First Year at CERGE-EI: Investment in the Rest of My Life

It began at the end of December 2009 when a CERGE-EI student came back to Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine – his hometown and mine – to give a presentation about CERGE-EI. I was intrigued by the opportunities that CERGE-EI was offering. I wanted to get an MA degree in economics from a foreign school, and then maybe a PhD. At my home university, Zaporizhzhya National Technical University, I would be receiving only a Specialist degree in International Economic Relations.

Even though I was working on my diploma thesis and had an internship, I used my free time to carefully prepare all the documents necessary for application to CERGE-EI and get them submitted by the deadline. Then I waited. On April 13th I got the good news that I was invited to Prague for the Summer Preparatory Semester.

I had no idea, however, what I was going to. What is this program? What is a PhD at CERGE-EI, really? All I had was the information from web-site and the Wikipedia page. Some of my friends thought I was taking a big risk, but I decided to go anyway. Now, a year later, I can say that I know what it is, and the idea of getting a PhD degree inspires me. But let me tell you everything in order.

Prep did not begin well. On the first day I was late for Orientation. During my first week in Prague, I longed to go home. I could not get used to being self-reliant and away from everything that was familiar. Before coming here I was very much a “home-baby.” I had lived with my parents while studying at the university. I had never traveled abroad for more than a week, and I had no idea how I would live in another country for two months. But as you can see, I didn’t return home and now I can say that I don’t regret my decision to stay.

Probably the most important thing when one is away from home and surrounded by strangers is to find your group – people with whom you can go out on rare free days, who understand and are not offended when you say “I have a deadline for Macro homework,” or “I need to submit the last version of an article review for Academic Writing by midnight” or “Right now I can’t go out, but tomorrow – with pleasure!”

Our group formed spontaneously and I still cannot understand what united such different people. We had a party-guy from Kaliningrad; cheerful, always joking Serbian, who spoke Russian with a stunning accent; an actual cheerful Serbian, a perfect fit for our Kaliningrad guy; an optimistic girl from Azerbaijan – a true exotic beauty; a kind and always-there-for-us guy from Kazakhstan; one optimistic girl from Ukraine; a good-natured Polish guy; another Ukrainian – intelligent and ready to help with our studies; two girls from Belarus who were always ready to make pleasant conversation, and me, to some extent the Ukrainian pessimist. With any subset we could spontaneously go out at 9 pm, and even had an unexpected one-day trip to Dresden (with 50% discount :)). This group smoothed the hard days at school, and we even cried when we were saying “Goodbye.”

For me, the Preparatory Semester was far from easy, mostly because in only two months I had to learn and understand material that some people had been studying for years at their home universities. And I had to get my head around everything being in English, plus busyness and getting used to studying hard. Although Prep was very difficult, the two months passed quickly, and now I realize that without Prep, first year would be amazingly difficult if not impossible.

When I returned home after Prep I really wanted to go back to CERGE-EI. I liked this system of studying where you are actually supposed to study, not just use cheat sheets and rewrite from them. My opinion about CERGE-EI had changed cardinally over those two months. To say that I was disappointed when I got my results from Prep and I was not accepted into First Year doesn’t come close to fully expressing my feelings. In Fall when I realised how close I were to being accepted, my disappointment just about “killed” me.

So why am I here now, you may be wondering? After a long email exchange with SAO and long discussions with my parents, I was admitted as a Visiting Student. No stipend, without the status of a full-fledged student, but with the opportunity of taking classes, retaking Prep, and writing General Exams with the first-year students, after which the decision would be made about my status. (Just to make everything clear, my parents are making certain sacrifices to allow me to be here because they have become my “sponsors” for this year and I’m very thankful to them for this.)

During this past year I have been more or less a normal student, going to class, taking exams and trying “not to get lost” among the first-year students. And here I am a year later again partly taking Prep Semester, combining it with First Year: two summer months of constant study, Final and General Exams, and dreams of rest. At this moment I’m preparing for the marathon of exams and I look forward to the long-awaited vacation in August.

Yes, sometimes I have the desire to quit, to go home, find a mediocre job and remember this time in Prague as some exciting journey, but if last Fall these thoughts occurred quite often, now they are very rare. I can’t quit now. I’ve spent too much effort, time and energy on this and I cannot give up only one step away from becoming a full-fledged student. Here is the phrase that forces me to forget about difficulties and continue to study: “It is a major investment in the rest of your life.”

Because now I have huge plans for after graduation from CERGE-EI, like getting a good job with an international organization or even becoming a very, very good professor at a well-known university. Deep, deep inside I even dream about a Nobel Prize in Economics :). For now, these are just dreams, but I believe that if I continue to push myself to the limit, everything will come true no matter how much time has to pass. It’s no accident that the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” are the one that inspires me to keep striving.

Everyone says that the first year is the hardest, but with each passing day and each exam that I pass, I know I am getting closer to my goal. And someday I’ll look back on this time with a smile – because even now, after only one year, I know that CERGE-EI is giving me a lot.

Iuliia Kuntsevych, 1st year student

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