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About the Project
'HSE University's Age-Mates'

2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of HSE University. Many of the university’s peers—those born in 1992—now work and study here. Thirty-year-old HSE graduates work in various fields, from business and fintech to IT and contemporary art. As part of the new ‘HSE University's Age-Mates’ project, some of them have shared their stories and talked about what they like about the university.

Out of his love for geography, Alexander Demin decided to study logistics, and then out of his love for teaching, he chose not to move to Italy. In this interview with HSE Age-mates, he explained how HSE University shaped his personality, which students are more interesting to work with, and why empathy is important in a university environment.

How did you end up at HSE University?

In my final year of school, I was interested in many things. I had perfect grades and lots of options of where to study. However, thanks to my cerebral palsy, chemistry, physics, and biology were out of the question, which left the humanities, economics, and social sciences. One person suggested, ‘You should go into accounting: you don’t have to use your brain at all, just add up numbers.’ Someone else said, ‘Go into sociology.’

But I was always more attracted to geography. I even took the Unified State Examination in geography just for the fun of it. Moscow State University wouldn’t have taken me because of my health, MGIMO is inconveniently located, but HSE University had logistics. Logistics—what’s that? It seemed to boil down to vehicles having to get from Point A to Point B. For this, you need to know geography, where they’re coming from and where they’re going to. That’s how I wound up in logistics at HSE University. It turned out not to be very concerned with Point A and Point B; the most interesting thing was the systemic thinking. That’s what I like about logistics.

Whenever someone says, ‘Hey, let’s conquer the entire market and build a super complex financial model, the logistics workers step in, beat the table with their fist and say, ‘What are we going to ship—going from where to where and to whom?’ This understanding of who everything is done for and how to organise the work so that the client gets everything they need comes in handy in everyday life.

Have you worked in your specialty?

Only for three months. I was given the task of counting how containers are transported, how much it costs. But I was more interested in doing something useful for people. So, when I started working at HSE University while still a master’s student, I first became a methodologist, not a teacher.

I was assigned to work with the same Excel tables as they use in logistics, but these were about teachers and the courses they would teach. As I entered the data into the system, I thought to myself, ‘How was this teacher when I had his or her class? What is the value of this course? Although it was a very easy job, it made me feel worthwhile—which is why teachers teach students. Of course, it isn’t exactly like this, but I understood that my contribution was important.

Methodological work requires great discipline and, as obvious as it sounds, a methodical approach. Of course, there is some tediousness involved, but this is a gradual, consistent kind of work aimed at making things better overall. There is probably no final result, because you will never achieve the best possible result for everyone, but you can improve in small steps.

Can you give an example of such an improvement?

Each course taught at the HSE School of Business should have an academic discipline programme (ADP). And several basic rules in the regulatory framework indicate how the ADP should be built. Generally speaking, evaluation criteria must be specified for all tests and exams. Otherwise, students do not understand how they will be evaluated. If they don’t like it, they write to the teacher: ‘Why did you rate us in this way?’ The teacher replies, ‘I evaluated you in such and such a way.’ And this can turn into a conflict. I check each ADP for compliance with the relevant regulations. I see my value in the fact that if teachers have rules, they will be more comfortable teaching and students will understand more clearly what they are being taught.

Photo: HSE University

You currently do methodological work as Deputy Director of the HSE Centre for Project-based Learning. Why did you want to teach as well?

It was probably as I finished my bachelor’s degree that I realised teaching was my dream. I picked up a lot of good experience from my colleagues and I understood what and from whom I wanted to learn in order to pass it along to future students.

For example, we had a marketing teacher who worked for two universities—HSE and an institute in Italy. He came to the university, drew a tablet on the blackboard and counted the columns—not in Russian, but in Italian. It was very nice, and then he instilled in me a love for Italy. And thanks to him and several other people, I realised that students see the teacher not only as a lecturer, but also as a person. And if you involve them in your world, if you give them something personal during the course that you teach, then everything becomes interesting to them. And the proof was that five students wrote their graduation theses that year, two of whom learned Italian at an intermediate level by their fourth year.

Do you also speak Italian?

Yes, I studied it on my own as an upperclassman and then with a teacher, just for my own benefit. I learned an important lesson from that which I always tell my students. At the first lesson, they gave us a text on literature lessons at school, where it was said that a literature teacher usually assigns a summer reading list, and afterward asks what the student understood and gives a grade.

