Foreign students: “Latvia is a unique country!”

In the academic year 2013/2014, sixty one foreign students received scholarships for their studies and research work from the government of the Republic of Latvia. They include students from Germany, Finland, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Moldova and the USA.

When they arrive to Riga, foreign students are often truly surprised of how beautiful and interesting the capital of Latvia is. Fantastic architecture, vivid cultural life, friendly and helpful people – this is how foreign students describe Riga. Frans Robert from Belgium who acquires Baltic Sea region studies in a master’s degree programme says that at the beginning, many foreign students are afraid of the cold weather that awaits them in Latvia: “But I can really suggest not being afraid of the cold weather and go to Latvia. It is a very interesting country, completely different from other classic study destinations, such as Spain. At first, I was surprised that Latvia is so green! During holidays I visited the “Positivus” festival and discovered that you have a very interesting combination here in Latvia – urban and rural environment combined together. I like it so much! I have visited friends in the country, worked in the garden, enjoyed a peaceful life. And then Riga – the centre of culture life. Riga is a really intensive city, there is always something going on, and you have many creative people who make Riga a very jovial city.”

Also Leonardo Pataccini Alvarez, who has studied both in Spain and Argentina, says that Riga is a wonderful city: “Riga is a very beautiful city with a very boisterous culture life and very helpful people. Latvians are proud of their culture and traditions, and I think that their ability to rejoice at simple things is one of the most wonderful characteristics of the people here. Going to woods to pick mushrooms in the summer is one of the great examples. On the other hand, Latvia still has major problems, such as the growing social inequality, to be solved. However, I think that in general, Latvia is a wonderful and beautiful country with a large potential to achieve real and sustainable development that its people would benefit from.”

The Latvian government scholarship plays a major role in choosing the country of studies

When speaking about applying for the Latvian government scholarship, foreign students indicate that the preparation and submission of the necessary documents was not complicated. All the information was clear, the deadlines for the submission of documents were announced in due time. In the application process, also the advice provided by officers of the State Education Development Agency (SEDA), who were supportive and willing to help, was very helpful. Although it was quite easy to prepare the documents necessary for the scholarship competition, some students say that it was much harder to learn about the existence of such competition, since they had obtained the information about the scholarship by chance. When speaking about studies in Latvia, students are happy about the scholarship received and say that it has had a decisive role in choosing Latvia as the place of studies. Frans Robert says: “The Latvian scholarship is really a large benefit. The tuition fee in Latvia, as compared to that in Belgium, is much higher - if I had not received the scholarship, it would not have been so easy to decide on starting studies in Latvia.” Also Leonardo Pataccini Alvarez, who carried out the research of his promotion thesis in Latvia, is of the opinion that the scholarship is important: “Research work requires much time and attention; therefore, I would not have been able to combine studies with work or live on savings all this time. The scholarship had a decisive role for me to be able to carry out my research in Riga.”

Olga Lebedeva, an organ player from Uzbekistan, chose to study in Latvia because she highly values the Latvian traditions of music and organ music. Olga is studying in the master’s programme in Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music (JVLMA): “I come from a rather poor country, and it is very hard for my parents to pay for my education. Now, when I have received the scholarship, it gives me a great chance to continue my professional development. In Latvia, I was most impressed by my lecturers whose ability to transfer their knowledge to students is admirable. I have to mention specifically Atis Stepiņš and Jevgēņijs Ļisicins with whom I had a possibility to participate in joint concerts. During my studies I try to provide contribution to the activity of JVLMA in any possible way. In August of this year, I performed at the Organ Music Marathon Concert in Riga Cathedral, and the donations of the concert were use for acquisition of new organ for JVLMA. I was glad to have the opportunity to provide my contribution and help in reaching such a noble and true purpose.”

