests will tell us.

Alessandro: Honestly, when I was in Russia for my exchange year, some years ago, I talked only to foreigners or other exchange students, so I didn’t get some Russian friends, and I didn’t like that. When I came back home, I thought “what the ****”. I had been living in Russia for the full year and I didn’t have any Russian friends. So right now, I am talking only to Russians and most of the time I am trying to make Russian friends. It’s kind of hard due to language because I don’t speak Russian so perfectly, but I don’t want to talk too much to foreigners, because of I afraid of being only in a group of foreigners. I think Russians would look at us and would say «okay, they are a group of foreigners, we cannot communicate with them».

Kashvad: I think I have to make a balance between talking to Russian students and foreign students. For the academic purposes, I feel like it’s a fifty-fifty. I talk to both Russians and foreigners. Most of my foreign classmates ask me a lot of questions, so this is a necessary interaction. And with Russians, I just want to learn more. I think, in my dormitory, I talk to Russian students only most of the time. I’m talking about the language, the culture, the food, the habits, it’s enjoyable because I’m learning a lot of new things about them.

Syutszya: I think the easier way is to communicate with international students because all of us are from foreign countries, it is our common feature here.

And for me, it’s easier to talk to foreigners about our country’s life, but our Russian friends always greet us, because we are from foreign countries, and maybe it’s kind of interesting for them to communicate with different peoples

Cecille: I think it’s easier to communicate with international students because we are all foreigners and we are all panicked, and we all don’t know what to do. The Russian students’re really open, really sweet, they always want to help, but there are some difficulties. I mean, everybody in my class speaks Russian between each other and I don’t understand anything, sometimes they try to translate but it’s still not the same. So, they very sweet but communication is not like with foreign students, where everyone stays together, because we’re in the same boat.

Lost in translation

The programs where the folks study are completely English-speaking. This is quite a rare phenomenon in the Russian education system and the opinions of Russian students differ. What do our friends from other countries think about this?

 Alessandro: I’m studying in English, so I can learn English better and I can study Russian because I live in Russia. It’s cool, I think. If I compare learning in Italian and in English, I would say that here I get less knowledge probably, because everything has a little bit more summarized kind. It is not studying in depth, teachers don’t want to add too many contents because it would be difficult for us to learn all the details in English. Anyway, like other students, I come across new words, and I just translate them and try to remember them next time. But I don’t have a big problem with the study because of this.

Kashvad: For most of the subjects I don’t feel any language barrier, because most teachers communicate in English perfectly and I understand almost everything that they teach, because it is quite available, it’s easy to participate in conversation, but in math class sometimes teacher switches to Russian and I just do little “Ya ne ponimaet”. But even though my program is completely English-speaking for only two years, the quality, in general, is really good, and I think that HSE can easily create more same programs, which is quite feasible.

Syutszya: I don’t understand anything *laughing*. Because I’m Chinese my English is not really good. Sometimes while studying in English I meet the professional words, and at such moments it seems to me that I study rocket science. I think some teachers have a strong Russian accent, sometimes I can’t understand English words or phrases. I confer with my friends, my groupmates and sometimes they are also can’t understand such English.

But I see that the HSE has improved its teaching system in this respect, because I met my friends before, and they said that some teachers do not speak English. Now I have come here, and it seems to me that HSE has received feedback from students about this and has eliminated the problems

If the teacher sometimes switches to Russian, you can write feedback about it. Unfortunately, there are not many English-speaking minors in HSE. It’s a big problem that there are only 3 minors that I can choose. Now I study one, but I want to choose another.

Cecille: I lived in America, so I speak English well, and it’s quite easy to understand everything. But some teachers speak less good English so it’s more difficult to communicate. They are so sweet but, in written materials, there are a lot of mistakes actually, so sometimes sentences are hard to make sense of. So, I think it would be better to hire maybe more international teachers instead of Russians. But still, I think HSE have made really great advances and staff really great, but right now, unfortunately, there are only a few programs in English.

About Russia and stuff

The guys spend a lot of time at the university, but in any case, they have to break away from learning and go out, to communicate with local people, to see how life is arranged here. What do they think about it? What differences they are found between Russia and their native countries, between Russians and their compatriots.

