Students keen to study medicine are making a beeline for Russia where quality degrees come with an affordable price tag. LEANNE GOH checks out the pulse of undergraduate life and clinical work in the big cold populous country.
In the land of vodka, caviar and great museums, a visitor will find much to behold and explore. But many Malaysians making a beeline for Russia only want to know one thing – how are its medical programmes?
Thus, medical students like Norazimimah Abdullah are often besieged by friends and interested parties wanting to know what it is like studying in Russia.
She tells them as she sees it: medicine in Russia is not for the faint hearted.
“My first question to them is: why Russia? If you have any other choice, please reconsider. I tell them the facts so that they will go in with their eyes open,” says the fifth year medical student at the Moscow Medical Academy (MMA).
This is not to say that she wouldn’t pick Russia if she could start all over again; she only has superlatives for the quality of her own medical programme.
But the fact is life as a student is Russia is not a bed of roses. A group of Malaysian students who have been in Moscow, Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod for two to five years rate living in Russia six out of 10.
The cold can be crippling for the uninitiated. Students try to stay put and not venture anywhere beyond lectures halls.
Says fresh graduate A. Sornavally of her early days as a medic student: “I cried every morning for a month. The climate was horrible, very cold with long winters.
“I fell sick often and people had to look after me. I felt miserable initially but things got better after we moved to a proper hostel in Pushkin.”
Her misery could partly be attributed to the fact that she was among the first few batches of Malaysians who came to MMA in 1998, together with S. Thrimourthi and T. Arvin. There were only a handful of brave souls before them.
The three, who graduated in June, only had each other to turn to for solace as they coped with a new country, culture, climate, language and a challenging course. Of course living on their own meant having to do everything themselves and solving their own problems.
“Despite what I went through, it was a good decision to come here. I strongly recommend doing undergraduate work here. The quality here is very good and you tend to learn a lot.
“I showed my lecture material to friends who are doing medicine in other countries and they say what we are being taught is very good. I’m very proud to have graduated from a top university,” says Sornavally. MMA is rated the top medical university in Russia while and Unesco's international rating puts it second, after the Rene Descartes Academy of Medical Sciences.
Says Thrimourthi: “I wouldn’t choose to live or work here but studying in Russia is ok.”
“The people here can be as cold as the climate. But there are some nice people too although not warm like Malaysians; the Russians are quite different,” says Sornavally.
MMA second year student Lim Hoong Da says the trick is to learn Russian fast to communicate with the locals. “You must be able to speak fluently to get to know them, otherwise they are indifferent to you.”
He doesn’t mind the weather (“I actually like the cold”) although he admits that the Asians tended to fall ill when the seasons change. “But we just dose ourselves with vitamins and take a flu jab.”
“We now treat ourselves if we come down with simple ailments; we know how,” quips Norazimimah who is better known as Azie to her friends.
Those who go to Russia with the perception that it is like studying in the United States or England are in for a rude shock. Moscow and other big cities are very expensive to live in and accommodation can be dauntingly dismal.
“Those who come here with high expectations are going to be disappointed and upset. My advice to them is to come here with minimal expectations.
“I came here with zero expectations and could adapt easily and quickly. A lot of my friends came thinking it’s like UK or US were in for a cultural shock. It’s really important to remember that it is far from it,” says Melvyn Anthony, a third year student at MMA.
Hostel accommodation was a major problem for foreign students. But as the numbers grew significantly, the university authorities realised that it had to be given priority. Hence over the last few years, there has been constant upgrading of hostel facilities.
MMA, for example, has just set up a new block of hostel specially for Malaysians and a handful of other foreign students while the Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy (NNSMA) built a hostel just for Malaysians two years ago.
The rooms and toilets at these hostels are certainly better than the shabby three star hotel rooms in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod! Volgograd State Medical University too offers its foreign students hostel accommodation.
Nonetheless, Malaysians whom this writer met complained about having to share a narrow room with little space for “sharing a meal with friends on the floor” or prayers. Others complained about Internet access that was not reliable at Nizhny (about seven-and-a-half hours by train or an hour’s flight from Moscow).
