Opinion Society, 06/06/2017

Kharkiv: The International Student’s Very Temporary Home

David Belford

It is well known that international students’ financial contributions to universities and cities are highly valued. Kharkiv is no stranger to international students; for instance, around 3,700 of them are currently studying at the Kharkiv National Medical University. These students don’t just bring money but give the city a multicultural vibe, similar to those in Western Europe.

Foreign graduates are also attractive to companies thanks to the language and culture skills they offer alongside their recognized degrees. While many students from non-EU countries wish to continue working in the UK post-graduation, it appears that Kharkiv is not as desirable with its international students. So why are they leaving?

I caught up with some international students to chat about their experiences. Tanzina (Bangladesh), Yoon (South Korea) and Philip (Ghana), who are all third-year students at the Medical University, do not intend to stay in Kharkiv longer than their degree programs. They told me some of the challenges of living in Ukraine and why they didn’t see their futures in the city.

They all agreed that the Russian language was the most difficult thing about living in the city. Yoon tells me as he’s unable to speak Russian he “can’t interact with Ukrainian people”, which increases his feelings of loneliness.  Furthermore, international students study separately from their native peers. This combination of physical separation and the language barrier can make integrating with locals extremely difficult and is not even attempted by many.

However, Russian lessons are compulsory and a part of the curriculum. So why do the students still struggle? I have been told that lessons are not considered important as students have no intention of staying post-graduation. The main reason for this appears to be earning potential, and in particular as a qualified doctor.

Both Yoon and Philip cite the economy and graduate salaries as a reason for not wanting to stay. According to Philip “everyone (students) wants to get a better salary” than what is offered for newly qualified medics. This is echoed by Yoon who says “I can’t get a good job here and I won’t be paid as much as I want.” According to the Human Development Index, Ukraine ranks considerably higher than the home countries of the majority of the international students (with the exception of South Korea). This, therefore, suggests the standard of living and salaries should be higher. If the quality of life is better, there must be other reasons for such an exodus at the end of each academic year.

According to Tanzina, she could never make Kharkiv her home when her family and relatives remain in Bangladesh. She tells me “to make a place your home, you need to have a family”. While this can be said about any place, there is a distinct lack of foreign communities outside of the universities, which could make students feel more at home. Philip explains that there is an active Ghanaian society in the university, but the community does not expand much further and that there are “very few who actually live here.” Students may fear that staying longer in the city could result in feelings of isolation.

While it can be argued that the students have decided their futures very early on in their studies, how much are Kharkivites themselves encouraging multiculturalism and integration of students?  Tanzina tells me that native students are “more privileged in the university” than foreigners, citing their access to extra-curricular activities and research projects. In the city, Philip tells me that people are not “accommodating” to him as a customer and comments on the difference in the service he receives compared to natives.

It would appear that from the point of view of these students, Kharkiv is not ready for them as much as they are for it. In my opinion, for Kharkiv to become a multicultural center it has the potential to be and reap the benefits of an international city, more needs to be done to help students settle and integrate. Obviously improving the economy and incentivizing students to stay post-graduation cannot be fixed overnight, but improving the experience overall, especially on the part of the university, could encourage more people to make Kharkiv their home.