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UNN Vice-Rector on working with international students in an interview for Delovoy Kvartal magazine

"We consider the promotion of the Russian language and Russian education in the world to be an important part of our mission" - Alexander Bedny, Vice-Rector for International Affairs of Lobachevsky University.

What areas of study do foreign students choose, is it difficult to learn Russian, and how does the Russian language help promote the university internationally? Alexander Bedny, Vice-Rector for International Affairs of Lobachevsky University, answers these questions in an interview for NN.DK.RU.

- Dr. Bedny,  Lobachevsky University is the largest university in the Nizhny Novgorod region, also in terms of the number of students, including foreign students. How many are there now?

- Currently, more than 1,800 international students from about a hundred countries study at Lobachevsky University. UNN has been systematically recruiting and educating students from foreign countries since 2005, before that we had practically no international students. We are very glad that during this time the university has succeeded in creating a truly international student environment. Students from all over the world come to study here: from Asia, Africa, Middle East, Europe, Latin America and CIS countries. UNN has become an international centre for education and science, the largest such centre in the Nizhny Novgorod region.

-What fields of study do international students choose?

- International students’ preferences are varied, they study at all the faculties of our large university. Medicine, economics and management, international relations, information technology are in high demand.

By the way, it is in the field of information technology that UNN has been running a bachelor's programme in English since 2006, which was the first English-language programme at the university and one of the few in Russia. The programme continues successfully to this day and is very popular with students. The demand for this programme in the highly competitive international educational market reflects the extensive scientific and educational potential of Lobachevsky University in the field of information technologies and supercomputing. It is important that a strong fundamental base is combined with a practice-oriented education.

UNN is a participant in a number of major research projects in mathematics, data analysis and artificial intelligence, the university has its own supercomputer "Lobachevsky", UNN is part of the IT cluster of the Nizhny Novgorod region, we have close cooperation with leading high-tech companies (Intel, Harman, Huawei, Yandex, Sber and many others). This is very important in terms of training in-demand personnel and the successful employment of graduates in the dynamic labour market. By the way, there are some foreigners among the UNN graduates working in leading technology companies in Nizhny Novgorod.

A recent highlight in terms of global recognition of the university was the victory of the Lobachevsky University student team in the international programming championship. Our team was ahead of teams from Harvard, MIT, and many other leading world universities. In my opinion, this is a great achievement of the students themselves, their coaches, the teachers who work with them. This victory reflects the university's great capabilities in terms of IT training.

-How has the pandemic affected your work with international students?

 - The decision to study in another country is in itself a challenge for a young person, and in today's situation, in the context of a global pandemic with its limitations, it is an additional stress. In this respect, we consider it a priority to find an individual approach to students, to provide the necessary support to enable them to realise their dream of higher education.

Last year, the pandemic confronted higher education institutions around the world with the need for rapid change, defining a kind of "new reality" of global higher education. Of course, this has also had a significant impact on our work with international students. We have had to organise the educational process, extracurricular work with students, interaction with foreign partners, international promotion, recruitment and admission of foreign applicants in a new way.

 The Russian government has now implemented a mechanism for international students to enter the Russian Federation to continue their studies, amid ongoing restrictions on movement between countries due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, not all students are able to come; many continue to study remotely.

The university is not just a place of study, but also a centre of social life for students. We also take this into account in our work with international students who have not yet been able to come, using digital and online solutions to involve students in the university’s extracurricular life and to provide an introduction to the university for those who have not yet been there.

It is important to understand that many of the changes in international higher education brought about by the pandemic (especially the intensive use of modern digital technologies in the educational process) will remain with us even after the pandemic is over.

- What do you think is the most important thing in working with international students?

 - In my opinion, the most important thing in this matter is attention and an individual approach.

Working with international students is a very multifactorial process that requires taking into account a lot of important details. This includes advice to applicants on admission, assistance in choosing an educational path, visa and migration support, recognition of foreign education documents, organising orientation and adaptation activities, ongoing support in dealing with various life situations, and so on.  And, as I said, in the context of this pandemic, there is also the need to simultaneously provide the necessary support both for students who are in Nizhny Novgorod and for those studying remotely.

The university has a round-the-clock support system for international students, and there are many activities for social adaptation and cross-cultural exchange. International students have the opportunity to fulfil themselves in sports and creativity, volunteering and mentoring.

UNN has an International Student Club, a House of Friendship and Cultural Diversity - these are the platforms where international students hold their events, socialise and discuss new initiatives. Besides, students from different countries take an active part  in the volunteer movement: they collect clothes for those in need and help children from orphanages.