Says NNSMA student Netia Jeganathan: “We’re not happy with the facilities and services. It takes the people here a long time to fix the lights, etc.”
She cites other problems like poor Internet access and costly email services (RM1 to send an email), phone card and photocopying.
“But when we compare notes with our friends studying in Moscow, we are thankful that we’re much better off here in many ways. Our campus is within walking distance or we can take a short bus ride.”
Adds Azreena Azhari, a second year student at NNSMA on a government scholarship: “We can get halal chicken from the mosque or those imported from France, so food’s not a problem,”
Cost of living
While tuition fees in Russian universities are low, the cost of living is high. Moscow, with its population of 10 million, is rated the world’s third most expensive city to live in, according to a survey conducted by the US-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting firm.
Students like Melvyn and Azie spend about RM1,000 a month in Moscow in living expenses, excluding accommodation, while those in Volgograd and the other cities live on about RM700. This covers transport, grocery, entertainment, phone calls, etc. They pay US$100 for medical insurance.
Inflation is very high in Moscow, says Azie. When she first arrived in 2000, a bus ticket cost her three roubles (38 sen); it has increased by 500% to 15 roubles (RM1.90) this year. Other means of public transport like the metro and taxi have also seen sharp hikes. Cost of food, she adds, has doubled as well.
A meal out is a costly affair; even a basic one with a starter, main course and shared dessert costs US$25.
A McDonald’s burger (without cheese) costs 40 roubles or RM5.30. Muscovites are “privileged” to have this fast food chain there; it is not available almost all other cities.
One thing the students enjoy is the variety of milk available, with different percentages of fat in it. “One litre of milk at the supermarket here is about RM3.20. We get better milk here with 6% fat,” says Azie, adding that 10 eggs cost RM3.50.
Joshua Eu Choon Leng, 28, chose to study in Volgagrad mainly because of the lower fees and cost of living. This second year student worked for two years after graduating from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in electrical engineering to save up for his medical course in Russia.
“I’ve always wanted to do medicine but got ‘distracted’ along the way.”
Russia seems to offer these young people a second chance at medicine. Joshua’s wife Jean Wong is a computer science graduate and she too is currently studying pharmacy at Volgagrad with him.
Mohd Syahrul Nizwan has a law diploma from the International Islamic University Malaysia while Melvyn has a diploma in medical science and lab technology from PTPL in Shah Alam. He worked for a year in a laborartory before heading for Russia.
Shaiful Firdauze Ahmad, on the other hand, had completed two years of pre-medicine in Pakistan but could not get back into the country after the 2001 Sept 11 World Trade bombing. He said the government pulled back all the students and he had to seek an alternative route to complete his degree.
Its not all work and no play in campus. The Malaysians organise inter-varsity games annually. This one-day event involves students from other cities travelling to Moscow to challenge each other in five-a-side futsal, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, badminton, netball, etc. The sports day was initiated by the Malaysian Student Association.
“But next year, maybe we’ll have the games in Volgagrad or Kursk (State Medical University, Kursk). We’re hoping to organise the venue on a rotation basis,” says Mohd Syahrul, a fourth year undergrad at the Russian State Medical University.
He says students from other cities tend to visit Moscow than the reverse.
Those who live in the other cities have to put up with small airports and uncomfortable flights.
“The Volgograd airport is like our Kota Baru or Kuantan airport. We have to take a two-hour flight from Moscow and arrive at midnight,” says Joshua.
Apart from the intervarsity games, there is the spring barbecue and Malaysian get-togethers to celebrate Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali and the Agung’s birthday.
On weekends, the students go for movies, picnics, the discotheque, sightseeing, church, meals out and sports, among others.
One real draw about studying in Russia is the opportunity to live in a country that is steeped in culture, history and awesome architecture. There is just so much to behold and tourist sites like the Red Square in Moscow are simply amazing.
Dr Sinelshchikova Olga, advisor to the vice-rector for international affairs, says it is actually a big step for families to send their children to Russia at the age of 17, 18 or 19 for six to seven years.
“They are actually spending the most important part of their life here and some of them eventually set up home here when they marry a Russian.”
Did you find this article insightful?