Eight international students started studies at the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy this autumn. Three of them are exchange students who stay here for one semester only and then continue studies in their home country, and five study Sound and Visual Technology in the two-year English-taught master’s curriculum at the academy.
The master’s students of Sound and Visual Technology come from Azerbaijan, the United States of America, Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Erasmus exchange students are from Lithuania and Norway and they study dance art, handicraft and metalwork. Krista Tamm, the academy’s International Relations Specialist, explains that besides their major discipline, international students also learn the Estonian language and culture.
We decided to find out what made these people come to Estonia and Viljandi and what they plan to do while they are here.
Rufat Mustafayev from Azerbaijan started his master’s studies in sound technology. He said he had applied to several European universities, including the Polytechnic University of Milan, but still chose the programme offered in Estonia, because it covers both visual and sound technology. In Italy, he says, it is possible to study music and acoustic engineering. “I decided in favour of Viljandi because in this industry, sound and visual art always work together and it would be good if I had experience in both fields before I start work,” Mustafayev explained.
He has previously studied in Turkey and Azerbaijan, and while pursuing his bachelor’s degree, worked as a volunteer at a Formula 1 stage and at European Football Championships. “By the end of my studies I already worked for those companies,” he says with pride. He is an active student, which is confirmed by the fact that Mustafayev has helped coordinate Erasmus projects in his homeland and often visited Turkey and Georgia in connection with these projects.
Of the two years he will study in Estonia, he plans to spend one semester in a Berlin recording studio to study how to create audio design for video games. This is his dream.
“I came here to learn something new. I am a musician – a piano player – and completed studies in music theory, but I don’t have much experience with the sound and visual technology. First, I would like to learn to know these fields better,” Mustafayev described his plans. “The studies here are very practical. I have my own projects and I wish to start realising them.”
When asked what cultural differences he has noticed during the couple of weeks he has been in Viljandi, he did not know what to answer. “The weather here is really much colder than in my home country,” he finally said.
Qumrosh Abbas Khan, who comes from Pakistan and studied musicology at the National College of Arts of Pakistan, said he had heard about Estonia from friends who had been here. He finds Estonia a very nice country and an affordable place to live.
“I chose the Sound and Visual Technology master’s programme because it seemed like a platform from which to launch projects and also finish them on time,” he said.
Khan was eloquent in praising Estonia. Although his homeland is changing, it has suffered from terrorism and religious extremism since the 1970s and therefore the entire cultural sector in which he wants to work is in a complicated situation.
Khan said that whenever a terrorist attack takes place in the country, cultural activities are the first to be suspended and some rituals are banned. For example, the kite flying in February – a non-religious traditional event marking the arrival of spring – was banned.
Khan gave an example of limitation of freedom: when he completed his bachelor’s studies, the college building was surrounded by a metal fence and guarded by policemen with dogs. “It was quite serious. If you are an arts student, you should be free from religion and time and you should be free to act day and night, whenever you want. But that was not acceptable to people who followed a certain lifestyle. We have suffered a lot because of it,” he described the situation. “In Estonia you are free to do whatever you want.”
During his bachelor’s studies, Khan studied the history of rabab, the string instrument. In search of material, he travelled throughout the country and saw what was happening. Because life is very hard in his homeland for people engaged in the cultural sector, he has currently no plans to return to Pakistan and, in a few months, he will also invite his wife to Estonia. “Here I can study and work at the same time. I have more opportunities here. I do not perceive big cultural differences; common people are similar and suffer in the same way in every country.”
In parallel with his studies, Khan works as a Bolt food courier. He says the people in Viljandi are very friendly. “I haven’t noticed that Estonians are reserved towards new people they meet. I have good experiences from working as a courier, and I haven’t felt any ‘wall’ between myself and others. Many have been very happy about communicating with me.”
What pleases Khan the most is that here he can ride a bicycle as much as he wants. The roads are excellent for cycling and other drivers are friendly to cyclists. In his home country, cars drive very fast and there is no space for cyclists. “Cycling here is like a dream come true. That is also why I chose this job.”
Jason Alexander Greenberg, an American born in Virginia and also a master’s student of Sound and Visual Technology, had never been to Estonia but had heard from a friend that it was a nice place to live.
He has changed his country of residence every third year during his life and, for example, has lived in Spain, Italy and China. After leaving China, instead of returning to America he wished to take time off for a few years and think where to move on with his life. “I wanted a buffer before making the next decision.”
Greenberg also applied to other master’s programmes in Europe but, after assessing various factors, chose Estonia. “For example, I also applied to Spain and Italy as I speak both languages, but I had never been to Estonia,” he said. “There’s an African proverb which says that when you pass the same tree twice in a wood, you are lost. The saying kept haunting me and so I thought I had to come here,” he said.
Greenberg has not noticed cultural differences between the USA and Estonia. “We were at a choir rehearsal yesterday and I understood that the cultural space in Estonia is quite similar to the one in the USA: similar Protestant practices, favourable attitude to culture and the arts, and a community-based culture.”
He has studied music in Spain where in addition to language studies he was also engaged in hip-hop at the music school.
When asked about his dreams, Jason Alexander Greenberg answers that he lives the life of his dreams every day. “I wake up and just live the life I want to live,” he says. In Estonia, he plans to finish ongoing projects and improve his knowledge in the field of visual and sound technology.
Maren Irmelin Munthe-Dahl studies jewelry and metal art at the Rauland campus of the University of South-Eastern Norway. She came to Viljandi as an Erasmus exchange student and plans to stay for one semester only and then finish her bachelor’s studies at her home university in spring.
“My university and the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy are partners, and therefore it was natural that I should come here,” she explained her choice. “Also some of our teachers have been here and we have met the Viljandi teachers.”
Although also the University of South-Eastern Norway focuses on cultural heritage, dance and traditional music, Munthe-Dahl is interested in the practical view on heritage offered by the Viljandi academy. “I work with metal where our common history dates back thousands of years. I was interested in the Baltic perspective, I wanted to know more,” she said.
According to Munthe-Dahl, studies in Norway are rather theoretical and she appreciates that during her studies at Viljandi she can develop her technical skills by learning from master craftsmen.
The jewelry artist thinks Estonians and Norwegians are quite similar, for example, both joke about their reservedness. “People do not come to you or start talking just like that – they need a reason to do so. But when you talk to them, they are all very nice and friendly.” Estonians, however, are more lively on the dance floor, she says. Most of the international students live in the dormitory managed by Tartu Student Village. However, the academy’s International Relations Specialist Krista Tamm says that one student has rented a house in the middle of nature outside Viljandi and admires the view opening from the window and the deer walking at the edge of the field there.
The article was translated and published in English by the University of Tartu. It was initially published in Estonian in Sakala by Kadri Allikmäe.