 Diverse adaptation mechanisms for international students play a crucial role. Our international services staff and other university departments are involved in this work. But it is very important for newly arrived young people to receive support from other international students who have themselves gone through an adaptation to a new environment. For this purpose, we have a system of student peer helpers, "buddies". These are senior students who become mentors for newcomers: they assist new students adjust to University life and help them with everyday issues.

Modern higher education is not only about "gnawing at the granite of science", it is also about obtaining important soft skills, which are so necessary for successful self-realisation in different professional areas. These include leadership qualities, communication skills, the ability to find a common language with representatives of different cultures and much more. The international student environment plays an important role in shaping such skills while studying at the university.

Recently, the social initiatives programme "I Care - I Can", which has been successfully implemented at UNN for several years now, became the leader of the popular vote and one of the contenders to win the Civic Initiative National Prize in the category  "Russia, Our Common Home".

The programme facilitates the socialisation and integration of international students through various self-actualisation mechanisms. 

Every year, the university hosts the now traditional Lobachevsky UniverSum Festival of Cultures, where students introduce everyone to the culture and traditions of their countries through an exhibition fair and a great concert programme. It is really worth seeing! There are national costumes, dances and foods.

In my opinion, a very important thing in such events is the initiative of the students themselves, their sincere desire to share their culture and traditions with others. Such events are very important in creating a truly international atmosphere at the university.

-What is the proportion of international students who choose to study in Russian?

- Slightly more than half of international students receive their higher education at UNN in Russian, the rest are enrolled in English-language programmes, the range of which expands year by year.

In most cases, foreign students arrive without any substantial knowledge of Russian. UNN has a very efficient centre for teaching Russian as a foreign language - students who come to study in Russian first study the language in a pre-university programme, in order to enter a higher education programme the following year. The teaching staff who teach Russian as a foreign language, for the most part, are quite young, 25-35 years old. And our experience shows that this fact only contributes to the effective teaching of Russian to foreigners: the relatively small age difference between teachers and students allows communication to develop more effectively.

Students who choose to study in English and have a good command of it do not spend an extra year in a pre-university programme and can enrol straight into their first year. Nevertheless, they also learn Russian as a foreign language during their studies and are usually already proficient in it when they leave university.

We consider it a very important part of our mission to promote the Russian language and Russian education in the world.

 Our "great and mighty" language is not easy to master in such a short time, and it seems to be especially difficult to do it online. Nevertheless, due to the limitations of the pandemic, we have already had some positive experience.   For example, students from Latin American countries started a special online pre-university programme in October 2020, and in early 2021 they hoped to come to UNN, but the borders remained closed. As a result, the training continued online right up to the end of the programme in July 2021. Neither the distance of 12,000 kilometres nor the 7-9 hours time difference prevented students from Peru, El Salvador, Colombia, Bolivia and Panama from successfully completing the programme who already spoke beautiful Russian at the online graduation ceremony! This is a really impressive result of a great teamwork of teachers and students assisted by modern technology.

One more example: we traditionally hold a large international Russian Language Olympiad for foreign citizens, Lobachevsky/RU. In April this year there was another tour, naturally online, with over 500 participants from 67 countries!

These are just a few examples where, in spite of the pandemic, international education is developing intensively and taking on new dimensions.

- The year 2021 marks 30 years since the city became open to foreigners. It is not a long time. What have you managed to do in this short time to make higher education and science in Nizhny Novgorod international?  Have you succeeded?

 - Indeed, the university’s international activities started to develop less than 30 years ago. However, during this relatively short period of time, these activities have already become a significant factor in the development of our university, ensuring its entry into the global scientific and educational space. Since the 1990s, the university has been actively involved in various international projects and programmes, and, importantly, the results of many of them continue to be successfully implemented today.

For example, in 1994, a joint educational double degree programme "Russian-Italian University" was launched together with the University of Calabria from Italy. The programme was supported by both sides at the state level and has become something of a pioneer in the field of our international educational programmes. Over the years, cooperation between the two universities systematically expanded and involved new research and educational areas. Since then Lobachevsky University has launched many dozens of joint programmes with foreign partners, but the "Russian-Italian University" has continued to develop for almost three decades.

The development of international activities is one of the strategic priorities for the university and plays a very important role in ensuring its competitiveness. UNN has established laboratories headed by world-leading scientists, the university is an active participant in international research and educational projects and programmes, and is a member of major consortiums and associations.

The International Council of Lobachevsky University includes leading foreign experts in the field of higher education and science development. It is through international cooperation and international ties that the university's full involvement in the global scientific and technological agenda is ensured.

In autumn 2021, following a competitive selection process, UNN became one of the participating universities in the new large-scale state programme to support leading universities, Priority 2030. Lobachevsky University is one of the 18 leading Russian universities who have become participants of the Programme in the Research Leadership track. Participating universities must successfully establish themselves in the global market of education, science and technology, which is only possible with the effective development of international cooperation.