Lena, what made you decide to go study in France?

The Faculty of International Business and Law, where I study, offers students many different options for short-term internships. During my time there, I visited Belgium, Switzerland and many other countries. I enjoyed it, but I wanted to try something more immersive. At one point, I started to look into the activities of ITMO University’s International Office and helped out with organizing different events. In the course of ITMO International Days in the summer of 2016, I spoke to representatives of various universities; this experience was the main influence on my decision about which foreign university I would go to for my long-term visit. In Montpellier, I met with some of my French acquaintances that I’d once met in St. Petersburg.

What were the main challenges in planning your trip?

It was important to choose the right semester due to credit and subject transfer. When you go abroad to study, they have to put together an individual study plan so that you’re able to do your exams both in your home country and the place you’re visiting. In that process, it is also decided whether some of the subjects can already be marked as complete. If there are subjects that can’t be completed on account of your studies abroad, you’ll need to pass the corresponding exams once you’re back from the trip. For instance, my program is quite specific and doesn’t have a counterpart in France, so I simply went to study on an “International Business” program. The themes are relevant to each other, but there are very few direct corresponding subjects, so I only chose to attend the final semester – back at ITMO, the curriculum for this semester was focused on practical training, so I didn’t have to repeat any exams when I came back; all the subjects I’d studied in France counted as one whole practice training section. Still, I’ve heard of times when students would come back from their studies abroad just to face another round of finals. Another issue I encountered is that even though this time period at ITMO didn’t include any actual classes, the last semester is the time that is mostly dedicated to writing one’s thesis, meaning that I had to stay in touch with my thesis supervisor remotely. Not everyone is up for that. The third challenge is that the studies at European universities begin and end at later dates than here, yet I had to come back to St. Petersburg in time for my thesis defense, but not before passing all the exams in France.

This and subsequent images courtesy of Elena Kuznetsova

France is notorious for its bureaucracy. Did you encounter that too?

Here, I have to credit the great work of ITMO University’s International Office. When the relationship with the partner university is properly maintained, the students don’t have to worry about much. The initial organizational tasks (up until the point when a student’s application is approved by the foreign university) are the responsibility of the International Office. Still, I’d advise not to put off collecting the paperwork (which is the student’s responsibility), as it really is a grueling task. I’d also advise to ask the International Office for a list of students who’d gone on similar programs previously – their advice may save you some time and sanity. I got in touch with some of them and they took me through the steps, telling me what to do and in what order.

What is your most surprising first impression of France?

When I got there, I instantly felt the differences between our educational systems. The exchange students are treated with less condescension than the French ones. The main reason for that is the inevitable language barrier – even if your English is great. For example, if a student has good conversational skills, it still is no guarantee of success, since academic English is very different; so I’ve had to work on that. Some native English speakers in my group also had trouble getting used to the locals’ French accent.

Another thing is that most professors come from the business environment. The educational process is focused heavily on practical training. All the exams are in written format and it’s not enough to simply remember the theory. What matters much more is how well you can use that knowledge in life. Students get cases – tasks based on the professors’ actual experiences. Nobody ever just stands there and reads their material – it’s all available to the students anyway. This is why us Russian students have it difficult there, as we’re used to a more theory-heavy format. To fully understand this educational system, it’s better to come and study for an entire year.

Off the top of your head, what are the advantages of studying at the University of Montpellier?

One big advantage is getting to experience a new approach to education, which I found difficult, but interesting. Still, a single semester doesn’t give you a full understanding of the European system. Some Russian entrepreneurs are skeptical towards Western experience in general, which is strange. There is a stereotype that the people who go abroad to study do it mostly for leisure. Obviously that isn’t true. It’s places like these where you learn to be curious. It’s amazing how interested in Russia and other countries the other students are. Everyone is socially and politically active. You learn a lot, from mundane stuff to political contexts. When the subway attacks happened in St. Petersburg, a lot of people would come to me and express their compassion and support.

What are some of the things you noticed about European students?

One thing that stands out is their attitude towards libraries. In movies, you often see students spend so much of their time in libraries – and it’s completely true. They genuinely don’t understand how someone could study at home. A library, to them, is not a sacred temple of books where no noise can be made, but a space for youth, somewhere you can work on projects, study, etc. Libraries are comfortable, and each university has its own library with computers, books, lots of space – they’re always full of people. I’d never seen something like that in Russia. It can only be compared to our cafeterias in terms of activity. Perhaps it’s different in other European countries, but that’s how it is in France.

