International perspective: an American student in Estonia

The University of Tartu’s old-world charm and small size are two of the most appealing things about studying there, writes American student Annie Healion

March 3 2020
University of Tartu, Estonia, America, university, study abroad, international, Baltic, higher education

Imagine a place blanketed by a thick layer of forest punctuated by meteor craters (the highest number of craters per square kilometre in the world), studded with bogs and natural mires.

Snuggled next to Latvia, underneath Finland, and bordered by Russia, Estonia is a Baltic state in northern Europe. With a population of 1.3 million and a land mass smaller than most US states, Estonia is, indisputably, tiny. But while it might not be large, its impact on Europe and the world is immense. Ever heard of Skype? Invented by an Estonian.

Any conversation about Estonia, however, is incomplete without mentioning its long, and complicated, history. Occupied by various powers – most recently the Soviets, the Nazis and then Soviets again— Estonia sang its way to freedom, formalised in 1991.

The Estonian fight for independence – the Singing Revolution – is the reason I came to the University of Tartu in Estonia. My undergraduate research, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, focused on the Baltic’s protest against the Soviet Union at the fall of the Iron Curtain. Through my research, and maybe one too many 1980s Estonian music videos, I fell in love with Estonia and knew I wanted to continue learning about it.


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The University of Tartu’s application process was incredibly easy, and like pretty much everything in Estonia (from applying for a visa to checking medical records), the process was completely online.

Both the university and the city of Tartu are small. During my undergraduate degree at Edinburgh, I was used to being in giant lecture halls full of students. Here, my degree course has 25 people; I know each of their names, and outside school it’s completely normal to bump into them at the grocery store, the post office or the bookshop – all of which are in a 4km radius.

Sometimes, especially when I haven’t finished all my readings, I miss the anonymity of grandiose lecture theaters, but University of Tartu’s size affords opportunities (both within and outside the classroom) that were simply unavailable to me at a larger institution. Conferences, study-abroad opportunities, scholarships – all these things are more accessible at the University of Tartu.

Outside classes, student life is unique. The university has some English language clubs and societies – AIESEC, the debate union to name a few – but there are not as many as you might be used to.

The university also doesn’t have as many sports teams as are typical, at least in the US. There are still ways to get involved in sports, but it certainly won’t be that competitive or as big a part of university life as it might be elsewhere.

Tartu is also very much a “university town”. When students manage a free moment from studies, Tartu becomes their playground.

While Tartu’s winter is almost unbearably dark and cold, it is a “city of good thoughts” (at least according to the city’s slogan). Tartu’s old town offers a selection of cafes and restaurants – perfect for studying or catching up with friends. The town square (Raekoja Plats) is almost saccharinely cute. In the dreary depths of winter, the Tartu Christmas Market is a respite from the cold complete with a curious hay stall – honestly, if someone can explain this, please email me.

But beyond the small quadrangle of university buildings and Tartu’s old town is an exciting world ready for discovery. Aparaaditehas, for example, is a former factory complex metamorphosed into a hip site for fun vintage shops and restaurants. Nature lovers might want to take a stroll along the Emajogi River. If you’re still not satisfied, I recommend my favourite area, Karlova. Old wooden buildings heated by fires, cozy cafes and some pretty great coffee make Karlova a special spot.

Tartu is undoubtedly small, but it has pretty much anything you would need. And if you’re looking for something bigger or just different, Tallinn (Estonia’s capital) is two and half hours away by bus, while Riga (the capital of Latvia) is a four-hour bus ride away.

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