How to adapt in a new environment?

Image Credit: Mohamed Hassan

As humans, we are able to adjust in constantly moving environments, but it sure takes time and effort. Every individual experience shapes how one adapts in a new environment and overcomes the stress related to the adjusting period. In this article, the focus will be on how to adapt in new situations, including in university, and how to manage study-related tensions.

A new academic study year has begun, and most students feel that they are in a traffic jam full of obstacles, challenges, novelties, and uncertainties, emotionally overwhelmed by all these stressors. However, it is absolutely OK to feel all that, because whether this is a first time experience – being away from home or going back to study after a break – starting university life is a time of great change, but at the end of the day you will learn how to cope with these changes.

Adjustment to change

The ability to adjust to new situations or environments is an important phase in one’s development. Based on the context, this term is interpreted differently. Within this topic, adapting is a process by which an individual is able to cope with the demands/requirements of the external and internal environment, one of which is stress management (Kallasmaa, 2003), as is the process of matching, establishing, and maintaining relationships.

When entering university or starting a new academic year you might face unexpected challenges. To understand and better describe what one is experiencing through the adapting period, several theorists have differentiated phases of adjustment. For example, cultural researcher Geert Hofstede distinguishes four main stages in the adjustment to an unfamiliar environment. The duration and intensity of the stages depends on the person and to what extent the new environment differs from the person’s original place. In addition to the four main stages, the fifth also deserves attention.

Chart which shows adjustment stages upon entering university.
Adjustment stages upon entering university. Chart Credit: Counselling Centre of University of Tartu

1.     Euphoria or “honeymoon”. In this phase, the person feels positive and excited about the new environment, and has high expectations for the future. This is experienced by a person who has wanted to go to a new cultural space, and coming to university is usually just such a free choice.

2.     Disappointment or culture shock. The first difficulties and crises. The new situation may not fully meet expectations; one may not succeed in building relationships and is confused by having to manage large amounts of information and new rules of conduct. This leads to dissatisfaction, impatience, anger, sadness, feelings of loneliness and incompetence, etc.

3.     Acceptance of, getting used to, learning from the new situation. Gradually, one develops an understanding of the rules and norms; is no longer afraid to experiment; is more social and open again; the sense of humour re-appears and a certain psychological balance emerges.

4.     Adjustment or integration with the new culture. One feels confident in the new environment and copes well; the sense of belonging has increased. Self-definition is clarified and the person acts purposefully.

5.     Reverse culture shock may occur on returning to one’s home culture (or city). One may find that things or people have changed, or they themselves have changed to an extent that they no longer adapt to their former life environment.

Hereby, it is important to emphasize that adjustment stages are used mostly in a cultural context where one leaves a home country (city) and starts a new phase in a new culture. Nevertheless, these phases can also be applied to university life.

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Why I didn’t hesitate?

Trinity sitting on the bridge of lake Pühajärve.
Early morning quarantine trip to lake Pühajärv. Image credit: private collection

I believe all students have found themselves looking at their timetables and wondering which lecture will be taken to the online format sooner or later. September starts in a few days, but the coronavirus situation is not much brighter than last autumn. Fortunately, we now have the opportunity to get vaccinated, and thanks to this, I’m more hopeful when thinking about the upcoming autumn. 

When the pandemic took the stage in 2020, the situation was rather desolate precisely because we knew so little. As a new medical student, I had to figure out a way to study to become a doctor at home in the company of textbooks. In addition to the major changes in the organisation of studies, I had to think about how to protect my family from the virus. One of my family members has immunodeficiency, which means that from the moment the emergency situation was introduced, we almost never left the house. Couriers helped to fill the fridge with groceries, we searched for the emptiest hiking trails and kept contact with friends only by video bridge. Ideally, it was supposed to be the reality of all people to curb the virus, but, naturally, there is a limit to how long a social creature can stay in total isolation. We managed to do that for more than two months, because life depended on it. 

Summer brought along somewhat different normality, although we knew that a new and stronger wave would come in the autumn. In the autumn semester, contact studies indeed resumed for the most part, but all around us, preparations were made for the imminent distance learning. However, the motivation to study at the university also largely depends on the people around us, who will most likely be our future colleagues, and this is why distance learning is not the best option. Besides medical studies, I have a great passion for dancing, and in early autumn, I took part in the rehearsals of a dance performance, but had to stop that because the risk was too high. I needed to avoid falling ill, and, even more so, taking the virus home with me.  

