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Being an Exchange Student in Russia

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Russia may not be the hottest study destination, but language students and undergraduates from across the world increasingly turn their attention to this fast-growing economy. Skye Black (pictured below on the left) is one such student who spent the past academic year at the Saint Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation (GUAP).

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Having studied Russian for only two years, the 22-year-old Londoner decided to go to Russia in the third and penultimate year of her Russian and German degree at Queen Mary, University of London. As her home university did not require her to complete a year in Russia, it was not to count towards her final degree. "I just came here for the tuition," says Skye, tuition which cost her 45,000 roubles, or just under £1,000.

The first two years of the standard Russian degree are similar to the international baccalaureate programme and include studying sciences, economics and two foreign languages, explains Skye. Students also start university a year earlier than in the UK, at 17. Skye enrolled on the first-year course and took Russian translation, cultural studies, philosophy and history - all taught in Russian.

Skye, who spoke very little Russian when she arrived in St Petersburg, describes organising her stay in Russia as "a massive headache". She had to do everything, including communicating directly with her Russian university, without much support from her home institution. She also lacked support from fellow British students. "I came with two other girls from Queen Mary", she says, "but they dropped out after the first term."

Here is what Skye had to say about studying and living in Russia.

What was the best thing about studying there?
I loved living in Russia. Every day you have to concentrate using the language. It improves your Russian and it's really good fun. St Petersburg is a beautiful city. I've been to Moscow and it's really good, but St Petersburg is so much friendlier. Plus, if you live in the centre, everything is within walking distance. When I first arrived I couldn't speak Russian and people were very patient with me.

What was student life like?
Good nights out. There were so many Russian and international students I got on really well with. I was the only British student from my university, but there were about 30 Brits from language schools that I got together with.

What was the weirdest thing that happened to you there?
The health check at university. This girl asked me to strip down to my underwear. I had to take off my bra. I was like, "What's going on?" Nobody had told me to prepare for this. They took X-rays of my chest for TB. I was shocked. And they made me pay for the health check, which I wasn't expecting.

Was it easy to obtain a visa?
My Russian university, GUAP, sent me an invitation to get my three week visa in the UK. I didn't get the paperwork until two weeks before I was to leave, so I had to get an emergency visa, which cost £177. The regular is £53. After the three weeks, GUAP extended it for £20 until 30 August this year. There were other gap year and exchange students from Oxford, Bristol and Edinburgh studying in language schools. They've had to fly back to the UK to extend their visa, and they had to pay so much more.

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What are costs like in Russia?
About the same as in the UK. My accommodation cost £350 a month, the same amount I paid in London. I lived on the main road in the centre of St Petersburg. Before that I lived in halls at £85 a month. It took me an hour to get to the city centre, it was overcrowded and it was in the dodgiest area you can imagine. You couldn't leave from midnight till 6am, so you're locked in. I've been locked up twice, so I had to sleep on the street. Food is not very expensive. You can live on £3 a day. If you go to a restaurant, it's a tenner.

Were you able to work while studying in St Petersburg?
I worked for Carfax Educational Consultants, an English-speaking company that teaches English. I wish I'd heard of them in advance. You can apply from the UK, and have a teaching job as soon as you land in Russia. It's £10-£40 an hour. Before you come to Russia, contact every language school in St Petersburg and send them your CV. You'll get lots of responses because they're always looking for native speakers.

What are your future plans?
In September I hope to apply for the civil service fast track in policy. I'd like to join the Foreign Office. If that doesn't happen, I'd like to do the Teach First programme. And after that, I'd reapply through the civil service fast track and see if they accept me. In January I did a month's internship in the UK, shadowing a politician.

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Skye Black's top tips for living and studying in Russia

1. Apply for teaching jobs before you arrive - just google language schools and send CVs out, they all love native speakers.

2. Talk to someone who had lived here before and gone through the city - for information on where to shop, eat out, go out etc. For example, the shop OK in Galeria shopping centre is super cheap and really good - I wish I'd discovered it sooner.

3. Travel and see more of Russia. It's not worth going home for Christmas. Travelling around Russia is so much better. I went home but only because I had an internship in January - loads of my friends stayed here and had a fabulous time.

4. Make sure you spend as much time as possible with Russian people. Don't be tempted to hang out with other year abroad students - it does your Russian no good at all.

5. Go to a university, not a language school, as then you actually make Russian friends and don't spend all your time with other foreigners, something that can be easily done in St Petersburg where there are so many foreigners.

6. Write down ten new words a day and actually learn them. Don't think because you're in Russia your Russian will automatically improve.

7. Get a multi-entry visa and go to Finland.

8. Go to the ballet, circus and theatre.

9. The year flies by so fast - enjoy every day to the full!

10. If you're interested in journalism, apply to write for The St. Petersburg Times, a weekly English-language newspaper.

11. Get a student metro card.

Photos by Skye Black