A Letter to My Younger Self: UT Alumni Perspective – Merey (Kazakhstan)

Another academic year is coming to an end, and for many graduating students, this marks a new significant milestone in life. Each one of them has come a long way and now will finally join the ranks of alumni of the University of Tartu. I personally congratulate you warmly and admire your courage and resilience to power through and fulfill your ambitions. I realize that this journey was arduous, but also full of learning opportunities and happy moments. Therefore, I decided to ask some of my graduating friends and alumni of UT to reflect on their very own special academic journey and share some of the lessons they learned throughout their studies at the university with all the current and prospective students. This is truly a long read, but hopefully a practical and interesting one. Without any further ado, let me present you their takes on what they would have done differently if they could start all over again.

Eleni Alexandri, Greece, Semiotics, Class of 2021:

My name is Eleni and I recently graduated from the MA programme of Semiotics. During the two years of my studies, I had the opportunity to learn more about the amazing field of semiotics, work with various interesting and thought-provoking theories, and apply the newly acquired knowledge to my personal projects. In parallel, living in Tartu I met people from all around the world, made new friends, and created lots of memories that will stay with me forever.

Looking back on these two years, I realize that there are not many things I would have done differently; perhaps one thing I would change if I could turn back time would be to try minimizing the stress and fear for the upcoming assignments, deadlines, and final papers. Even though it is understandable and expected to be anxious about your performance and about the end results you are presenting, stress is one of the greatest factors holding you back. The constant second-thinking is blurring your judgment and it is making the learning process much more difficult and mentally exhausting. Obviously, there is no switch to turn off stress, but I would advise everyone to be calm, focus on the important aspect of studying, which is learning; understand that without failure there could be no success and that from our mistakes we take valuable lessons and get stronger.

Find creative and healthy ways to release your stress, spend some time reading a book unrelated to your studies, make some sketches, listen to your favorite music, watch videos of cute animals being funny, exercise or go for a walk outside. It doesn’t matter whether you are a BA, MA, or Ph.D. student, whether you are already in Tartu or applying to get here; just take a deep breath, think of your goals and dreams, gather your strength, manage to see the real proportions of the situation you are into, without over or underestimating, and start walking slowly but steadily towards your success story. I wish the best to each and every one of you.

Fidan Vali, Azerbaijan, European Union – Russia Studies, Class of 2021:

My name is Fidan Vali, and I am a recent graduate of the EU – Russia Studies MA programme of Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the University of Tartu for having enriched my knowledge in the field and for having given me the opportunity of meeting people who I can truly call best friends.

It was an amazing, but not a flawless journey. But this is what I was expecting from the very beginning. Like life itself, every single journey within it cannot always be good and cannot always be bad. This is not a matter of perception, but this is how it is. Therefore, I came prepared to enjoy all the fun and to “mourn” all the troubles that are inevitable. Would I change anything to avoid those troubles? Definitely not. Would I change the way I was feeling about them? Probably not.

Stressing out is not the most pleasant feeling, but, as odd as this may sound, a moderate amount of stress toughens us up. But because of our nature, it does not matter how much in control we try to be, sometimes feelings overwhelm us, and we think we cannot handle it. So, the only thing I would change is to go back to the points when I was feeling that this is the end of the world and remind myself that the universe never gives you more than you can bear. In a nutshell, I was content with all ups and downs – even with my curtains, the first thing people complain about in dormitories; they are either too transparent or completely absent. Mine was just perfect.

Rainbow over Tartu
Photo credit: Kateryna Kubrak

Yaroslava Rychyk, Ukraine, European Languages and Cultures, Class of 2021:

My name is Yaroslava, and I have graduated from the MA programme of European Languages and Cultures. Apart from tons of academic readings and writings, these two years taught me how to communicate, cope with time management issues, and think critically. If I had the opportunity to rewind time, I wouldn’t make any drastic changes – perhaps I’m too lazy for that but also I had actually a great time being here. Yet, some tips and tricks can be useful for others so here they are.

First, if you can attend the actual offline classes, do that – I had three online semesters, and at the end of my studies I was ready to go to the University at 8:30 a.m. every morning. Besides, it’s really important to rest properly: yes, you can pick plenty of courses and forget how to sleep, but at the end of the day you’re a human being, and having a rest is your basic need. And trust me, sometimes it’s okay just to watch Netflix the whole day instead of hanging out: if your mind and body require this type of activity, allow them to enjoy it. Try also not to be too critical towards yourself – there is nothing better than making mistakes or saying silly things, especially at the first seminars. Finally, it’s cool to become your own best friend sharing both moments of success and epic failures – the more you care about yourself the more you get. Enjoy it!

Jasmin Schmitz, Germany, Democracy and Governance, Class of 2020:

I am Jasmin, from Germany, and graduated from the Democracy and Governance (nowadays it’s the Politics and Governance in the Digital Age programme) in 2020. Studying for two years in Tartu as a master’s student has been an amazing experience, it allowed me to discuss all sorts of topics with people from all over the globe. Also, I have rarely experienced such support from members of faculty as was the case here, I think this was really largely the reason I’ve become more interested in not just studying but also doing science myself. However, there are of course a few things I would’ve loved to have done differently looking back now.

Essays/exams/assignments are important but so are friends! Surely, this isn’t a mind-blowing revelation, but I think that it is easy to forget this when you see deadlines piling up. Looking back now, I mostly remember my time in Tartu through the time I spent with my friends doing things that at the time seemed very mundane. I don’t think that it’s only the big and exciting things that stuck with me but also just having a meal together or playing a board game one evening. Your studies might be what motivated you to move to Estonia of all places, but I think that it is the people you will meet along the way to your degree that make it such as special time.