When the news finally came that COVID-19 vaccines were on the way, I felt a childish pleasure, like getting a Christmas present. Although I knew the vaccine would not reach me any time soon, it gave me hope that we can return to something resembling normal life at one point. In March, medical students got the opportunity to get the vaccine, first those whose studies took place at the hospital already, and then the rest of us who wanted the vaccine. I, too, received my first shot in March. It never crossed my mind not to get vaccinated. I have also taken the flu vaccine every year, as vaccination is one of the most effective ways to protect myself and others from various vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. Thanks to this, I can now feel a little more relaxed at home because I know I’ve done everything I can to protect my loved ones. 

I want to point out that while it is important that we all receive a quality education, build strong relationships and have access to everything essential, it is even more important to keep people around us safe. Especially those who would like to protect themselves, but whose well-being largely depends on the people around them. Therefore, it is everyone’s responsibility to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and, by that, help and protect others. 

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My story of finding a job in Tartu

Sooner or later, we as students face a new, challenging task in our lives – finding a job. Some get lucky and have success during the first years of university, some need to fail 1000 interviews to succeed in one, while others do not care about finding a job until they graduate. 

I am not a career expert, but I am a student of Tartu University (Innovation and Technology Management Program) who works at the Estonian company Fortumo as a Product Owner. In this article, I will share my story of finding a job in Tartu, as well as some advice from other international students. 

For your convenience, I structured my story into two parts: learning about work opportunities and getting hired. Enjoy the read!

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Me at the office. Photo credit: Private collection

Learning about work opportunities

I will share the truth. I did not want to look for jobs at all when I was starting to study Innovation and Technology Management for three specific reasons: 

  1. I had a part-time job at NMS as a project management assistant. 
  2. After 2.5 years of working full time and studying full time in Kyiv, I wanted to have a proper student life. 
  3. I was afraid that the study workload would be too high to combine it with full-time work.
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How to study smarter? Tips for newbies (and oldies too)

Studying at a university is a privilege not all people get to experience. Thus everyone that has the opportunity should take full advantage of it, meaning they should focus solely on studying. Still, many people fail to do so and end up graduating university with the lowest possible grades to pass or even dropping out before the last year. What makes it hard to focus on studying and how to avoid getting lost during the process?

Person reading a textbook.
Image credit: Pixabay

As a university student myself, I have faced many obstacles in studying that I find to be common problems associated with studying at a university. The first aspect is a change of environment. Most people step into university (and adult life) straight from high school, which brings a lot of changes. Many move out of their family home, become independent for the first time, get a job, and have to become responsible basically over a night. This all comes as a shock and creates more problems than just dealing with school, taking away from full dedication to studies.

With the change of environment comes a change in the workload and the responsibility to keep track of every assignment that must be done. In Estonia, teachers remind students of their homework, exams, or other projects on a daily basis, whether it be in the classroom or via the internet, so it is easier to remember everything that must be done. In university, though, a student is left to their own devices. No more reminders by professors, small tests to fully understand the subject, or group projects with your closest friends that are more fun than hard. The amount of work is shocking to some and can be hard to comprehend. Due to the amount of work, it is easier to forget certain assignments which could lead to failing a course entirely. Keeping track of everything is much more difficult, and the heavy workload can cause a drop in the average grade, because students are okay with half-done jobs.

I think that university is the best time to find friends and enjoy being young. You have no strings attached yet, but are old enough to take care of yourself. So, socializing is a must and a joy. What makes matters difficult is finding it hard to find balance between going to bars and parties, but still focusing on studies as well. It is possible to pull all-nighters between parties, schoolwork and lectures, but it is not a permanent solution. Some can get lost in the swirl of partying and forget why they have come to university in the first place. After getting off the rails of keeping track of studies while also being social, it is difficult to get back on.

At first glance, these problems seem to be more related to personal life, but they all actually affect the way a person studies and how they perform in school. But since they are all a natural part of life, a person needs to find balance between them and try to keep their eyes on the “prize”.

But how can a new student find balance without the experience to do so? Well, I have some tips.

  1. Stay ahead of the curve

One of the biggest mistakes students make is not keeping an eye on all of the courses that they have taken, which leads to discovering a 1000-word essay or a presentation that is due the next day, while they actually should study for an exam. In order to avoid such an instance, I recommend taking some time off at the beginning of a semester to write out every assignment that has to be done in every course, even better if the student takes time to plan out when they will start with the bigger assignments (this is easier towards the middle of the semester; by then all changes in the assignments or deadlines should be agreed on), so they have it easier when the storm of exams hits. Then they have a clear view of everything, they know when they have the time to do the assignments, and after they’re done, they can cross each one out, which is highly satisfying.

library shelves
Image credit: Pixabay
  • Rustle some paper

In today’s world, it is common to write important dates into a phone or computer in order to do it quickly and to save room. I, however, find it much more beneficial to write everything down on paper, even better if it is a notebook or calendar. I also find it therapeutic to be able to cross something off a list after I’m done with it. I always recommend buying a calendar in the beginning of a schoolyear to keep track of everything that must be done.