Foreign students think that this is a unique time for Latvia from the historical point of view

Leonardo Pataccini Alvarez has broad experience in international education. He acquired his bachelor’s degree in sociology in Buenos Aires University and master’s degrees in international economics in Belgrano University and contemporary history in Satiago de Compostela University. Now Leonardo is studying in the doctoral programme at the Faculty of Economics and Management of the University of Latvia, and he chose Latvia as the destination of his studies with the aim of studying the transition of Latvia to market economy. “The theme of my promotion thesis concerns the role of financial market in the process of transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy. I think that this transition is the most important event of the second half of the 20th century and of the 21st century from the social and economic point of view, so I try to study and understand this process more thoroughly. Since regaining independence, Latvia has experienced major economic and social changes, and the financial markets have played an important role in these changes, which has not always been the best one. By studying how the financial markets have formed and developed in Latvia in the recent decades, I hope to understand and explain the processes that take place in other transition economies as well,” says Leonardo.

Andrew Johansson from the United States of America (USA) has also previously focussed on economics and international relations and is currently studying in the master’s programme in Riga Graduate School of Law. “For four years, I’ve been working as a project manager at an economic development consultancy company in Chicago, but then I realised that international relations are my true passion. When I saw that Riga was becoming a very dynamic city and realised its substantial growth potential which is evidenced by various economic growth indicators, I decided that this would be a good time to return to studies and to choose Riga for this purpose. For me, the largest benefit of studying in Latvia and Riga is the possibility to live in a multi-cultural, vibrant city that has deep historical roots. In every step I take, I can feel the diversity and inequality which exists in the region. This is a unique time for Latvia. Economy is recovering from a really hard crisis, and vibrant energy can be felt in the air. I really have the feeling that wonderful things are awaiting Latvia in the near future. For foreign students who are still planning to apply for the Latvian scholarship I can suggest – hurry up! The world is starting to realise the precious value of Riga. “Lonely Planet” has just named Riga as one of the Top10 travel destinations, and in 2014, Riga will be the European capital of culture. It is a unique country at a unique stage of its history,” says Andrew, master’s programme student from the USA.

The quality of studies receives criticism as well

Most foreign students are very satisfied with the higher education quality in Latvia; however, it can be concluded that individual study courses or their organisational structure should be improved. For example, Frans Robert who acquires Baltic Sea region studies in a master’s degree programme at the University of Latvia indicates that the study course lacks a common direction and purpose: “The Baltic countries have been my passion since the third year of my bachelor’s studies when I studied in Vilnius within the framework of the Erasmus programme. After the bachelor’s studies, I decided to continue the Baltic Sea studies, since I want the Baltic countries to become more well-known both in Europe and globally. Currently, I am writing for “The Baltic Scene” online magazine which informs about Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian musicians. I think that this is the right way how to achieve that more people learn about the Baltic countries – by combining information about the three countries and providing it to the world in a uniform manner. In the future, I would like to work in an international company or an NGO which unites the Baltic countries with the rest of the world, and I think that the Baltic Sea region studies are a perfect way how to start. As regards the quality of the studies, I still have the feeling that the studies lack a uniform view and understanding of where the course is heading to. I really like the themes of the study course, as I am interested in both culture and literature and in ethnic minority issues of the Baltic countries. Still, I consider that the communication between professors should be improved substantially in order for various courses to be more interconnected.”

Meanwhile, Leonardo Pataccini Alvarez has, during the development of his doctoral thesis, delivered lectures to the bachelor’s programme students of the University of Latvia; therefore he can judge the quality of the higher education in Latvia also from a teacher's point of view. Leonardo explains: “With the accession to the European Union (EU), Latvia adapted also the EU education model, but I am not sure if this was a step forward for Latvia. I think that the Bologna process has destroyed or at least weakened what should have been the basis of the higher education, namely, the development of critical thinking. Instead, the students are provided disputably practical and useful information, without developing their cognitive or inquisitive perspective. It cannot be denied that the integration of Latvia into the European higher education area is a good thing which might bring many benefits for the country, but I think that the current conditions are against this. Latvia has a valuable human capital; however, considering the downward trends in the education system in Europe, Latvia is currently not a winner.”