People become volunteers to achieve a whole range of objectives. Some strive to meet new people, some seek new experiences, others are driven by the desire to help the society. In St Petersburg University there are many opportunities to fulfil yourself in this field. Both Russian and foreign students can take part in green movements, join the University Volunteer Centre, work as a volunteer at various events etc. During the 2019–2020 academic year, foreign students have participated as volunteers in 68 events. They helped to organise and hold competitions, conferences, culture events, visited disabled children, and helped veterans.
We spoke with two students from China and Japan, who take an active part in the volunteer projects of the University. They told us how they had found out about volunteer programmes, what volunteering means to them, and what is the best way to start charity work.
Xiao Wang was born in a small Chinese town, where there have never been any foreigners. However, being a curious boy, Xiao Wang was looking for possibilities to meet people from abroad. The first foreigners he saw during his summer vacations at the seaside were tourists from Russia. Xiao found it very interesting to communicate with them, and promised himself to go to Russia to study. He kept his word when six years ago he came to St Petersburg. At St Petersburg University he went from the preparatory course to master’s studies. He is planning to apply for postgraduate studies next year and to receive a PhD. Now Xiao studies at the department of Russian as a Foreign Language and Methods of Its Teaching.
Tosio Naganava has a different story. He was born into a bilingual Russian-Japanese family. Tosio finished school in St Petersburg and wanted to get a university degree in Russia. He first encountered St Petersburg University during a presentation for potential applicants made by a graduate of the University. The variety of possibilities for foreign students attracted Tosio. Now he is a 3rd year student of the programme ‘Engineering-oriented Physics’.
Tell us a little about your life in Russia.
Tosio: My case must seem unusual. I am a citizen of Japan, but my mom is Russian, so I spent most of my life in Russia. This is why my learning experience here in Russia is similar to the one of Russian students.
Xiao: I would really love to get a deeper understanding of the Russian culture and mindset. I started speaking Russian after six months here. So it was hard in the beginning. The weather seemed bad, people seemed mean. I learned about the frame of mind of the Russians only from my teachers, I didn’t have my own experience. However, as soon as I started to understand the language, everything changed and I began to feel completely different about the Russians. They have a great soul!
The most important thing for me in Russians is their frankness. Russians are more frank than the Chinese. Russians are very open, they always say what they think. It is common knowledge that Eastern people are more reticent; you have to guess what they have on their mind. I try to be more open and I don’t like guessing. Another thing is love. In my opinion, love is being ready to take responsibility in a difficult situation. For example, once when I was in trouble, a stranger came up to comfort me and to offer me help. It was amazing.
What are your impressions of the academic programme?
Tosio: Our programme is unusual. Apart from physics, we study computer modelling. We work with models, geometry, calculate using numerical methods. After receiving the bachelor’s degree, I am planning to enrol in a master’s programme. I could continue studying at my department, because many courses start in the 3rd year of the bachelor’s programme and carry on in the master’s programme. On the other hand, I know plenty of people who changed their specialisation radically. It also seems very inspiring; I am interested in interdisciplinary fields.
Xiao: I love my academic programme! It was difficult in the beginning, I had to study until two or three in the morning, and still struggled to understand the material. However, I worked hard and managed to get a government funded place, won a competition, received a merit scholarship, and successfully passed the C1 Russian language test. Now I study together with the Russian students.
Research work at St Petersburg University is very serious. The attitude to work of our teachers is very encouraging.
I noticed a big difference between Chinese and Russian approaches towards studying. Marks are not that important for the Russian students. If a student got a magna cum laude degree or won in a competition, they never boast of it. Records and marks are a private matter. In China by contrast grades are the most important. Students like to tell others about their achievements. It is not right, in my opinion. People should use their achievements to help others develop their expertise.
Speaking about helping other students, tell us what volunteer projects you have participated in.
Tosio Naganava at the Japanese Speaking Club
Tosio: At the beginning of the academic year, I was a volunteer at the Settlement Department. I delivered food to the students who were in quarantine. Also, I worked at the mini call-centre of the University and was a curator of the foreign first-year students at our faculty. Apart from that, I have organised many events for the International Students Club.
I will tell you about these activities. Volunteers work at the Settlement Department every year. I started helping foreign students when I was a sophomore. I consulted them via internet, met them at the airport, helped them to get to the hall of residence and to get their way around in their first days in St Petersburg.
As part of the work of the International Students Club we organise different events. For example, we arranged Nowruz which is celebrated widely in Middle Asia. The Week of the International Students Club is devoted to cultural exchange, sharing impressions about the Club, promoting it among students. Organisation of the Japanese speaking club is my main project.
Another aspect of my work is related to work of the virtual call-centre for foreign students. There was a telephone number that a person could call to talk to one of the volunteers. We consulted students on questions of crossing the borders, temporary isolation, and education at the University in general.