  • Smaller and bigger plans

While on the subject of planning assignments and writing everything out, I recommend making a plan at the beginning of every week (or even day) of what should be done and on which day it will be done. This way a student can see if an assignment takes up more time than thought or if some housework needs some time in a busy calendar. It also gives a good feeling to have done everything on the list by the end of the day and makes it easier to see how much work has to be done each week in order to be on top of the game. However, if a list is made, then it should also be followed! Writing out important assignments is not equivalent to actually doing them, so you cannot rely on getting motivation from making a list.

  • Take it chill

Even though it is important to focus on studying, it is equally as important to take some time off to just relax. And by relaxing, I mean actually relaxing; this does not mean housework or other responsibilities outside of school. I find it extremely important to have some down time in between studying to watch a funny show, go for a walk, see your friends, or eat something tasty. We need to remind ourselves that all of the work that we do will be rewarded, even if the reward comes from ourselves. Even though one must be careful with how much they reward themselves and if they actually deserve it, work should always be rewarded with something.

  • Don’t forget those around you

I find it very easy to forget to socialize while in the studying zone, but I also find it important to take some time off of studies to see friends or family. It can be very beneficial to vent to someone about the load of work that must be done or just to listen to what others have done or have coming in the future. Humans are social beings; why do we tend to keep our problems and thoughts to ourselves? After all, sharing is caring.

University is a great time in an adult person’s life, and thus every single student should enjoy it to the maximum. This is absolutely possible, even with keeping track of schoolwork and getting good grades. Balance is all it takes to be on top of your game. Pick up balancing schoolwork and other fun things, you’ll find it beneficial!

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The Secret Places of Toome Hill

The historical centre of the University of Tartu is located on and at the foot of Toome Hill. A main building of the university had been built here already in 1632, but in the 19th century Toome Hill evolved into a true “Mount Parnassus” when architect Johann Wilhelm Krause designed here the new iconic main building with its pillared portico, the Old Anatomical Theatre, the Old Observatory, and rebuilt the ruins of Tartu Cathedral to house the University Library.

The story of Toome Hill is also the story of the city of Tartu and the changes of powers that it has witnessed. Many people and their ideas have shaped the vistas of present-day Toome Hill. We invite you on a tour through the secret spots on Toome Hill, some of which can be traced only in memories and on photos, others have been buried under layers of soil, and yet others can be seen even today.

The water tower above the cathedral’s northern tower

Tartu Cathedral through time. Image credit: The University of Tartu Museum

In 1889–1979, there used to be a water tower on top of the northern tower of Tartu Cathedral. Over the years, the water tower was expanded when needed and reconstructions were made until its wooden structure was destroyed in the 1979 fire.

As there was no central water supply system in Tartu before 1929, the water used on Toome Hill was fetched from the nearby river Emajõgi. In the second half of the 19th century, the water quality no longer fulfilled the needs of the clinics situated on the hill, and the university built a water system to supply the buildings with ground water. Reinhold Guleke, the university’s architect at the time, found the cathedral’s northern tower as the most suitable place for the required water tank and, in 1889, designed a wooden pavilion in Gothic style around the reservoir (the original pavilion can be seen in photo 2).

To satisfy the growing water demand, in 1913 the building was expanded to accommodate also a second water tank (see photos 3 and 4). In 1934, the pavilion in Gothic style was replaced with a simpler construction (photo 5). The latter remained there until the 1979 fire, after which the water tanks were ultimately demolished.

Tartu Cathedral nowadays. Image credit: The University of Tartu Museum

A medieval grave slab and a human skeleton

In the medieval period, Tartu Cathedral used to have a graveyard. According to the Christian tradition at the time, the dead were buried both inside and around the cathedral. While there are no written documents about the cathedral graveyard, human bones and objects found in the course of construction works and archaeological excavations are proof of its existence. Two of such archaeological findings are on display in the foyer of the cathedral – a medieval grave slab and a burial chamber.

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Career in science offers new knowledge and freedom

One of this year’s 6,000-euro young talent awards of the L’Oreal Baltic For Women in Science Programme was granted to Mari-Ann Lind, University of Tartu doctoral student in animal ecology.

Mari-Ann Lind in her workspace.
Mari-Ann Lind. Image credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Lind reached her doctoral studies quite by chance – she had no such plans when she started her bachelor’s studies. At one point while pursuing her master’s degree, she even ruled out doctoral studies as a future possibility for her because the scientist’s career seemed difficult and insecure. “More doctoral students graduate from the university than can get a job here,” she explained why she had such thoughts.