Tell us about the program you studied at

The program is called “International Business”. In Russia, I studied to be a customs agent, while in France I learned to work with customs agents. This results in a rounded perspective of things; even though the area of study is the same (international logistics), but, for example, here we learn how to check customs declarations, while in France we learned how to fill them out.

What were your living conditions?

There are a few options. It depends, of course, on your university, but usually you can have a studio apartment with a bathroom and a kitchen in the main room, or you can have a room without the facilities, which is cheaper. The average room in my dorm cost around 16,000 rubles a month. I had a room with my private bathroom, but without a kitchen. It’s important not to drag out the decision-making process. As soon as your application for study is approved, you are sent a link to the website where you can reserve a room or a studio – which are quite in demand. I found the conditions satisfying.

Some students choose not to go abroad because they are afraid of the expenses, even if the education itself is free. Was living and studying abroad an expensive experience?

ITMO University provides scholarships to students participating in joint educational programs. In my case, it was enough to fully cover the costs of living in France. The education itself is free, so you can spend the scholarship however you like. The only things you pay for is the visa and consular fees. How you choose to live in a new country matters, too. Scholarship money can cover lodging, transport and food in university cafeterias – the basic needs. My advice is to go for small cities if you’re on a tight budget. There’s a noticeable difference and I think I would’ve fared far worse in a large city. In Montpellier, things were cheaper, transport was simpler and I could walk to most places. Still, if you want to travel or eat at cafes and restaurants, you’ll have to shell out a bit.

Tell us more about the travel opportunities

One of the biggest upsides of studying abroad is that you can travel in your free time. I’d been to Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, the entire French coast – including Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo and others. Because of the Schengen Agreement, it was easier for me to travel to Spain and Italy than it was getting from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Thankfully, the schedule allows for travelling. You choose your own classes and some days are left open. I had weeks when I only had classes on two days out of five. Classes ended in late April, so I could spend the entirety of May travelling through France and other countries. I’d advise everyone to travel as much as possible, as that is what you will remember the most when you come home.

What was the best part of your trip?

The best part were the people. It’s important who you choose to spend your time with. I preferred to hang out with foreigners, so as not to get hung up on Russian habits and Russian lifestyle; I wanted to try a different environment, to leave my comfort zone and learn something about myself and how well I can fare in a “different” world. Now I have friends in many different places of the world. I can see how multi-faceted life is, how different the people’s worldviews are. The French themselves, too, often prefer to study at international programs that are taught in English. There is a notion that French are reserved towards foreigners. Perhaps that is more relevant with the older generations, but the French youth are very communicative. Maybe this is a result of globalization, and this is just how most young people are around the world.

It is also said that French don’t like to talk in any language but their own. What was your experience?

I got by well enough using just English. Montpellier is an academic town. With a population of 250,000 people, it has three major universities, so people there switch to English easily. But in any country you always need a friend among the locals – at the very least so they can help you with the bureaucracy. I had some questions about insurance, for instance, and it would have been a lot harder if I didn’t have help from my French friends. Some more advice: if you’re going away abroad for a long time, put effort into finding out about the different types of insurance and the like.

In Europe, stores tend to close extremely early, especially for those of us who are used to late and round-the-clock stores. On Sundays, barely anything is open. How did you get used to the European pace of life?

That’s true – those who are spoiled by our availability of stores at any time of day will have a hard time in Europe. On Sundays, the only place that’s open is the cinema and the Turkish stores, which are much more expensive than others. I learned to buy things in advance so that I wouldn’t starve on Sundays. As for food, there is a cafeteria at the university where you can get a filling meal for two and a half euros. Just as with travel, it is also important to try new food when you’re abroad. In the six months that I was there, I had the constant feeling of being a guest, which is why I let myself relax and try everything. For the first two or three months, I ate at the cafeteria, but then I began trying new places. I have crossed the basic items off my list of things to try: baguettes, wine, cheese, snails, croissants…

Is there any more advice that you’d give to those who are planning to study abroad?

I think it’s important to pay attention to your curriculum and your subjects. Yet it’s also important to choose a location based on the weather and climate. I happened to go to the seaside, which was awesome!

When I spoke with my friends, we agreed that the world would be a much better place if everyone would take some time to study abroad; to leave their comfort zone and encounter new possibilities, friends, perspectives, cultures and languages. Most people learn to be self-reliant on trips like these and get to know themselves better.