Xiao: I took part in events dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the Victory. We distributed gifts to the members of the University who had survived World War Two.
Before coming to Russia, I was looking forward to talking to people who had lived in the USSR and had participated in World War Two. I am very interested in this period of history. For me to talk with them is to communicate with history. There are few such people left, and I cannot miss the chance of meeting them.
How did you know about the volunteer movement of St Petersburg University?
Tosio: I learned about the International Students Club on VKontakte social network site in the middle of my first year at the University. I thought that it would be great to take part in a volunteer movement. I joined them at their Spring gathering, met the chairman and other active members and got involved in their activities. Then I was elected a member of the Board of the Club.
Xiao: I joined the Volunteer Centre of the University on Vkontakte social network site where I found all the information about the project. A girl named Katia, who was an experienced volunteer, contacted me and explained the details.
Why should people take part in volunteer projects? What is the value of this experience for you personally?
Tosio: My aim was to set up a Japanese speaking club. I can speak both languages, so I could help people communicate. At the meetings of the speaking club there were the Japanese who came to Russia to learn the Russian language, and there were the Russians who wanted to learn Japanese. There were also students from China who could not speak Russian, but we did our best to communicate with them.
The main objective of the International Students Club is to support foreign students who may face a lot of difficulties adapting to new life conditions and with studies. We should help them.
As for your second question, volunteer work is valuable for me because it helped me to meet many new people, it broadened my horizons. We usually communicate with like-minded people, whereas in the International Students Club there are students who have nothing in common except for their foreign citizenship. That gives me the opportunity to get to know people with completely different views and backgrounds. Also, I learned a lot about different countries. The majority of the members of the Club come from the post-Soviet countries and share common culture. However, there are many differences between them. I would never have learned about them, if I had not met all those people.
Xiao: Most important for me is that I could meet people who had survived the war and listen to their stories. Thanks to such campaigns, veterans feel that they are not forgotten. It is very valuable. I am planning to continue participating in volunteer projects. I would like to help people facing difficult life situations. There are canteens that give out free dinners to homeless people. I would like to talk with them, learn more about them, help them.
Has volunteer work changed during the lockdown?
Tosio: In September apart from our usual work at the Settlement Department we faced the problem of the temporary isolation of the students who came from abroad. Volunteers sent the arriving students to the hall of residence that was designated for temporary isolation. They delivered them food and other necessary things. Also, we helped them solve the problems with the documents and coronavirus tests that they had to take.
Students who stay in their hometowns want to find out about the learning format. Sometimes there are problems with connecting to online classes or with getting a home task. We try to solve all of these problems. I give students recommendations on who they can address their questions to. These issues have mostly been resolved by now.
As for the safety precautions, the University provides us with all the necessary protective equipment. When we were on duty at the Settlement Department, both we and students wore face masks. It was a requirement for entering the zone. We contacted them only when we handed products over to them at the gate.
Xiao: We had to make our visits to the veterans short, and we could not go inside their houses. We handed over the gifts on the doorstep, and we had to wear masks.
Are you planning to continue doing your volunteer work in the future?
Xiao: Yes, I want to continue working as a volunteer and helping the society. If you have a PhD, you can get a very good well-paid job in China. However, I am not interested in that. I would like to develop my personality and to get a deeper understanding of the Russian culture. I am inspired by creative people in St Petersburg. They do not earn much, but they persist doing what they love. Also, I admire older professors of St Petersburg University who continue working and doing research.
Tosio: I do hope after the lockdown the work of the International Students Club will resume.
How can you involve more students in volunteer projects?
Xiao: I think Russians are very kind-hearted people, so many of them will be happy to do something, for example, for the ecology. Once I gathered garbage in the forest together with Russians. Mushrooms and berries are gifts of nature, whereas garbage was brought there by people. To get more gifts, you have to correct the mistakes we humans made. To involve more students, you need to provide them with certificates of participation in volunteer programmes. For students it is evidence that their effort has been acknowledged.
Tosio: You need to spread information about the International Students Club. People can learn about our volunteer projects in the Admissions Office, in the Digest for foreign students, on social network sites, or by contacting us via email.
Technically, every foreign student becomes our member, so the total number of members is several thousand. There are 11 members of the Board. They are elected at the general meeting among the representatives of different faculties and among the students who take part in organising events.
What advice can you give to the students who are planning to come to Russia to study?
Tosio: I would suggest building contacts with people, with the International Students Club, with curators. I have seen lists of students who have never got in touch with us. Usually, if people do not ask any questions, they do not have any problems. However, sometimes they simply do not know how to reach us.
Xiao: My advice is to study well. Russia is a country that gives you incredible chances in life and education. You should remember that everything is possible as long as you work hard.