Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hi. I am Mahmoud Hikal, a 38-year-old Egyptian. I started my career as a computer instructor in 2005. I have 18 international certificates in many domains of computer science. I also have the experience of teaching cybersecurity in Egypt, not only to students, but to the army, as well. I love writing romantic stories and I have also worked as a journalist in the past. Many of my stories have been published. When I was in Egypt, I worked as a volunteer in the Russian cultural center, where I was responsible for managing student scholarships. 

Now I am here at ITMO studying a Master’s degree in robotics and artificial intelligence. And I have some good news! A few days ago, I signed my contract as an engineer at ITMO. So now, besides being a student, I am also an employee at this wonderful university.

What is your project about?

I am working on drones. Currently, drones are used to overcome the challenge of navigating inside deep structures like caves. I am developing a technology that’ll help drones easily navigate their way through such deep structures, even without proper internet access. This would definitely be a useful development for the military, but commercially, too, it would play a massive role in improving our day-to-day life.

How does it feel to be a student again?

It feels refreshing, but without ITMO’s support, it wouldn’t have been the same. I feel ITMO is like my family, my home. Everyone at ITMO is so professional. They don’t treat me like a student but as their own family member. The teachers here are amazing. My respect for Russia has increased a lot, thanks to ITMO. The staff here are also so supportive. If you want to study till late at night – the coworking spaces are open; if you want to dance – you are encouraged; if you want to play sports – KronBars is waiting. Such infrastructure and facilities make me excited to be a student all my life.

You are such a multi-talented person! What are your hobbies?

I have numerous hobbies. I like to play chess a lot. I have won many prizes back in Egypt. Recently, I also participated in a championship in Russia, where I won the 2nd prize. Last month, I captained ITMO’s team against other universities in a tournament where we bagged several prizes in volleyball, table tennis, basketball, chess, hockey, and tug-of-war. 

A few years ago, I gained weight and became a sumo wrestler. In the past, I have also done deep-sea diving in the Red Sea. I have some amazing memories of those times.

Also, if the author of the book receives a portion of royalties, it will motivate them to take up the pen more often. It would also be a cool way of supporting students financially. 

“Diving in the Red Sea is one of the best memories of my life,” says Mahmoud. Photo courtesy of the subject

“Diving in the Red Sea is one of the best memories of my life,” says Mahmoud. Photo courtesy of the subject

You have done so much at ITMO. Is there something that you would like to try?

I want to publish my novels and short stories. Not as an online blog but in print. It is my wish to be a published author and who knows, maybe one day I will become as popular as Pushkin! I want ITMO to have its own publishing house. I am sure many students will want to publish their writing. We can find such talents by organizing essay or story writing competitions within the university. Just like we have tournaments for sports, we should have literary feuds as well.

We are in the digital age now, why do you still want to publish books the traditional way?

Because books are a heritage! Years later, when people read my book, they will not only know about me, but also about the era when I lived. I believe books are the best achievement of human beings so far.

That’s an awesome perspective! How can ITMO help you with it?

I think ITMO should encourage students and staff to publish their work. Books published at ITMO will not only improve the students’ literary acumen, but also act as a brilliant marketing tool. Imagine a school kid in a foreign country buys a book published by ITMO. He sees the logo, gets interested, and starts looking for more information about the university. That’s easy marketing!

How did you find out about ITMO?

Unfortunately, ITMO is not good at marketing. So, it is not as popular as some other universities in Russia and as a result, many international students don’t notice this great university. I got to know about it from a friend of mine and when I searched for it, I was blown away! This was exactly the place where I dreamt to be. ITMO was like a match made in heaven for me!

But it was so hard for me to believe that ITMO, one of the leading universities in Russia, a seven-time champion of ICPC, is not ranked high enough in organic online searches. That’s a shame! I think ITMO should focus more on e-marketing and try to use all social media platforms and ads more diligently. 

What are your future plans?

I believe I can contribute to the betterment of ITMO, maybe as a professor in the future. Even now, I am kind of a representative of ITMO in Egypt. This year, I am helping two Egyptian students apply to ITMO on a full scholarship.

After completing my Master’s degree, I want to start a software company in Russia. I already have one in Egypt, but now I want to have one in Russia, too. So, that’s the goal I am working towards now.

Did you receive a scholarship from the Russian government, too?

Yes, I am studying on a fully funded scholarship from the Russian government. 

Mahmoud with the Rector of ITMO University Vladimir Vasilyev. Photo courtesy of the subject

Mahmoud with the Rector of ITMO University Vladimir Vasilyev. Photo courtesy of the subject

Congratulations! What is your impression of Russia and St. Petersburg so far?

Egyptians consider Russians to be their twins because we share a lot of similarities. The good relationship between these two countries is not recent. It dates back not to the Soviet era but back to the ages of the Tsars. When I came to this historic country, I was starstruck by its cultural and architectural richness. St. Petersburg especially is such a beautiful city full of history, just like Egypt. I love living in St. Petersburg very much.

Which Russian city do you like the most?

I have three favorites so far: St. Petersburg, Kazan, and Moscow. I like Kazan because of the Islamic influence in the culture and heritage of that city. Moscow, in my opinion, is a modern and contemporary city, but it is not suitable for someone like me. In my honest opinion, I score Moscow 8/10. But when it comes to St. Petersburg, I can’t help but score it a golden 10/10! This city is just perfect. A harmonious blend of history and modernism. I am an admirer of art and the way St. Petersburg appreciates art is second to none!

What would you advise prospective international students on overcoming commonly faced challenges in Russia?

The main challenge for international students in Russia is the language. English is not used here at all. Also, because of the sanctions, financially students struggle a lot and therefore, it is important to find a job. But to get employed in Russia, one has to know the language to some extent. Thus, I would advise every student who dreams of studying in Russia to start learning the language now. It will make your life so much easier in Russia.