My Enchanting Semester in Tartu

Chloe is a third-year student of Economics, Finance, and International Business at the University of Nebraska of Omaha. She spent her spring semester of 2013 as an exchange student in Tartu.

I had always wanted to study abroad, so I made an appointment at my home university, the University of Nebraska of Omaha, to meet with my advisor and look at options. Two days later, I was applying for a passport and making travel arrangements to spend the upcoming semester in Estonia. Throughout the next two months everyone asked me, “Why Estonia?” or even more commonly, “Where is Estonia?” and sometimes even, “What is an ‘estonia’?”

After arriving to Tartu and talking with some of the other international students, most of us had the same answer for why we chose Estonia… Which was, “Why not?” If I had to come up with a reason, I would say that no one from my university had studied in Estonia before me and I wanted to go someplace where I had no expectations. That being said, I couldn’t have chosen a better place than Estonia.

At first, I was very anxious. After I arrived, it was such a shock to be in a place where the signs were all in a foreign language. I remember on the bus from Tallinn to Tartu, I immediately decided that the first Estonian phrase I needed to know would be: “I don’t speak Estonian.” After arriving to the bus station and meeting my tutor, Heilika, I was reassured that I would survive in Estonia.

Chloe at Tallinn airport

At Tallinn airport.

Estonia was very different than my very conservative home of Nebraska in the United States. For instance, UNO (my home university) has a dry campus (no alcohol is allowed anywhere on university property), whereas Tartu has Pirogov Park, a park actually designated for student drinking. Where UNO prides itself on its new modern buildings, Tartu flaunts its beautiful, historical facilities. UNO has a campus where all the buildings are very near, while the University of Tartu runs its veins throughout the whole city. It was a very big adjustment for me.

The classes were also very different. Instead of the teacher lecturing to us, there was a lot of discussion and interaction between the students and the teacher. It was a “give-and-take” learning environment, where I not only learned from the professor but also my peers. We were encouraged to ask questions and discuss among ourselves. At my home university, we normally have one lecturer the whole semester, but at the University of Tartu, there were often guest lecturers from different parts of the world, and every class was unique. I liked that more responsibility was placed on the student than what I was used to, and I had more independence. Now I can understand how the University of Tartu earned its place in the top 3% of the world’s universities.

Even in the dead of winter, I fell in love with Tartu very quickly. It was not difficult, with the charming buildings, the architecture from different eras, and the way every building was treated like a canvas and covered in witty graffiti. I found Estonia to be a beautiful, surprising place. I was lucky enough to meet my Estonian friend Siim, who showed me the nature of Estonia, including an unforgettable hiking trip where I saw the vast forests that seemed to never end. The rare Estonian tongue was something that also made a big impression on me. Being surrounded by such a beautiful language was something I miss a lot from Tartu, even just walking down the streets and catching bits of conversation.

I met my flatmates who were like my soulmates, and many more people in Raatuse, the international dorms, and we all became one big family. At first, communication was very difficult because listening took a lot of attention and patience and it was hard to speak English slowly. However, I quickly overcame that and we were all very intrigued by each other, asking questions about each other’s’ home country and culture. There was always a lot of laughter between the international students, because although we did not always understand each other, we wanted to convey happiness and make one another feel comfortable, because it’s what we needed in this strange place.

In Raatuse dorm

In Raatuse dorm with my flatmates, from left to right, Zsuzi, Egle, Lee-Anne, and Selena.

Raatuse became like a second home for the international students. There, we always had big dinners where we’d gather in the tiny kitchens and eat, laugh, tell stories, and drink. It seemed like in Raatuse there was always something to celebrate; a country’s national holiday, an Estonian holiday, student days, someone’s birthday, or maybe even just Wednesday. We always found a reason to spend time together, and the time we spent together was my fondest memories.

The students, who were brave enough to venture to Estonia, were all unforgettable. We all became so close to each other during the semester, like we had been friends for our entire lives. Especially my flatmates, Selena, Egle, Zsuzi, and Lee-Anne, were especially close, after all of our time going on adventures and encountering mishaps, and then living to tell each other about it the next morning. I miss them so much, and it’s a weird feeling but sometimes I feel like I am studying abroad at my home university and at the end of the semester, I’ll go back to our flat in Raatuse and live with them. Jooyeon and Kaya, my friends from South Korea, were such fun, amazing girls, and I know that I cannot spend much time apart from them, so I am planning on going to South Korea to visit them soon. If South Korea is full of people as incredible as these two girls, I will love my time there. I met so many people in Tartu and I hope that I never forget any of them.

I think my friend Diana, a charming Russian girl, described our experience the best. With arms around each other, I walked with her and a small group from Raatuse to the bus station to send them back home, and she explained to me…”Tartu has been like the most unimaginable, amazing, beautiful, life-changing dream… Now we are waking up & it is the hardest thing, because you always forget dreams, but I don’t ever want to forget this. My friends in Russia are teasing me, saying that I knew five months ago, when I came here I would have to say goodbye to these people, that we all knew that. But how could I have ever known that I would meet such incredible people? Even though it’s only been five months of my life, I feel like it has been the best five months of my life.”

I have never imagined such a collection of inspirational people, living together in one place, and I am lucky to have shared the challenges of a new city with them. Surely, all of the people living in Raatuse represented the best of their country. My friend, Edith, explained to me, that saying these goodbyes were harder than any others, because not only may I never see these friends again, but never in my life will I encounter such other people anything like them.

In Tallinn

Lee-Anne and I in Tallinn for Estonia’s Independence day.

The word I keep coming back to when asked to describe my time in Estonia is “enchanting.” This country captures only the brave. I had to be willing to explore something that I knew so little about; this applies to the country, the nature, and the people. But after I took the first step, I never looked back or regretted it. I am so grateful for my time in Estonia and the people I met there. In many ways, I feel like my time abroad defined me as a person. I know exactly who I am now, without the influence of anything else. I know what I can do on my own. I know that I can go somewhere, completely alone, and not only survive, but flourish.

Now I encourage everyone to study abroad, because it truly is an unforgettable, life-changing experience. Not only to study abroad, but to visit Estonia. It is an amazing secret, which holds many surprises for anyone brave enough to take a chance.

The University of Tartu celebrates twenty years of English-language studies this autumn.

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