Meet Houman, our robotics wizard from Iran

Houman Masnavi is a 2020 cum laude graduate of the Robotics and Computer Engineering master’s programme at the University of Tartu.

Houman Masnavi
Houman Masnavi. Image from a personal archive

From his very childhood, Houman spent a lot of time in his father’s workshop. His father is both a mechanical engineer and an electrical technician. Little by little, Houman became a helping hand, repairing and maintaining different types of machinery: tower cranes, elevators, electrical generators, welding rectifiers, car washes, winches, and air compressors.

Houman was introduced to computers at the age of ten and found it really fascinating. Soon he could help others troubleshooting computer and network-related problems. He worked as computer technician for eight years, as well as during his bachelor’s studies in information technology at the University of Zabol in Iran.

After graduating cum laude, he started searching for suitable master’s programmes and came across the University of Tartu. Houman applied to computer science and robotics programmes at the same time, got admitted to both with the same funding and conditions, and chose robotics.

“I joined robotics because I wanted this hands-on experience, wanted to close the gap between the practicality and the theory I studied in computer science,” explains Houman.

He chose Estonia because of the fully funded admission, which was very important and of great help. Also, Estonia’s image as a “Silicon Valley of Europe” supported his choice. “So far, I’ve liked it a lot and gained the things that I wanted,” says Houman. His expectations about Estonia were met, but not to the extent it was advertised. A super tech-savvy Houman would love to see more advanced stuff while walking around, as it is in Silicon Valley.

Continue reading
Posted in Estonia, Student life, Studies, Tartu | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Favour from Nigeria: I want to be a model for how you view my continent, my country, my race

Ezinne Favour Ogwuegbu is a 2020 cum laude graduate of the master’s programme in International Relations and Regional Studies at the University of Tartu.

Favour (second from the left) with her friends and diploma after the graduation ceremony. Photo from a private collection

On a hot summer day, I met Favour in front of the university’s main building, and we headed to the university cafe nearby. It was lunchtime, and they only served lunch, which we were not interested in. However, we were allowed to stay and enjoy coffee on the house, which I did. I turned down the music in the room – we were there alone – and we started our conversation.

Conversation is something that Favour always goes for to understand other people and cultures. “If you think we are different, have a dialogue with us first. You would be surprised at what you would learn about other people if you just took the time to have a conversation with them, even for five minutes. Have conversations first; do not assume,” Favour encourages.

She sometimes misses conversations. After classes, everybody just vanishes. Students are busy with their lives, kids, and jobs. “And when you do meet your classmates, it occasionally feels like you are in another academic conference,” Favour smiles.

She considers Estonians to be very reserved. However, whenever she encountered problems, people went out of their way to help. In contrast to Estonians, Nigerians are very warm and expressive. Favour admits that her usual “larger than life” personality has become more reserved after coming to Estonia.

Here, she does experience the occasional stares, but it seems as though they have decreased now. In a popular blog post, entitled “Discrimination in Estonia: Are Estonians racist?” Favour acknowledged that “If you are looking for a place where you are not considered different or won’t get stared at from time to time, that place is back home in your country.” She knows that some people are indeed racist and encourages her fellows “not to let one negative experience ruin the urge to go out and do some good, to be understood.”

Continue reading
Posted in Student life, Studies | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Why is Hong Kong protesting?

Hongkongers fight for their freedom. Image credit: Etan Liam / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

The Chinese Communist officials drafted a national security law for Hong Kong, to be approved by China’s rubber-stamp parliament. This draft law was approved by the Chinese parliament on 28 May. Now, any action related to “secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference” is illegal and is subject to imprisonment in Hong Kong. This law also allows China to set up security agencies in Hong Kong to ensure its implementation. 

What do Hongkongers think about the new law?

This is shocking to most Hongkongers. No one expected the Chinese Communist Party would bypass the Hong Kong legislature and impose its dictatorial might on Hongkongers. Hong Kong is a special administrative region with its semi-autonomous system running separately from the rest of China. This is Beijing’s new move to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

We see this as a response to the political unrest in Hong Kong since June of last year. The unrest was triggered by an extradition law proposal which would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong’s jurisdiction to that of mainland China. As there is no independent judiciary in the mainland, Hongkongers were afraid that this extradition law would become a political tool to suppress basic freedoms in this special administrative region.

