6 Reasons Why Professors at the University of Tartu are so Awesome – Liviu (Romania)

When we choose to apply for a university, we’re not just looking right away whether there is fun stuff to do or places to visit in the country. Sure, these factors matter too but most importantly, we’re looking for a university that offers top-quality education. A university is valuable as long as it has competent academic staff. Fortunately, the University of Tartu matches all the criteria when it comes to being a valuable academic environment.

So far, I have been studying at the University of Tartu for around one year and a half. I started off as an Erasmus student back in 2017 when I was just acquiring my Bachelor’s degree, and I returned later in 2019 as a degree-seeking Master’s student. Thanks to my previous experience in teaching and pedagogy, I was able to pay closer attention to how my professors at UT teach and behave. Therefore, I would like to share with you six reasons why I think professors at the University of Tartu deserve all the praise for just being awesome.

  1. Their attitude

When I first met my programme supervisor, Urmas Hõbepappel, he specifically told all of us to call him by his first name. No “Professor Hõbepappel”, no “Sir”, no “Mr. Hõbepappel”. Just Urmas. This might seem like quite a trivial detail, but for me, it was a great sign. Why? Because calling someone by their first name signals closeness and a less formal relationship. In my home country, Romania, you would never call your professor by their first name, especially not in class. Do that and you’ll be in big trouble.

Anyway, this appears to be a rule of thumb at the University of Tartu: always call your professor by your first name (unless they specifically point out not to do that, but so far, I haven’t met anyone like that). This is the start of every good student-professor relationship in Tartu.

My groupmates and programme director on our first day as UT students. September 2019
Picture credit: Tartu Ülikooli Aasia Keskus
  1. They make it look interesting

Nobody wishes to enroll in a university and attend boring courses. However, each of us has been through that lecture that is so hard to pay attention to because the professor just talks non-stop for one hour and a half, or the materials used aren’t that great or the topic is just too complicated…We’ve all been through this.

From my observations so far, things are quite different in Tartu. There is always an interaction between the students and the professor. The lectures and seminars that I have attended so far haven’t been that static. There is always some interesting video or graph to show, or there is always an interesting fact or question that needs to be discussed.

For example, last year I took International Law, a course with the topic of which I had absolutely no experience whatsoever, but was compulsory nevertheless. Not only that, but the course started at 16:15 and ended at 19:30! It was so long and finished at a late hour. That would sound like a nightmare for some of you.

Despite all this, the course was really enjoyable. We were offered tons of examples and explanations, but what I think mattered the most was that the professor made the topic sound like a story. Each lecture was weaving itself into the other and it felt like you were actually progressing and getting somewhere. Professors at UT don’t always come up with something “wow” that surprises us (no one expects that all the time), but they are putting all the effort they can to make each lesson interesting.

  1. It’s ok to ask questions (and it’s encouraged, too!)

Let’s face it, whenever a professor asks us “Do you have any questions?”, most of the time we either stay silent or just shake “no”. Unfortunately, this happens even when we have a question or when we didn’t understand something that had been taught. We do this because we don’t want to appear as “the only person who didn’t get it”.

Here’s what I like about the University of Tartu: it’s ok to ask any questions any time! You don’t have to wait until the end of the lecture or after the lecture in order to ask your question. Don’t hesitate to raise your hand and ask, professors are actually looking forward to that. And if something is unclear and you discover it after the lecture or seminar, sending an e-mail to your professor is always the way to go. 

  1. Consistent feedback

Each time I submit an assignment, I always receive constructive feedback from my professor who points out strong and weak points of my work. Many times, professors would ask to specifically submit my assignment in Word format so that they can add their comments for more detailed feedback. For me, receiving feedback is crucial because it’s the only way I can know if I’m doing something right or if I need some improvement. It’s just like when you cook something for the first time: you want people to taste your new food because you can’t say for sure if it’s good or not if you only taste it by yourself.

Therefore, expect to receive feedback for every assignment, group work, or exam. Consistent feedback is going to help you progress in your studies.

Also, worth mentioning is that at the end of every semester, every student is expected to anonymously give feedback to their professors and the course they had been teaching. Try to write down as many details as possible, professors need feedback just like you do!

  1. They are true mentors

What does it mean to be a professor? I was fortunate enough to experience teaching during Bachelor’s studies and high school where I taught different subjects to kindergarten and high school students. I realized that being an educator is not about blabbing some Wikipedia information about something, giving homework, grading papers, seeing your students pass, and calling it a day. Not at all. A true professor is a mentor, someone you can look up to. 

Throughout my years of studying in Tartu, I came to the conclusion that professors at UT are true mentors. Why is that?

From my experience, the University of Tartu professors are never selfish. They want us to succeed because our success is their success. If you’re good, they will congratulate you. If you need improvement, they will let you know. If you’re overwhelmed, they will help you. If you don’t understand, they will explain. They will never criticize you or reject you if you ask for help. (At the University of Tartu, the golden rule is “Ask and you shall be given”). 

Noteworthy: don’t be afraid to ask your professor for advice on any non-academic matter. Apart from their academic skills, they have also amassed plenty of life experience. 

Group meet-up in Möku together with our programme director. September 2019.
Picture credit: Urmas Hõbepappel
  1. They are great friends

Being a professor is not just about being all formal. It’s also about being friends with the students. As one of my professors from last year said: “There is no hierarchy here. We are all colleagues, students, and professors. We learn from you just as you learn from us”. 

When I was in Romania, I didn’t have many professors like that. There was always a strict hierarchy. The student was somewhere down here and the professor up there on a pedestal. But coming to Estonia was like a revelation. My reaction was like: “Wait, can you be friends with your professors and highly respect them at the same time?”

Of course! Professors at UT are not just unidimensional characters that you receive tasks from and have formal talking with. They are interesting people with amazing life stories, hobbies, families, and perspectives on life. They work hard, but they also know how to have fun. In Tartu, it is absolutely normal to hang out with your professor, get to know their family, and talk about stuff that is not related to school. 

In the end, I again have to emphasize that the professors of the University of Tartu are true professionals. They do a wonderful job and deserve all the praise. They are one of the reasons why I decided to come back to Tartu and start my Master’s degree, after such a good experience during my Erasmus. And much of who I am today is the result of my professors’ efforts. And for those of you who are planning to come to the University of Tartu in the future, I can assure you that the teaching staff here will become your life-changing role models and inspire you in your future career. At the University of Tartu, you are never on your own.