Three years ago, Mohamad Abdelaal from Egypt declined a promising job offer in Saudi Arabia and set off on an adventure to study Russian language and follow a Master programme in Geophysics at St Petersburg University. The reason for that? Mohamad’s big dream to become the first Egyptian astronaut in Roscosmos. He shared his story of adapting to lectures in Russian, spending a semester on exchange in Finland and learning to appreciate art.

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What brought you to Russia?

I was choosing between three countries with strong space exploration facilities. So, I was thinking to either go to America, where NASA is located, or to Russia because of Roscosmos, or to the European Space Agency in Switzerland. Besides that, I wanted to study my own field – Geoscience. I love all of the mysteries related to what’s going on under the ground.

Before I came to study here, I visited Russia in 2011. Our university in Egypt chose 30 best students and organized a trip to Moscow and Dagestan for them. The first thing I experienced was two girls with water guns, who started running after me and my friends in the street. So, I thought Russian people were a little crazy but lovely, I liked them and the general impression was nice. Also, I was working for a company that had many projects with Russian organizations. We met Russian engineers and they were telling us a lot about the country.

Maybe, there is some big reason for me being here that I don’t know about yet. I still have a dream to join Roscosmos one day and become the first Egyptian astronaut.

And how did you end up in SPbU?

When I applied, everything started moving so fast, within two weeks I got an acceptance. So, I decided to take part in this adventure. It was a bit of a risk because at the same time I got a contract at Saudi Arabia to work as a Head of the Space Centre. It was a really high position for a boy of just 25 – I would have everything: high salary, my car, my villa. But at that time I thought I still needed more knowledge and experience, so I chose SPbU and decided that the position would come to me anyway in the future.

What is your study programme like?

The education system here is quite advanced. Our professors in Geophysics give top-level technical information about our profession. In the first year we had a lot of courses – it was not easy to study in Russian. I spent a lot of time translating the slides, every day I studied for 6-7 hours to catch up.

Is the programme preparing you for the future career? Are there any opportunities for practical application of what you are learning?

Yes, for sure. For example, my Master thesis is about seismic exploration – it is used in the oil and gas industry. Our teachers provide us with insights on how we can apply our knowledge in this kind of work. Also, last year we went on an exploration in Karelia – it was so amazing there! We did GPR, electromagnetic exploration, we did everything. It was an interesting experience to learn how to process data.

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You just got back from your exchange in Finland. What was your experience like?

I liked it so much! I was based in Oulu, so I had a chance to see the Northern lights. My experience lasted for four months from September till the end of December. I was studying everything related to Geology, Geophysics, Mining and I even took some courses about climate change and Space Science.

Also, I got invited to work as a researcher in a space observatory during my study. I was looking specifically at the relation of Sun and Earth, studying the geomagnetic field and the causes of aurora borealis. I was working along with one professor and a girl who had previously worked for NASA.

In Finland, I met a lot of friends from all over the world: from America, Canada, all over Europe. They even came to visit me in Moscow for the New Year.

Could you tell a bit about your application process for the exchange programme in SPbU?

Everyone was so helpful here during the application process. In the beginning I was offered to go to Norway but I realized I would need minimum 300 000 roubles per semester just to survive. If I had this amount of money right now, I wouldn’t need to studyJ So, I had to decline. Then, they told me I had a chance in Finland and in Germany and helped me to apply for a grant. Maksim Kireev, responsible for the outgoing mobility in the International Academic Cooperation department, was communicating with the organization in Finland that finally agreed to give me a grant for four months. That was really necessary, because everything in Finland is crazily expensive, when I came back to Russia, I felt that everything was affordable.

What is your impression of Russian people? Have you made friends here?

Good question. If you asked me two years ago, I wouldn’t have answered perfectly. My first impression of Russian people was in Saratov where I went for a preparation course to study Russian. I didn’t know any of the language at that time and just wrote “Please, tell me how I can get to the university?” by Google translate. I showed it to one guy once I went out from the train station. He looked at the phone, gave it back to me and said in Russian “I don’t know” with a kind of expression like I said something bad to him. So, I checked my translation – yes I asked the correct question. I understood later that for Russian people it’s not easy to smile in the first moment, they might seem cold. But once you break the ice with them, once you start to be friends, everything will be lovely.

Now I have a lot of friends here. Most of the people from my floor in the dormitory drop by and invite me to hang out, have some tea, coffee, etc. Also, because I’m quite active in different social activities – for example, I’m playing football in the national team and also in SPbU team, I can find friends there and I can participate. So, in the student community many people know me, especially because I’m Egyptian and people are interested in the Egyptian culture and pharaohs.

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How do you find St Petersburg?

St Petersburg is one of my favorite cities! As soon as I came here, I saw how beautiful the city was. People here are quite different, they are still Russian, but are more cultural and quite open.

For someone like me, who was used to visiting factories and mines and had never experienced anything related to culture, coming here and seeing the Hermitage and all of the churches was something very new. When I decided to visit the Hermitage for the first time, I was standing in front of each picture for not more than 3 seconds. Up to now I’ve visited the Hermitage 5 or 6 times, and these days I can spend the whole day in only one hall. I find myself thinking: “Oh yeah, that is so nice, I wonder how the artist managed to do that!” I started to think about many things from another point of view which honestly made me open my mind.

Do you have any advice for people coming here?

They should prepare very well for the different culture, I advise them to be flexible. Please, try to know a little bit about Russia, about Russian traditions, and especially the Russian language. Russia is a nice country, it’s a good place to study, there are many places to visit, many cultural sights. And especially I advise to visit St Petersburg.