 Alessandro: If we talk about Russia, the climate immediately comes to mind. Today I woke up at 7 am and only at 9 am when I arrived at university, I saw some kind of light. I have been to Sochi for 5 days last week, and there was much sun. I came back, and I think I haven’t seen the sun for 10 days. That’s so bad. Also, I don’t like snow because I have only lightweight sneakers, that’s all. I’m gonna die soon, do you understand? And I have only one light jacket, which I’m wearing now, and I think that after a month I won’t be able to survive here.

But despite this, I really love local architecture and every time I go to the center I’m thinking: «I’m living in Saint Petersburg, that’s so weird”. It is impossible not to notice Russians, whom you don’t know, usually don’t smile for you.

When I go to the supermarket, they’re looking at me like: «What the ****, why are you smiling?” Now I’m smiling less and less, so soon I will be Russian, and I’ll never smile again anymore

Conversely, Italian people smile more, and Italian people touch other people, but here is not normal, if I touch you, you need more personal space. When I go to Italy, even at the first meeting I usually give a kiss or two kisses on the cheeks, and in Russia, in the beginning, I didn’t realize, what are the rules here, so I was going to do that, with boys too. So, when I told these to some Russians they said: “What the ****, are you gay?”. But there is a common feature between us: Russians like to get drunk and to do stupid stuff like Italians.

Kashvad: Firstly, I want to say, that people usually don’t appreciate firm handshakes. Although a strong handshake is a way to get a good first impression. And Russia is the only place I can actually proper handshake, it’s really nice.

The second thing is architecture. I have been in the city most of my life, where there are lots of tall buildings and building blocks. I did not feel any different wherever I went.

But here in Saint Petersburg, every corner of the city has its own identity. So, it kind of lets you understand the beauty of certain things that you couldn’t see before, which identifies Saint Petersburg.

People are more respectful here because they look better, they are nicer, they act more gentle. I must say, I have not lived in Iran for a long time, so I’m not exactly sure about their behavior so I’m gonna compare to Malaysia. There it’s a lot more like a free zone, people come out on street wearing underwear and stuff.  Here people dress properly when they come out.

Another big difference that is important to me is that people appreciate the personal spaces of others, so interactions are limited to handshakes and hugs, that’s it. In Malaysia, it was a lot of touching really. In Spain, on the first day of my university, I remember professors had to shake your hands to introduce themselves and to give student card to us. Also, there we would kiss once or twice, but here If you don’t want to kiss you don’t have to do that here, because people don’t do that stuff. Also, interesting that in Saint Petersburg people are really hygienic, I see people wash their hands with a hand sanitizer everywhere. It’s really nice, I haven’t seen it anywhere else never. People really care about their health.

Syutszya: Actually, before I came to Saint Petersburg, I was in Ekaterinburg and there is so cold during the winter, so I chose to come here. Saint Petersburg is a popular city and I really like how it looks. Also, I love this city because I did a lot of volunteer work here. I found out that it’s really a great opportunity to get experience and also, I made a lot of Russian good friends through volunteer work. I have no reason not to fall in love with Saint Petersburg.

And I think the difference between Russians and Chinese that Russian culture is more open, in China people’re more traditional. Here it is easier to make a friend, and also you use a knife and fork to eat food like in Europe countries

Chinese use chopsticks and it’s a big difference. Also, Chinese people eat food together, but you do it separately, everyone eats their own food alone.

Cecille: I visited Russia as a tourist before, so I know Moscow and a few other cities, but I choose Saint Petersburg because to me it’s the most beautiful and the most European city. Obviously, the weather is unpredictable, but it’s okay. I love Russian people, they are so different, very open, and I wanted to come here specifically to break stereotypes about Russia because I feel like in Europe there is a lot of things we don’t know about Russia, and I wanted to see it by myself. I love discovering every day that something is obviously absolutely not true, something is true and it’s very interesting.

Generally, there are a lot of French people in Saint Petersburg, actually. And it is quite funny because French people are so different from Russians, and at the same time, we are very close because we have very close cultures. I think it’s easier for me to communicate with people from other countries because French students often come here for vodka and parties, I don’t like this kind of thinking.

Also, I know Russian people are more patient and they really appreciate friendly people. In addition, they want to help you, discover the country for you, and, it’s important to note, Russian people are not what the media show

It isn’t true that Russians don’t smile, I think it’s also a little stereotype. They don’t smile when you first meet them, but with friends there are always smiles.

Text: Vlad Shatilov

Photo: Anastasia Zhigulina

Editor: Angelina Silaeva