Now, the new national security law has more direct consequences for any critic of the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Communist Party regime. One only has to recall how Chinese authorities imprisoned human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang – who took up sensitive cases of journalists, democracy advocates and followers of banned spiritual movements – for nearly five years for the crime of “subversion of state power.”

Western liberal democracies have rule of law and separation of powers to prevent such abuse of national security law. The People’s Republic of China has only one power, the Communist Party, that effectively controls the government, legislature, and judiciary, and the word of the Communist Party boss is the law.

Ask anyone who lived under the Iron Curtain, and they can immediately point out that those in power will not stop oppressing their political opponents until these voices are completely silenced.

There will also be people who will abuse this law to settle scores with their personal nemeses. Informing on a colleague, employer, landlord,  business partner, creditor, debtor, romantic rival, and so forth can have very dire consequences for the victim – especially if the informant happens to be well connected to Chinese Communist Party or to China’s state security services. Hence, even those people who are entirely apolitical can easily become victims of this law. In other words, all Hongkongers will live under immense fear once this law has been implemented. This is the end of Hong Kong as we know it.

Continue reading
Posted in Events | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Efe and Ege: What social isolation has taught us

We, Efe (on the left) and Ege (on the right), enjoyed playing with online reality. Photo from a personal archive

Fellow readers of the UT Blog, 

Before we begin, let us ask about you: How is everything going? Hope you’re all doing great! If you’d ask about us, then we’re really good – probably due to enjoying the beautiful weather of spring again! 🙂 It’s already been more than a week since the “emergency situation” has been eased, starting from 18 May, and one can easily spot the differences between these two weeks, right?

It is marvelous to see people back in the streets, and life becoming more normal, day by day. For us, one big indicator was to see people parking their cars (and some getting fined) in the huge parking lot that we see from our window – it had been nearly empty for 2 months! We are sure that you also got to experience many changes, on a larger or smaller scale, but something like this in your lives too! 

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” This quote was made by the famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, known as the first existentialist philosopher in history. We’re sure that everyone who’s reading us from anywhere in the world has learned something new from this hard time. Yes, was it the best way to learn to properly maintain hand hygiene, or to keep ourselves isolated if we ever felt a little sick? Absolutely not. Hundred thousands of lives were lost, leaving three to four times more people in grief and billions of them worried. 

First of all, during this time, we had all the foundations to start a journey “inside.” How so? We had enough time to enjoy our favourite things: like watching the films that we always wanted to but couldn’t spare time for (such as watching the mother of musicals – “Grease”!), returning to books we’ve read (Agatha Christie’s novels, which are usually shorter than a few breaths), and we tried cooking the dishes we always liked but never cooked (Efe learned how to bake a pie, and now it’s in our weekly routine!). 

In our previous life-rush, we underestimated how important our favourite things were to our well-being and didn’t spend time on them at all. Now, with this period, this internal journey allowed us to experience what we really like and dislike – in general, about life.

For example, we really like to be surrounded by our friends and family, and dislike being not able to visit them or spending too much time on unnecessary annoyances. Those days made us question the position we’re holding in our lives, our expectations of our future steps, our values that shape us to become a better person… and many more to count. 

So, did we manage to stay fit? Well, this question has multiple answers: physically, maybe, but mentally – definitely. We did our very best not to lose the endurance and strength we’d built before with home workouts, jogging, and beach volleyball; but it’s not certain if we really managed to do so.

However, speaking of mental fitness, we really learned what is challenging to us, and now know how to cope with the challenges even when we’re at home. We once again saw how important the support of our family and friends is when we’re in our lowest spirits.

Continue reading
Posted in Estonia, Student life, Tartu | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving to the country in the midst of the coronavirus crisis: Have cities reached their growth limit?

In the current state of emergency, many urban-dwelling families have sought shelter in the Estonian countryside. While precise statistics about the total number of such families is currently lacking, secondary data, such as changes in data traffic volume in different parts of Estonia, seem to confirm the trend.
Image credit: Inga Külmoja /

The state of emergency imposed to combat the spread of the new coronavirus is temporary, but it will have lasting effects. To be more precise, the question is how spatial relations between countries, companies, and people will be rearranged. Spatial arrangement and mobility are also bound to change. As cities are reaching their growth limit, these changes, in turn, have made us ponder whether the current urban-to-rural migration is temporary or marks the beginning of a major trend. There are arguments for and against this issue.