There was a point of view that this concept is wrong. The teacher should be an ‘accompagnatore,’ and they should not ask what the student saw in the text, but explain how to read it. I have the same approach to teaching.

Starting from the third module of the HSE School of Business, I teach the Economic-Mathematical Methods and Models in Logistics course , during which I don’t assign grades. I tell the students that I am there to accompany them. When they come to the blackboard, they are responsible for getting the results; my job is to tell them if they’re moving in the right direction or are off track.

Do you teach both bachelor’s and master’s programmes?

Yes. It’s probably best to teach undergraduates from the position of an ‘accompagnatore.’ Such accompaniment is not as clear-cut for master’s students, who come in as already fully formed personalities. Your task is largely reduced to moderating discussions. You might have 30 students, all of them successful, all of them with experience; the main thing is not to get in their way as they learn.

It’s different with undergraduates. There you need to provide knowledge, show them the path of learning. In the three courses during years 1-3, there are course projects on different topics. It is very interesting for me to work with the first-year students because you give them general advice: how to think, how to structure their thought processes.

There was recently a national case championship for schoolchildren of grades 9-11 held on Pokrovka (in the HSE University building on Pokrovsky Bulvar - Ed.); children from all over Russia came, and I was both on the jury and an expert. I probably interacted with 150 children in two days. And they all had such fire in their eyes! You come home with your batteries completely drained, but the realisation that you saw all these people and maybe helped them in some way is amazing.

Do you enjoy interacting with others?

This is a major life change for me. Even now, when I tell people whom I haven’t seen since childhood that I am a teacher, their first reaction is often, ‘Are you joking?’ When I was a child, both my parents and I worried about my future profession: ‘What to do about my diction?’

Why had I considered going into accounting? All you do is sit in an office, they bring you some papers, you do your job and return them, your work is finished. But now I am a teacher, I have to communicate, and I see an inner strength in this, because as a 15-year-old I wouldn’t have imagined this was possible.

My first public appearance was not at my own school. My friend and I were doing a project in the 9th grade. When it was time to present it, we decided that he would speak and I would be in charge of changing the slides in case someone didn’t understand me or laughed when I spoke. In the 10th grade, my friend did a project on his own topic and I did one on mine, so I couldn’t hide behind him anymore. When I stepped on stage, my knees where shaking.

Now, on September 1 when I step into an auditorium full of first-year students, my knees are also shaking, but they are shaking from something else—from the fact that you know you will tell them something that will be useful to them. And then students come up to you and say, ‘People said a lot of things on September 1, but I want to thank you for your words.’ This really means a lot, and it’s even a little surprising that it’s possible.

What is it that you tell them?

Everyone talks about how to build your career, and that’s how it should be. This is the HSE School of Business and so we should talk about following a serious path to a great future. But I usually talk about kindness, about friendship. I speak of such things because I know they are important for students. They often think that competition is all-consuming, but that is actually not the case. As the song lyrics say, ‘The more fierce the struggle, the more tenderly we treat each other.’ It’s exactly the same here: the struggle is fierce, the competition is strong, but if you don’t treat other people with respect, then you might become a good specialist, but you will never become a good manager, that is, a person who is empathetic to his subordinates and colleagues.

It is very important for today’s students to maintain empathy towards those around them. I also see value in this myself because I understand that those who have never in their lives seen people with disabilities, four years from now will treat them a little differently.

Photo: HSE University

When you were an HSE student yourself, did you feel there was enough empathy from your fellow students?

Surprisingly, yes. Maybe I’m naive... Well, what serious person would go into an auditorium of 120 students and say to them, ‘Colleagues, of course you are moving towards a major goal, but don’t forget that successful people are those who can help others.’ In this regard, I’m probably a little naive—or I want to seem like that, or else I seem like that because it seemed to me in my student years that everyone treated me well. I don’t know how it really was, but I expressed empathy towards others, and it seemed to me that people reciprocated, and I felt good about it.

Did you see any other people at HSE University with cerebral palsy or other disabilities?

Yes, of course.

Were there many?

Not all disabilities are outwardly visible. For example, you will never see whether a person is an insulin diabetic. That’s why I don’t pay much attention to such things; for me, all people are equally interesting. I know that everyone has inner monsters they fear; it’s just that some have cerebral palsy, others have the fear of not finding a job, and others have the fear of upsetting their parents.