Being on the topic of memories, I really wished I would have explored more of Estonia itself. Even though the country was my home for two years and I tried to get out of Tartu often, I still feel like there is so much more that I would have loved to have visited. Besides the obvious hotspots Pärnu, Haapsalu, and Saaremaa, Estonia has so much amazing nature to offer, the likes of which can really not be found in a lot of places. After graduation I moved to a larger city in Germany and especially during the most recent lockdown I have become even more appreciative of how easy it was to escape into the green in Tartu; it really is an amazing thing that you can walk in any direction and find yourself surrounded by just trees in no time! I definitely had to admit to myself that this was one of the things that I took for granted at times when I still lived in Tartu but of course it also makes me want to visit again (and hopefully soon) even more. All in all, I always felt that Tartu is a very unique place that will allow you to learn a lot about yourself if you let it, enjoy your time!

Photo credit: Kateryna Kubrak

Ayaz Karimov, Azerbaijan, Innovation and Technology Management, Class of 2021:

My name is Ayaz, and I have graduated from the Innovation and Technology Management master`s program. When I ask myself that “what could I have done differently”, the first thing that comes to my mind is about visiting other cities in Estonia. In the first year of the program, I have so much focused on taking more courses and only visiting popular places in Estonia/ Europe. But now I think, it would be much better to discover local places. Then, I would also discover more courses to see whether I am interested in that field or not. Only in the last semester, I took the course from Education Department, and I enjoyed it a lot. So, if I had a chance then I would like to discover and take a bit different courses than my casual curriculum courses.

Alina Nekrasova, Russia, Business Administration, Class of 2020:

I have completed the bachelor’s program in Economics and Business Administration, and these 3 years were like a small life. And as we all know, there are both good and bad things happening in life. Looking back to the start, I understand that some things could have been done differently.

First of all, as a person originally not from an English-speaking country, I wouldn’t be afraid of communicating with people because of possible mistakes in speech. Tartu is a multinational city, and there are people of a variety of backgrounds and stories, having different known languages and accents. Nobody thinks about someone not being super grammatically correct. The vibe and the ability to express one’s self and being open to people is what matters.

As the next point, I wouldn’t be stressed or too emotional about people who simply don’t deserve it. Meaning both – university-related (lazy groupmates and free riders and arrogant professors or those who know their subjects but cannot transfer the knowledge to others) and some fake friends and pals. Here is also the decision to be more strict about personal boundaries and say “no” to some people. Same going with grades, I would choose knowledge over grades and stop constantly comparing myself with others. Instead of thinking about people who got good grades with cheating while I got the lower one without it, I would think about what I learned and how it can be used in practice.

I would definitely reconsider my sleeping schedule because the priorities are usually pretty much everything but not sleep. At one point in time, you understand that yes, you have done many things but lost your health somewhere in between, which is foolish and limit you to achieve more in the future. I would spend more time on quality rest like reading, drawing, jogging, and visiting an animal shelter. I would start hiking in the Estonian forest way earlier than I did because even spots that are 20 or 30-minute rides from Tartu are fantastic. I would spend more time learning different languages and practicing them with the exchange students as this is a perfect way to have fun and benefit at the same time. I would stop being in a rush and fully enjoy every moment that beautiful Tartu sunsets can bring.

Sunset over Tartu
Photo credit: Kateryna Kubrak

Liviu Pintilie, Romania, Contemporary Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Class of 2021:

For the last two years, I have been studying Contemporary Asian and Middle Eastern Studies for my MA degree. It was a major change compared to my previous studies in philology, but I never felt that it is something that I cannot ever complete. On the contrary, I have been quite positive about it. This month I am going to graduate, and as I am enjoying my last days as a student at the University of Tartu, I am trying to comprehend what has happened to me during my Master’s studies.

To put it simply, I have been improving myself as a person, as a student, as a future adult. In most areas I have done my best, in some, I feel I could have done more. For instance, I wish I could have been more active socially from my first year. In that regard, I wish I could have joined ISA from the first year. Of course, eventually, I ended up joining this awesome organization in the second year of my MA, which still turned out to be great, but I know I could have enjoyed it much more from much earlier. So if you can, join ISA or any other student organization as soon as you start your studies!

Also, I wish I could have focused more on my hobbies. Studying and socializing time have been spent accordingly, but when it came to free time, I mostly spent it doing really unnecessary things: watching random Youtube videos, playing video games, browsing the internet randomly, etc. We all do this or some of this sometimes, and it is alright to have some time not engaging in serious activities. But spending too much time on things that don’t educate you in any way, or don’t improve your skills is, nevertheless, a waste of time. And the truth is that time is the most precious resource. The moment you’re reading this line right now doesn’t come back, and neither does the moment when you finish reading this paragraph. Therefore, my advice to all of you would be to maximize your time spent in university as much as possible. Get organized, find a way to balance studies, social life, and hobbies. Leave some small time for relaxing and taking a break from everything, but always be reasonable. Focus on your skills and find ways to put your talents to work! We cannot control time per se, but we can control the way we spend it! Use this great power wisely!

Thank you for reaching the very end of the blog post! There’s absolutely a lot more experience the graduates featured in this blog post could share, but I hope you can benefit even from a small portion of advice the alumni gave this time. I’m looking forward to the moment when you can also write a letter to your younger self. We all have stories to share that could help someone out. So what story are you going to tell?