However, if life in science still seems exciting enough, taking up doctoral studies is the way to go. Today, Lind is very happy with her choice because doing research suits her very well. For example, the researcher’s job involves a lot of freedom and she can study topics that are closest to her heart. “I learn something new every day,” says Lind. There are also other positive aspects: researcher’s life gives enough flexibility to choose your working hours. As Lind is a night person, this is very suitable, and so she works at the time when she is the most productive – at night.

Currently, her main focus is on writing her doctoral thesis titled “Internal constraints on energy processing and their consequences: an integrative study of stress, digestion and antimicrobial defenses in greenfinches”. This covers ecology and physiology and their different subfields, which are usually studied separately. One research problem of the thesis concerns the birds’ feathers: whether increased yellowness of feathers in greenfinches is associated with more parasites on the bird. Yellow feathers are important for greenfinches because they are a signal for the opposite sex of the bird’s high quality as a mate. Yellow plumage is inherited, but the intensity of coloration may be affected by both genetics and the environment.

Greenfinch. Image credit: Oldiefan from Pixabay

Lind explained that the importance of her doctoral thesis lies, for example, in that the family life of people and birds is actually more similar than generally thought. By studying how greenfinches find a mate, we can make conclusions about people. Although people do not have colourful feathers to attract a partner, the opposite sex is often attracted by fancy cars, big muscles or good education. And while mammals generally do not have monogamous relationships, it is a rule for most birds. This is another similarity between people and birds.

In spring Lind received an award of the L’Oreal Baltic For Women in Science Programme. With the help of the fellowship, she plans to study the impact of anthropogenic pollution on flounder in the Baltic Sea. She wants to find out whether, as a result of long-term pollution, fish have got evolutionary cancer defence mechanisms, for example, whether their gut microbes help them better cope with carcinogenic pollutants.

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Three ways in which the University of Tartu changed my life

Graduation day. Image credit: private collection

Just a few weeks ago, I graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Tartu. I was lucky enough to attend this year’s ceremony in person, an event that felt truly special after spending three out of four semesters of the master’s online. Walking home with a diploma in my hands, I couldn’t help reminiscing about these two years and asking myself, “Where did this time go?” It didn’t actually go anywhere; it stayed in my memory and will be there forever. This time brought many events, friends, experiences, and life lessons that altogether did no less but change me completely. In this article, I’ll talk about three main benefits of completing a master’s program at the University of Tartu. 

Professional growth

Upon seeing this subtitle, you may think, “Well, what else is new? It’s a university, after all?” and you wouldn’t be wrong in doing so. It’s quite expected that when applying to the university, you envision yourself in a couple of years as a much more knowledgeable and skilled professional. That was roughly the case for me, too, but my imagination of my master’s program was rather vague. I knew I liked its name, and the courses seemed interesting, but that was all the adjectives I had for it before coming to Tartu. What I couldn’t imagine was how diverse and full-fledged my program would turn out to be.

The thing I like about studies at the University of Tartu the most is how discussion-heavy they are. There is almost no place for out-of-the-book questions and answers at the lectures, quite the opposite — the lecturers always expect you to find arguments for your thoughts, and so can you. It is very inspiring to see your lecturer, the person who’s supposed to know it all, go “Let me think about it” and engage in an equal discussion with you. Coming to the classroom and knowing that your point of view can and will be acknowledged always felt like a privilege.

Another remarkable quality of the studies is an excellent fit between theory and practice. I never thought a student could say this, but I liked taking most of the exams during my program. Of course, there always was a place for pre-exam panic and post-exam existential crisis. Still, during the exam, you could actually see everything that you learned in the course being applied to the presented cases. The projects and exams at the University of Tartu challenge you to think, and this is what makes the studies so effective. 

Sunset views from my dorm room were pretty enchanting. Image credit: private collection

I could keep rambling about all the certificates, papers, Github pages, and other somewhat tangible outcomes of the studies you can receive here. Still, to me, the most important perk of attending any university lies in a different dimension. University lets you learn instead of being taught, it brings you a unique opportunity to master your skills of finding the correct arguments, and it encourages you to think. I’m beyond grateful that the University of Tartu excels in all three.

Personal development

“Could it BE any more obvious?” you may think again. It probably can’t, but nevertheless, I deem this change equally important to the previous one. The uniqueness of the University of Tartu is that you can still have time for yourself while studying full-time (given that you’re somewhat familiar with time management, of course). I would be lying if I said that I could watch Netflix every evening and always had time to rest on the weekend, while coping with all the deadlines and preparing for all the exams. As for any other student, there have been more challenging and more demanding times for me when even having time for breakfast felt like an outstanding achievement, but on average I could maintain some hobbies and even restart long-forgotten projects.

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