It sincerely seems to me that the main component of inclusion is when neither people with disabilities nor people without them even think about it. There is a saying that you should have just enough money to not have to think about money at all. It’s the same with this: if everyone is at ease, then people don’t think about their disability or that they need inclusion; they just study and do their job.

Is that how it was for you?

Yes. What’s more, many years ago I was issued a free pass on public transportation, which earned me the nickname ‘the taxi’ for a short time. Everyone would say, ‘Sasha, are you the taxi today? Will you give me a ride?’ When it’s like that, it’s okay; that’s how it should be. What’s wrong is when people ask, ‘Oh, is it difficult for you?’ ‘Oh, is there anything else you need?’ It seems to me that you need to act as though you don’t see anything unusual about this. For me, this is the most important type of inclusion: when no one thinks about it.

How would you describe a typical HSE University student?

This is someone who isn’t afraid to make mistakes in order to find the truth.

Photo: HSE University

What would you wish HSE University on the occasion of its 30th anniversary?

This interview is part of the HSE Age-mates project. I consider myself a very young person still and so I suspect that HSE University is also quite young. And for me, HSE is synonymous with my own personality, which was formed here. That’s why I wish HSE the same thing I wish for myself: new victories and more love from the incoming class, students, and graduates. It seems to me that this is the most important thing because academic victories are a given; they are the university’s KPI. But there is also the spirit, and HSE University has a splendid spirit. My wish is to preserve and strengthen this spirit.

Why do you say that HSE University formed your personality?

I came here at 18; now I’m 28. HSE University is my whole life. They once told me: ‘Decide who you want to be—a teacher, an administrator, or a scientific researcher.’ But you know, I can’t decide because I am still both a teacher and an administrator, and when I was a student, I naturally partook of the apple of science also. That’s why I associate almost all of myself with HSE. This is the place that develops me, gives me a high from interacting with and helping students and colleagues.

Do you remember your first impressions of HSE?

I remember. At the first meeting of first-year students, we were told, ‘You will study at the building on Semenovskaya for the first two years.’ And I had chosen the university in part because it was easy to get to. At this, I understood that every morning I would have to make two transfers on the metro to get to class—just great. That was probably my first reaction. ‘Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to deal with it.’ And now, whenever a problem arises, I again think, ‘Oh well, I’ll just have to deal with it.’

Tell us about your environment at HSE University.

This comes back to the fact that I am a rather naive person, so I see only the good in people. I am surrounded by extremely focused individuals, people who know what it is to work in a team and what it means to interact closely with someone. Maybe they’ve been influenced by having someone with a disability in their environment, and maybe not, but they know the value of interacting closely with someone. This is the most important part of a community—that people always try to help one another. A student who is not under my academic supervision might come up to me and say, ‘I’m writing a paper about such-and-such a company. Do you know anyone there?’ I find someone there and write to them, asking, ‘Can you advise this student?’ That’s how it works.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

That’s a very good question. Speaking again of Italy, Adriano Celentano sang, ‘Life is a dance in which you learn one step every day.’ For me, this is the most important thing. I strive every day to be better than I was yesterday; this is my main ambition.

I am not a fan of long-term planning. When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I dreamed of having a good job in Italy. Now I have a good job at HSE University. Dreams should be about where you want to go, in which direction. Now, I probably want to move in a direction that will benefit students.

I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years, but if it’s good for the people around me, if I can do more good for people, then I will have achieved everything I wanted to achieve. This is the measure for me, not the position or salary.

Why didn’t you go to Italy?

I came to teach and thought, ‘I’ll teach for a year, then I’ll look for a job in Italy and leave.’ But after you’ve been working for a year, you can’t leave: you have the incoming class and you want to see them through until they graduate. And when you finish with them, you’ll have another incoming class, and a second, and a third, and you’ll fall into an endless stream. And you understand that there’s nowhere else to go, especially when you see that they need you and you are of use to them. I’ve fallen into this stream and I’m trying not to fall out of it.

As for Italy, I watch Italian football, I follow all the famous Italian singers, and I wear a Fiorentina sweatshirt, my favourite football team. Everyone at the HSE School of Business knows that I love Italy and, for me, HSE is my little Italy. Here, I got everything I wanted from Italy—kindness and an answer to my hopes and dreams.