My First 100 Days at the University of Tartu


My 23rd birthday party with classmates from EU-Russia Studies Programme. Photo credit: Iverson Ng.

As the old saying goes, well begun is half done. If you are ambitious enough, you can achieve many things that are beyond your imagination.

For some, studying in this medieval city of good thoughts means you’d spend hours of exploring different dimensions of current affairs through schooling, partying, and drinking. For me, it’s all about exhausting all the available resources to prepare myself to build a Europe which everyone will be better-off and well-informed about what happens within the EU institutions and how we can shape the world with our intellect. I’d like to thank the University of Tartu for offering a range of opportunities including study trips, public lectures, and EU-funded projects for me to outline my vision for the future of Europe.

Now, let’s explore more about my milestones and how I bring myself closer to realize my dream to work in Brussels in the future!

Study trips/24th day

Group photo with my EURUS classmates and the Finnish ambassador at the Finnish Embassy in Riga, Latvia. Photo credit: Iverson Ng

It’s indeed overwhelming to participate two study trips in my first 40 days of studying EU-Russia relations at this Estonian national university.

As a Master student from EU-Russia Studies (EURUS) Programme, it’s a “tradition” for our class to take a trip to Latvia during the 1st month of studies for bonding and immersing ourselves in academic discussions through meetings with representatives from local think-tanks, Latvian government, and international organizations. While the trip only lasted for five days, we managed to travel around the Latvian capital Riga for the first three days for academic exchanges and stayed at Jaunkalni, the Latvian countryside for two more days for team-building and cultural immersion. My EURUS classmate Jules Ortjens contributed a full story on our trip.

Literally one week after the Latvian trip, I also participated Kääriku International Autumn School to broaden my knowledge on Estonian security policy, online propaganda, and “social media democracy”, thanks to our Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies (read the full story from my EU law classmate Wouter Heemskerk). The weekend trip to Kääriku was a blend of students from different fields of political studies including Democracy and Governance, EU-Russia Studies, International Relations and Regional Studies, and Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (University of Glasgow). Even though the public lectures were less relevant to my research interest, I somehow managed to talk to students from other programmes and was inspired by the intellectual conversations with them on the Ukrainian crisis, Catalonian independence and Chinese politics.

Dialogues with politicians/ 57th day

Dialogue with Estonian MEP Kaja Kallas on how the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU shapes the future of Europe. Photo credit: Iverson Ng

The University of Tartu doesn’t just offer public lectures to everyone who are interested in politics, but it also bridges the gap between students and politicians. Needless to say, I’m more than honored to have face-to-face dialogues with Estonian Member of European Parliament (MEP) Kaja Kallas, former Estonian MEP Maju Lauristin, Estonian lawmaker Marianne Mikko, and even a question (from 59:00) to Valdis Dombrovskis, the Vice-President of the European Commission for the Euro and Social Dialogue. The most impressive dialogue, though, came from Ms. Kallas, the daughter of former Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas.

During the public lecture, Ms. Kallas outlined how the Estonian Presidency of the Council of EU contributes to the shaping of future of Europe. She talked about mainstream Estonian agenda including single digital market, online sales of tangible goods, and the freedom of movement of data. But what impressed me the most is her political accountability which stands out from any other politicians I’ve met in my life–she’s a true symbol of Estonian democracy.

During my time as a student journalist, I interviewed a range of politicians from pan-democratic lawmakers in Hong Kong to MEPs like Brexiteer Daniel Hannan in Brussels, but none of them is as authentic and genuine as Ms. Kallas. “The (European) Parliament represents the people, and it is not necessary to back the government (European Council),” she said during the Q & A session. After that, I asked several questions about her views on Jean-Claude Junker’s State of the Union 2017, immunity of the MEPs in Brussels, and the voting procedures of the European Council, and she didn’t give out the expected soundbites from the news but a personal view which impressed me as a critical thinker. I requested further contact from her after the seminar as she’s also the vice-chairperson of the delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee which matches with my research interests.

The general public often questions the value of studying political sciences since graduates from this discipline aren’t “professionals”–they can’t obtain “licenses” to guarantee their career paths like doctors, lawyers or architects. But I’d think twice about that. According to the official statistics from the University of Tartu, the alumni comprise of 40% of the members of the Estonian parliament and 60% of the ministers in the Estonian government, not mentioning four former Estonian prime ministers (Siim Kallas, Juhan Parts, Otto Strandman, and Otto Tief) and two former Estonian presidents (Lennart Meri and Konstantin Päts) and the Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid were also graduated from this university.

Aspiring to be a civil servant of the European community seems too unrealistic for foreign students like me, but if you are determined enough to work on your goals every single day, then eventually, all roads will lead to Rome.

EU-funded project/85th day

Interviewed a local Pole (right 2) on whether she thinks the EU is in economic crisis. Photo credit: Iverson Ng

Like the Greek philosopher Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

When I came back from the Latvia trip during the first month of studies, I was selected as one of the European ambassadors of Message to Europeans 3.0–a EU-funded project that aims at promoting civic engagement through organizing debates, simulations, local initiatives, and mock trials in 6 countries including Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, and Belgium. At first sight, I thought it must be mistaken because I only sent a self-introduction video clip for application before running to the class, but the confirmation came in handy when the European College Association called me and booked a flight for me to travel to the Polish capital Warsaw for a 2-day project initiation. I was stoked (in Kiwi context) to represent the UK/Estonia. Literally.

During the 2-day project initiation, around 40 leaders from 15 European countries gathered at the Warsaw University of Technology for team-building, project management training, and civic engagement initiatives in Polish context. The first day of initiation was packed with Polish speakers on scientific development and start-up, trainings on storytelling and collaborations among social media team, narrative team, and civic engagement team; the highlight came to the second day as our sub-group went to the street and questioned the Poles on whether they think the EU is in economic crisis.

While it was a mere experiment on civic engagement, what I learnt was more than the operational level of events–it’s all about contesting one’s understanding of leadership. Being a leader doesn’t mean that one has to dominate all conversations, but instead, such quality gives power to the team members and motivate them to step forward for synergies among us.

It’s such a painful decision to skip 6 classes for the Warsaw conference, but I’d say it’s also priceless to connect with inspirational individuals who will work with me in the upcoming two years. Throughout the trip in Poland, I got to know several competitive presenters in the conference whose temperament, knowledge, and charisma are above the average students I’ve met from my home university, they are indeed a group of people that I wish to stay in touch for the rest of my life after the European project. But there are also two notable people worth mentioning–a Belgian music journalist studying business psychology and a Hungarian law student with an exceptional drive to succeed in life. The former is my best friend I’ve met in the conference and the latter is my best partner whose motivation for the project matches with mine.

The future/ 100+ days

I was questioning the future of investigative journalism during “Post-truth, Post-society, Post-post” Academica conference 2017. Photo credit: Iverson Ng.

I was questioning the future of investigative journalism during “Post-truth, Post-society, Post-post” Academica conference 2017.

As I’m writing this blog on my 100th day in Estonia, I reckon there will be numerous challenges for the ongoing and upcoming projects. It takes time for the European Citizenship Project to operate smoothly since 40 student leaders also mean 40 different schedules, not mentioning the working hours of the staffs in Brussels. In addition to this civic initiative, I’m appointed by a professor to initiate European Horizons, a US-based transatlantic student think-tank which will set up a Chapter for the University of Tartu in the future. Next year, along with 9 other classmates from EURUS, we will organize a simulation on Minsk Agreement at the European Youth Event 2018 in Strasbourg.

The best has yet to come.

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