How Ukrainian student earned 4 western university diplomas in 2 years under Erasmus+ programme

Oleksandr Ivanov joined Erasmus program in 2013, and a two-year master’s program at four European and American universities paved the way toward not only the quality knowledge in a new field – system analysis – but also helped him visit unforgettable places and see how diverse the world can be even within the single border; and also, realize that interesting acquaintances often go beyond a mere list of contacts and find their continuation in joint international projects and initiatives. And as it turns out, understanding each other despite the language barrier is much easier when you reserve the right to a mistake.

Oleksandr told us which students most often decide to stay in Europe and who goes back home, how he saw Ukraine after two years of absence, and how he now helps prospective students improve their chances to enroll.

An ideal resume of a non-ideal candidate

I graduated from Kyiv National University of Economics with a master’s degree in management. When I went to the winter school at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, I found out that there is such a discipline as System Dynamics, so I took a keen interest in this subject, quite prospective in today’s analytics. Soon afterwards, I came across Erasmus Mundus in System Dynamics, a full-fledged two-year master’s program offered in Europe. Ukrainian graduates of this program, whom I contacted, helped me complete an application form and write a motivation letter. As a result, I was on the top of the rating and received a scholarship.

Application containing your detailed personal information and your academic CV. To correctly complete an application form, the Europass format is used the most often. You should not just state where you were working and studying, but clearly describe all your activity and mobility: trainings, volunteering – in sum, your entire experience. In my case, a transcript of my academic certificate translated into English and three letters of recommendation from university professors or previous employers/internships were required. In most cases, European programs are taught in English, and therefore, you’ll be required to pass an IELTS, TOEFL or any other certified test.

Motivation letter is the most important document, yet our aspiring students underestimate its importance. After my enrollment, the selection committee told me that 50% of the chance to receive a scholarship depends on motivation letter. Even if your profile is not as ideal as you want it to be, not all your grades are excellent, your English isn’t the best or your experience is not that extensive, your motivation letter can explain why, despite all these drawbacks, you’re an ideal candidate. You have to be laconic and able to stand out among others, for they receive thousands of applications. Ukrainian students think about motivation letter as a pure formality, often writing it at the last moment, in one day or night. But in fact, preparation of a valuable proposal requires a month or even more. Tamara Martseniuk, a professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, has a whole thematic course and a book (Trotting the Globe in Search of Education: a Textbook on International Scholarship Studieseditor’s note) helping break up a motivation letter into elements, keep the right structure of it and select correct arguments. After writing a letter, read it over several times, show it to your friends and may be to a native speaker. A lot of cycles would lapse before you select an ideal set of arguments, and that could be the chance that would swing the selection committee’s opinion regarding your application.

Most often, all documents are submitted by e-mail. A hard copy is asked for less often; it would have to be printed out, certified and sent to the Consortium for review. No examinations are required for economic, legal or technical disciplines, where decisions are made most often on the basis of an application and a Skype interview. The application procedure itself takes place from October to January; then, the commission reviews applications from January to May, so in May, you’ll know for sure whether you were granted a scholarship.

The subsequent course of events depends on the university administering your program. If it’s Northern or Western Europe, you will know exactly what to do, thanks to their information support, to organize your transfer, accommodation and so on. In Mediterranean countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal), everything is usually more complicated, and you’ll be on your own. I was lucky, though: my program was organized by Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, so everything was clear and easy to understand.

From Europe to Dakota: geography of study

Joint Master’s Degree is a uniform program from all universities. Every university and every country where I studied (these were Norway, Portugal and the Netherlands) recognize me as their graduate with the entailing privileges: after graduation, I could receive a work visa under a simplified procedure and continue my career in any of these countries.

The studying experience in each country was very much different, despite the Bologna Process and the single education area. The first semester started at the University of Bergen, where we studied the basics of system analysis. Norway has a liberal Scandinavian approach with a lot of self-education and freedom, when nobody upstairs tells you what projects and topics to study – you select all these things yourself. Still, there are some rules you must adhere to in order to succeed in your studies.

