Five Life Lessons from Tartu

It has been already more than 6 years since I graduated from University of Tartu 😱 It’s a cliche to say that time flies, but I can’t find in my dictionary a better phrase to describe it. I remember it as if it was yesterday, as well as all those questions and hesitations of my friends about going for master’s studies to a place that very few people recognised 😬 It’s mostly because many of them were taught in schools to recite all Baltic States in one breath: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia… Well done, sit down!🏅

What the heck, lets go to Tartu! 🚌

I may say that it was my natural curiosity that drove me to Tartu. On one side, yes. On other side, I had a strong feeling that understanding historic and economic relations between the European Union and Russian Federation would make much more sense in a post-Soviet state 🤔 I can’t imagine a better place to understand both sides than to explore those relations on the border of both worlds. In addition, I knew that I had to make a student exchange to Russia, no matter what. Not doing it would be like learning coding without touching a computer.

The Arch Bridge and the Town Hall Square in Tartu

Going to Tartu was like a crash course before getting involved in business matters between the East and the West of Europe. It prepared me for undertaking my first real job on the edge of Europe and Russia. Image credit: Riina Varol / Visit Estonia CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What studying in Tartu taught me? 📚

People often say that their studies were the best time of their entire life ❤️ The problem is that they only become aware of that when the student days are long gone. I assume it’s because we experience many things for the first time then. Freedom 🕊 is something every young person dreams of. Independence 🎈 is doing what YOU want not something your parents want. And the fun 🎉 is definitely on a different level than before (you know what I mean). I had it all during my stay in Tartu, and also during my student exchange to Moscow. But freedom, independence, and to some extent also fun, taught me few lessons that have an influence over me until now:

  1. Sense of identity is not only built on your place of birth. It’s more about the place which you may call “home”. Identity develops all life long. Living, studying, or working abroad makes you richer in many dimensions and also changes your identity. Saying that, Tartu made me a better person.
  2. Freedom opens your eyes to things that you can do by yourself. Personally, living in Tartu was a wake-up call to start being responsible for many adult “things”, starting from budgeting, to making my own decisions about going to a party or being prepared for the next day at the university. The answer wasn’t always so obvious!
  3. Things that we dont understand make us smarter. This sounds a bit like a self-contradictory statement, but it’s about embracing confusion, puzzles, and mysteries. They all shouldn’t make us frustrated or angry, but rather make us more curious and should encourage us to think and find solutions, just like my supervisor did! He kept asking me over and over to think through my methodology section for the thesis (Prof. Viacheslav Morozov 👋🏼).
  4. Making things together rather than alone brings more satisfaction. During many team projects I learned to let go of the expectation of perfection and my own high opinion of myself. Assignments at UT taught me to listen, be open to the opinions of others, and to accept that somebody else could have much brighter ideas than my own.
  5. Life is more exciting when you live in a diverse environment. Being born in a country where 97.10% of the people claim sole or partial Polish nationality (2011) and getting to know people from every corner of the world is more than exciting. It raised my self-awareness and tolerance for everyone who is different from me.

The list could go on and on. I can think of a few more lessons learned from studying and living in Tartu, but you probably wouldn’t have enough time to read it. Those are the most important ones for me, and you’ll experience it on your own if you decide to study in Tartu. Studying at UT has definitely changed me for the better. I didn’t come back home the same 😎

Moving forward 🚀

In 2012 my university bubble popped and I felt a bit lost. My search for a perfect job after university was a seriously daunting task 😨 Many graduates go through it. But once I get into the first job back in Warsaw, things got easier. Unconsciously or on purpose (hard to say), I found myself back in Moscow just one year after leaving Tartu. In-depth understanding of the political, social, and economic developments helped me a lot in finding my place in a European company operating in Russia. It definitely gave me an edge!


Studying EU-Russian relations paved my way two times to Moscow. First, for a student exchange and an internship in the Polish Embassy. Second, for work, just one year after graduation. Image credit: Alexander Smagin.

Since then I have moved around Europe several times, 🌍 with shorter or longer pitstops in Warsaw. The places where I lived and worked may not have much in common with EU-Russian relations at first glance, but I strongly believe that the soft skills I mastered while in Tartu supported me all the way to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and now London. I embrace other cultures, respect different points of view, and adapt with ease to new environments. Those things you will not learn from any book in the University of Tartu Library, but from professors and fellow students with whom you will work, discuss, and drink beers, too! 🍻

Piotr Jan Pietrzak

Piotr Jan Pietrzak is a graduate of University of Tartu’s European Union–Russia Studies programme. He is currently working for an international bank. You can contact him via LinkedIn. Image from a private collection

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