Letters from Abroad

American higher education is a unique system, the likes of which is not found in any other country (even Britain, the closest comparison, has key differences). Naturally, because of American universities uniqueness, the universities in Russia have several key distinctions that set them apart.

The first and the biggest difference is the idea of a residential university. Most students who go to my university, The Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), are Moscow residents who still live at home with their parents or in an apartment in the city. This idea of leaving your hometown, family, and old friends for a new experience during college is something rather foreign to Russian students. Granted, there are dorms for my university (populated by the few Russian and international students who are not from Moscow), but the majority of people are not in dorms. As a result of this, there is significantly less emphasis on “university life.” Most students go to school and then go home to hang out with their life-long friends. You never realize the wealth of activities that are offered at Dickinson (from volunteering, to sports, to the arts, to special interest clubs) until you have been to a university where the majority of people are off-campus. RSUH tries its best to foster an active student life, but it will never be as active as Dickinson who has a “captive audience.” Another interesting effect from a non-residential university is the lack of school pride that is so important to American students. The Russian idea of a university is much more utilitarian in comparison to the romantic American educational ideals of finding a perfect school that fits your personality and interests.

The Russian academic environment is also significantly different than the American. Tardiness is hardly ever noticed or punished and I have seen students arrive as late as 40 minutes into an hour and a half class. Students are not the only late ones as teachers often show up to class twenty minutes late. Classes are cancelled with little notice and room numbers can shift from week to week. Surprisingly (to me, at least), texting seems to be often tolerated within the classroom as long as it is not disruptive. Homework, quizzes, and tests are given sparingly and the final examination is where most of the grade comes from. Most classes are an hour and a half long and meet once a week. Lecturing is the most typical style of learning and teacher/student interaction is rather minimal. Students are all assigned into groups amongst the departments and they take all of their classes together. This means that teachers often ask things like, “Has this group encountered this theme in another class?” because everyone in the group has had the same class schedule. Interdisciplinary and liberal arts style degrees are few and far between, with most people getting on a special track early in their academic career. I can also say that the Russian classes that I am in, while intellectually stimulating, are less rigorous or difficult than the average American class.

In the end, most Russians go to college for the same reason that most Americans go to college: to get a job. University prestige is often taken into account when looking for jobs (interestingly, in Russia public universities are seen as far superior to private universities where you “pay for your grades”) but wherever you went university performance was almost as likely to get you a job. While American and Russian higher educations are hardly alike, education is a universal value that both achieve, just in different ways.