Katya Tsiban from Krasnodar, near the Black Sea, and Yulya Volchenko, from Kamchatkapetropavlovsk in the far east, are Russian students studying at the University of North London through a new exchange with Moscow State University.
Since last September the 19-year-olds have been attending courses in social sciences and English at the university, while UNL students have been attending intensive Russian courses and lectures in social sciences at Moscow State.
This exchange, of self-evident benefit to all parties, was relatively easy to set up. With the opening-up of the former Soviet Union it is much easier to make agreements with individual universities and are always plenty of Russian students wanting to come to England to study English.
But perestroika or not, British and Russian cultures still differ enormously. Furthermore for these students, unlike European ones, this is normally their first time in the country in which they will spend the best part of a year.
Spending months in a university hostel not only in a strange town but in a strange country, with a language that is difficult to follow, it could have been a miserable time for the exchange students. The culture in general and the learning and teaching culture and methodology in particular are quite different from those of their countries.
It is not surprising that at first students on these exchanges can experience feelings of panic and culture shock and take a little time to settle down. Often expectations are unreasonably high and there can be initial disappointment that the university and city do not conform to their expectations.
Add to this worry about money and courses and the fact that this was the first year of the exchange, and it could have been a disaster.
Fortunately Tsiban and Volchenko are exceptionally positive, although they did have initial doubts. "At first we didn't want to come at all," Tsiban says. "I come from a different town, and I had only just settled down and made friends in Moscow; I didn't want to uproot myself again. Then we thought in terms of half a year. But English is so important to both our futures that in the end we decided to come for a year, and now we're delighted that we did. Six months would not have been long enough.
"Initially we were surprised at the university. We had always thought of England in terms of her history and universities in terms of Oxford and Cambridge. We were expecting ivy-clad walls in grassy courtyards and we saw this new building, on a busy road ..."
Another surprise was the course load. "At Moscow University we have at least ten courses a term,'' Volchenko explains. "Here at UNL we have four. In Moscow we start at nine in the morning, we have lectures one after another without a break for at least six hours a day five days a week. Then we work in the library because we always have something to prepare for the next day. And no one would consider turning up to class without having prepared the homework. No matter how well you do in exams, if you are not prepared in class you cannot get a high mark in your finals. We get home about six. It's rather tiring, and it's like that every day.
"Here, we have maybe one lecture at ten, then a break for an hour, then another lecture."
Russian students are extremely disciplined and hard working, very focused on their subjects and initially can be worried that they are missing out if they do not seem to have enough work to do. Universities are highly structured, and most students come straight from school, whereas UNL has a high proportion of mature students. "We are the youngest students on our courses here at UNL," says Volchenko. "At Russian universities students are 17 or 18 at the most." It can be difficult adjusting to a more open timetable, planning one's day oneself and working on one's own."
But there were pleasant surprises as well. Both women say the staff at UNL are much more approachable. "In Moscow University lecturers are almost like beings from another planet - you have to treat them with enormous respect. Well, of course, we respect the staff here as well, but they are much more friendly, they treat us more as equals. We can chat with them and discuss our problems with them. It is also easier to talk to staff because the seminar groups are smaller (Moscow about 15, but London five) and the lectures are less crowded. The technology here is fantastic as well, with computers all over the university. We are very impressed by the learning centre here, this huge room filled with computers and television satellite terminals in different languages. We don't have anything like that in Moscow."
The social life, so vital for feeling at home and improving fluency in the target language, is also a plus for UNL. "We have no balls in Moscow," said Tsiban. "I went to the freshers ball here and it was a bit difficult at first, everybody else was dressed in gowns and things and I had on a mini-skirt - but I still had a good time."
Fortunately the two women have adapted well. They were the first on this exchange and for those following them things will hopefully be easier. Future students will not be surprised that the university, opposite Holloway tube station in London, is not among green fields and dreaming spires.
And now Tsiban and Volchenko do not want to leave. They say they have gained immeasurably from their year in London and want to come back to study further at UNL. They are pleased they came to a modern university. As they are a bridge between the old and new Russia, so UNL is a bridge between old teaching traditions and new possibilities.
"I like its busyness," says Volchenko, "the way everybody is always zooming round, doing different things."
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