There is internal mobility inside these programs: a part of our group, including myself, went to Lisbon for specialization in Environmental Studies, while the other part went to Palermo in Sicily to study the use of system analysis in business environment. The regime in Portugal and other Mediterranean countries is very relaxed, which made it difficult for us to switch to an intensive mode in the third semester in the Netherlands, where our entire group studied the practical application of this instrument and how to work with customers.

The hardest countries to study in are the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom. You’ll have to read and analyze a lot, sometimes up to 600 pages of a professional text in English to prepare for the next class. We worked really hard, sitting in a library until midnight. There are many group works. Moreover, the same group may contain a Chinese, a Mexican and a German student, each having a very different work style, so in order to achieve a result, they have to find common language.

To write a graduation thesis, we all went to various universities: the ones we were to before, or to partners. The University of North Dakota needed three students and offered several topics for study. I applied for an internal contest, passed it and went to the United States to study smoking among adolescents and the effect of electronic cigarettes on nicotine addiction, because this market is currently growing apace. We tried to build a model that could predict possible development scenarios, should the marketing of this product continue.

Ukrainian students tend to think that we’re going there just to get a degree and quality knowledge, but in fact, one of the most valuable assets of this program is networking, and the more contacts you establish, the more your career would benefit from it.

The American system of writing a graduation thesis is a very long work with bibliography. Every figure and every conclusion must be corroborated by a relevant reference, because everything will be checked and if they suspect plagiarism or unfounded conclusions, there could be serious problems.

I defended my graduation thesis in Boston at a conference for specialists in system dynamics. Usually, it takes place over Skype, which is also quite unusual for our students. One professor is, say, from Norway, another opponent is in Portugal, and yet another one in some other country; they all get connected together, and you defend your thesis during three hours. Your final score will be communicated to you electronically as well.

10999098_1013722928652828_8691778179169116843_o-768x432I personally found it hard to overcome the language barrier. My IELTS score was 6.5 out of 9. It’s an above-the-average result; I could freely communicate, but in my group there were many native English speakers from the States and Canada, whose task was much easier. I, on my part, had to write down lectures in a notebook divided in half: lectures in the one part and new words in the other. In the United States, every state has its own accent; they speak rapidly, so I had to get used to it. However, after just a month of living there, you start feeling comfortable. We have to understand that anyone can make mistakes, and get rid of our sense of perfectionism that was developed in us since school. You overcome the language barrier together with the fear of mistake.

Not by books alone: three “S”s and networking

Students jokingly say that there are three “S”s in their life: sleep, social life and studies, and they can choose only two of them. Something always needs to be sacrificed: either studying and socializing but not sleeping, or making other combinations. All depends on your priorities for being there.

However, Erasmus is not just about studying. Ukrainian students tend to think that we’re going there just to get a degree and quality knowledge, but in fact, one of the most valuable assets of this program is networking, and the more contacts you establish, the more your career would benefit from it. Your professional growth will be built on these contacts. At the end of the program, you will have an acquaintance in almost every country – classmate, friend from another program, professor – whom you may contact and with whom you can have a joint business or something else. Therefore, socialization is very important.

I stepped onto the platform and shook hands with guys; there were girls there, too, but I just smiled to them and said “hello”. A Norwegian girl who was among them approached me and began explaining that I tried to publicly humiliate the girls, because in the Norwegian society, all people are equal.

We maintain very close contacts. With some, we simply stay in touch, asking who does what, while with others, we have joint projects like, for instance, with two classmates of mine living in Austria. In the nearest future, one of them plans to visit Ukraine to conduct an interesting workshop game, and I’m helping her get the access to Ukrainian audience. I also maintain contacts with classmates in Mexico, the Netherlands, Canada. Three years have passed, but I still communicate with an American professor, writing her every two months, and our research project continues. Currently, we are going to publish an article on nicotine addiction and health in an American magazine, and I’m very happy about that. A degree is worth something, providing the basis for further research, and I’m a part of this story.

Erasmus is also about national cultures of the countries you live and study in. Traveling to Norway or the Netherlands is one thing, but living in that society, understanding their approaches, principles and life values is something totally different. Therefore, universities offer various socialization programs via student club activities: you can do sports together, create something, etc. Or, engage in projects where you can display your abilities and find friends among locals, better understand their culture. It really enriches.

The hardest of all was in Norway. Despite the liberal and sophisticated society, the temperament of the Scandinavians is closed, so finding a friend there is not easy. To befriend a Norwegian, you have to do something together with him. When we just arrived to the University of Bergen, there was an orientation week: everyone was assigned a “buddy” from among local students, who would tell you about the campus and life in the city. There was also a student fair, featuring over a hundred various organizations that tried to engage us in their activities. So, I now have the experience in volunteering, mountaineering and sports.

Even in Norway, the most expensive country in the world where a tram ticket costs 4.5 euros, a scholarship is enough to live, eat and travel in this country.

In the era of globalization and the Internet, we believe that we know everything about everyone, but when communicating with others, we can make mistakes even beginning with a greeting. For example, a smile and handshake may be perceived differently in different cultures. In Norway, our dormitory was far from the university, and every morning, students would gather at a public transport stop. We had a group of Ukrainian students, guys and girls. One day, I stepped onto the platform and shook hands with guys; as for girls (since we in Ukraine do not shake hands with them), I just smiled to them and said “hello”. A Norwegian girl who was also there approached me and began explaining that I tried to publicly humiliate the girls, because in the Norwegian society, all people are equal, so when I shake hands with men, I have to do the same with women. We rode in the tram for about 20 minutes, and all this time she kept explaining. I was up for a cultural shock. Surely, I didn’t want to insult anyone, but that’s what it looked like from aside. When integrating into various cultures, you have to pay attention to trifles like that.

15304329_10153910067982397_5719043838361666965_o-768x540The biggest advantage of graduates from Western universities is the ability to find common language with people from any country. Most often, our graduates returning to Ukraine work in international organizations. That’s the natural environment we are comfortable in, and working with people from other countries is perfectly normal for us. We studied and lived in these conditions. These skills are very important in international organizations, and therefore, we have a certain edge over other candidates.

United but different: fjords versus high-tech

Erasmus students travel a lot, because their scholarship allows them to. Usually, it’s 1000 euros per month plus 2000 euros every semester. Therefore, even in Norway, the most expensive country in the world where a tram ticket costs 4.5 euros, a scholarship is enough to live, eat and travel in this country.

Norway is a country with a very beautiful nature: mountains, fjords, icebergs, northern lights. But also, it has a characteristic mountainous climate: in Bergen where we lived, it rains 300 days a year, and an ordinary umbrella won’t do you any good. For the Norwegians, the topic of nature is very important, and they don’t have such a thing as park admission fee: according to law, the nature belongs to the entire people, and nobody can restrict the entrance to any natural landmark. Moreover, the parks are very clean, because the society cultivates the “don’t damage the nature” attitude.

The first word that I associate with Scandinavia is trust. Norway does not have fences as such, and windows are not draped by anything except light curtains. Public safety is such that when you walk in the street at night, you don’t get the feeling that something might happen to you. Local cops don’t even carry firearms. In the streets, I noticed a lot of people with a disability who, thanks to sophisticated infrastructure, can freely move around and be accepted as full-fledged members of the society.

Lisbon is the sunniest city in Europe, and that’s where I had the happiest feelings. The university was located on the other side of the river, and I had to ferry across it every day. Portugal is ocean, freedom, joy, beautiful architecture. People start smiling and singing in the morning. It was so relaxing that when I was going to the university in the morning, I felt happiness flowing out inside me. The country has many local holidays, and socialization manifests itself very vividly. We went to the shore, did surfing and played various beach sports. We visited Coimbra, home to the oldest (along with Bologna) university in Europe, and the Azores, a region of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic.

The ones who return to Ukraine are mostly economists, lawyers and social workers – representatives of sectors in which we have a lot of problems, but at the same time, career opportunities.

The Netherlands is, first of all, high-tech and diverse, affordable infrastructure. The city of Nijmegen is located near the border with Germany, some five minutes away by bike. But in fact, there is no border there as such, and the feeling that you can get into another country so effortlessly was very appealing. You can travel around the whole country by bicycle, or take it with you on a train and one hour later disembark in Amsterdam or any other city, or even in Belgium or Germany. Libraries in the Netherlands don’t look like traditional ones, where everything is in dust: they offer fast Internet access, coffee bars and everything for you to feel comfortable there. This atmosphere helps work and study.

The state of North Dakota in the U.S. is a huge territory with sparse population. Recently, oil was discovered there, and more people are now coming there to study or work. Because of huge distances, it’s hard to get around without a car, but as we didn’t have an own car, we had to use public transport, which isn’t frequent. Even though writing a graduation thesis required a lot of time, we still had the chance to travel around the country. Our professor lived in Colorado, so we went there for two weeks to participate in a workshop. In California, we visited Berkeley and Stanford, the world’s top universities. We also went to Boston, МІТ, Harvard. Like in Europe, where all countries are different, every state in the United States has its own specifics.

Specifics of life and values in Europe and America are very different, even at the household level. America has, in most cases, a consumption attitude, and despite all liberal approaches and allegedly good opportunities to make money, Europe, nevertheless, lives more conscientiously and European values are closer to my heart.

Difficult choice: to go back or to stay

According to statistical data, 80% of Ukrainian graduates opt to stay in Europe. Most often, these are technical specialists: physicists, chemists, opticians, engineers, etc. Laboratories in European countries and in Ukraine are two entirely different worlds, and therefore, “technicians” have a more obvious choice of what to do. The ones who return to Ukraine are mostly economists, lawyers and social workers – representatives of sectors in which we have a lot of problems, but at the same time, career opportunities.

For me, the choice was simple: I knew that I would return to Ukraine, and I wanted it. I had no second thoughts or cultural crisis after the end of the program – I simply knew what is going to happen to me next. But for some classmates of mine, it was a big problem. Graduates often have no idea about what their future in Ukraine may be. Therefore, even though two years may seem like quite a while, my advice to students is to start looking for answers to these questions in the beginning of the program. The sooner you start thinking about it, the simpler your future choice will be.

After returning to Ukraine, I felt changes, especially in Kyiv. The society became more united, and that really catches your eye. A lot of my friends in various civic organizations and initiatives are fighting against corruption and for a fair trial, working on projects for IDPs, solving social problems. I can see how they grew professionally; can see fruits of their labors. A generation of contemporaries of independence has grown up, taking over managerial decisions. Despite the difficult situation in the country, a lot has already been achieved. These initiatives are selective but numerous, and on the whole, they encourage optimism.

There were certain criteria I used to select the company I was going to work at. It should have been an international organization, as I wanted to stay in touch with the world. I wanted to have the opportunity to do analytics, and not just at one company but in various projects. A study in Europe did not pass without leaving a trace, and therefore, one of the criteria was the company’s ethics. In other words, if it were not as transparent as I wanted it to be, I wasn’t ready to invest my efforts in this job regardless of the salary they would offer me. I looked for a team of persons with similar values. In some places, I would reach an interview at the highest level, but after that, something would go wrong.

This step must be taken consciously. Not just leaving the country and going to a fabulous world of affluence and wellbeing, but understanding why you get this chance, what you are going to do with it and how you would use it in your life.

With the company I’m working at right now, everything was quite simple. The recruiting took some three months, but in the end, I got what I wanted. This is an international analytics company doing marketing research of the consumer goods market for local and global clients. I work there as a senior analyst and consultant. It’s an interesting job, where I can apply the knowledge I received in Europe: instruments, approaches, communications. I wanted to grow fast despite possible limitations every organization has, and I was receiving promotions literally every seven months. All pieces of the puzzles thus fell into place.

41695160_247300975973348_7845383830641836032_n-768x576A European degree is not a guarantee of employment. It only helps get invited to an interview. Today, I am selecting candidates for an interview myself, and if I come across a resume that I and my colleagues had, I would definitely want to talk to that person. Your profile works for you, but it doesn’t guarantee an employment offer during an interview. There were instances when we saw a resume boasting a business school in Madrid or Barcelona, or some university in Germany or the Netherlands, invited the person to an interview, talked to him and realized that we don’t want to work with that person due to the lack of skills or experience. A degree is your right to get to another level of interview, but there is still some 50-80% of what you really are. You have to develop yourself, work on yourself, for that’s the only way to get what you really want.

Sharing experience and solving problems

Despite workload, I still find time for public activity. I am a speaker for EU Study Days, a school holding sessions in various cities across Ukraine. I am also a coordinator for the Ukrainian branch of Eurasian Chapter, an association of Erasmus graduates in Ukraine and countries of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. We promote these programs by participating in various fairs and projects or by organizing promo tours of Ukraine and other countries themselves. We visited Yerevan, Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent and Samarkand, meet with students and told them about our experience: what they have to do to receive a scholarship, and what happens after graduation. These are not just technical matters, like how to complete an application form, but more about the worldview: why you need it. If someone wants to take the first step toward success, we have to explain him that this step must be taken consciously. Not just leaving the country and going to a fabulous world of affluence and wellbeing, but understanding why you get this chance, what you are going to do with it and how you would use it in your life.

We work closely with the EU Delegation to Ukraine, participating in various projects and promoting European values and our experience of living in Europe. We meet with various ministries. For instance, during our visit to the office of Vice Prime Minister for European Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, we spoke about education, greater mobility not only on part of the Ukrainians toward Europe but about what we can do for Ukraine’s image in the eyes of European students, about education reforms and what can be changed in our universities.

Before participating in this program, I never traveled by airplane, so my trip to the University of Bergen was the first flight in my life. Today, I travel every two months. This mobility became inertial and very hard to stop.

I also help organize pre-departure orientations: meetings for new students, where we tell them about how to get adapted to the conditions of study at European universities. EU ambassadors, representatives of European embassies and Erasmus+ office speak about this scholarship program using concrete examples and explain the procedure. It was very helpful for me back in 2013, so for three years, being a graduate, I have been helping new students gain this first experience and organize relocation. We also work with graduates, because for us, it is very important to communicate, share experience, results and achievements – all that is very motivating. Therefore, we organize regular meetings (once every few months) to share opportunities, vacancies and projects.

Problems sometimes occur with recognition of European degrees, even though we are a part of the Bologna Process. That is especially true in civil service. Therefore, our task is to address all instances when someone faces the problem with nostrification of these degrees or any other problems. With the help from our partners, delegations, embassies and institutions where our graduates work, we can launch an advocacy campaign and bring these and other problems to a high level, speak about them and help solve them.

Prospective student’s checklist

I would recommend future students decide on the program from Erasmus list or from other programs. In other words, the first thing you should do is to outline the horizon of opportunities and find the most interesting areas. There is a very good collection, Study in Europe available on the website of Erasmus+ office. It contains all scholarships offered in European countries. After that, you may want to contact graduates of these programs and talk to them. They have real experience, which could give you an idea as to whether you should enroll in that particular program and what you should do to succeed.

Language proficiency is not the most important criterion and not something you should be afraid of. If you’re not that fluent in the language, that won’t be a problem – all you need is to pass a test for a certain minimal knowledge. And since the process of preparation and certification takes a lot of time, I would advise signing up for a language course or for taking an exam.

The most important thing is to meet deadlines. There is a clearly stated date, and you must be ready to submit all documents by that date. The administrators of these programs are ready to explain everything, so don’t be afraid of writing them or contacting them over Skype if you haven’t found a graduate whom you could ask for a consultation. In most cases, especially if it is a university in Western Europe, you will receive a response fast.

The story goes on

I still have the room for professional growth and development of my leadership qualities. Before participating in this program, I never traveled by airplane, so my trip to the University of Bergen was the first flight in my life. Today, I travel every two months. This mobility became inertial and very hard to stop. All Erasmus students have this professional deformation. You become connected to the world, more integrated into communities, and that continues after graduation.

Perhaps some time later, I would want to gain experience working in another country. In particular, at my company. But not for the purpose of emigrating at any cost but to work in an international community abroad, because technologies used in Western Europe are different. I would want to gain new experience in analytics and working with Big Data, and develop it in Ukraine. The academic program has ended, but the principle “Learn from others, but don’t be ashamed of your own” would stay with me.

* The information campaign “European Integration: the Power of Opportunities” is conducted by the Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine with the support from the EU and Association4U project.

By Svitlana Vasylchenko

The article was originally published on The Point