Rapid urbanisation started in Europe about two centuries ago, when the industrial revolution prompted a population shift and movement of jobs from rural areas to cities. Since then, the share of urban population has increased throughout the world, constituting about 80% of the population in developed countries and 70% in Estonia.

However, it is unlikely that the entire rural population would resettle in urban areas. Thus, in time, the likelihood of reaching a turning point will increase, often triggered by a specific event—the final straw that will break the camel’s back. The spread of the new coronavirus and the understanding that densely populated areas are a perfect breeding ground for such a crisis make the argument of the turning point all the more convincing.

Reaching the limits of urban growth has been predicted before—most recently during the 1970s global economic crisis, which triggered a population shift from cities to rural areas. The American human geographer Brian J.L. Berry proposed the term ‘counterurbanisation’, arguing that in the United States the concentration of population in cities, or urbanisation, was replaced by a state of population deconcentration and a move to smaller towns and the countryside. Ann Marksoo has observed a similar trend in Estonia, introducing the term ‘migration turn’ (Est. rändepööre).

Continue reading
Posted in Estonia, Natural and exact sciences, Research | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How happy are international students at UT?

In autumn 2019, the International Student Barometer (ISB) survey was conducted at the University of Tartu (UT) to collect international students’ feedback about their studies and the level of support they receive at UT.

In total, 639 students (55% master’s, 29% bachelor’s, 14% PhD students and 2% exchange students) participated in the study, with 532 completing the full survey. As a part of the survey, students were able to provide open comments. Let’s check what international students really think about the different aspects of their study experience at UT 😀

Arrival experience 

At the Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport. Image credit: Anna Branets

92% of international students reported to be satisfied with their arrival experience at UT. The international students highly evaluated the finance (98%) and accommodation (93%) offices, pre-arrival information (93%), formal welcoming (93%), meeting the staff (92%), and local orientation (91%).

In comparison to the results of the previous ISB conducted in 2017, the arrival experience satisfaction rate has increased (87% in 2017 vs. 92% in 2019). In addition, the overall result at UT is higher than the global ISB (89%). Students put special emphasis on the orientation activities and pre-arrival information in the comments: 

I was really amazed with the friendly welcome and the number of lectures we had during the orientation days. I like that these lectures were from completely different perspectives. Of course, I cannot help mentioning a welcome pack. It was a pleasure to receive and use different things from it. Very useful! Also, we had an orientation day at our faculty. It contributed a lot to the understanding of the study process, requirements, courses, and so on.

At the orientation days at UT. Image credit: Andres Tennus
Continue reading
Posted in Estonia, Student life, Studies, Tartu | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Health as a value, health as a right

Can you still see Mona Lisa smile? Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

A saying in Italian goes like this: “Quando c’è la salute, c’è tutto” (When there is health, there is everything). That is, everything that matters is there, as long as you are healthy.

Arguably, and strange as it may sound given the coronavirus pandemic, most people may have actually been (at least physically) very healthy in the last few weeks, and probably healthier than they would have been without the pandemic. The reason is clear: the lockdown measures either strongly recommended or enforced in most countries have kept most people physically distant from other people. As a result, the chances to catch any virus have dramatically dropped for most people.

But it has also become clear that the Italian saying is false, at least if understood literally. Most people’s health may have been secured, but at the price of missing out, at least for some time, on many of the things that matter.

No, when there is (physical) health, not everything that matters is there. It’s not easy to articulate the goods that have been totally sacrificed or drastically set back by the enforced or voluntary confinement, let alone compose a complete list, but I’ll try:

1) The freedom to move around, both in one’s surroundings and between cities or countries, whenever one wants and for whatever reason;

2) Face-to-face social interaction (with schoolmates, teachers, professors, colleagues, friends, relatives, lovers…) and the benefits (including, e.g. mental health) that usually come with face-to-face as opposed to virtual interactions (an important debate to be had here, by psychologists and philosophers, is precisely what the face-to-face benefit differential is);

3) The personal freedom usually afforded to parents by being able to rely on kindergartens and schools (as well as children’s freedom from parents!);

4) Any kind of work that cannot be done (or cannot be done well) from home, not to mention the very fact that many people have become unemployed;

5) Related to this, the overall economic wealth in many countries;

6) The possibility of many leisure activities, again including their many benefits;

7) Not least, a balanced relationship between the state and its citizens, where the state does not systematically present itself to law-abiding citizens in the sinister guise of policemen controlling their behavior.

Continue reading
Posted in Humanities, Research | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment