“International qualification is highly regarded by Ugandan employers so I'm optimistic about my employment prospects”
Lorna Awania came to study at the ICEF Master's programme in 2018 from Uganda. She is currently preparing her master thesis, which should influence Ugandan financial policy. In an interview, she told how she got used to Moscow cold, why there are few educated women in Uganda, but delicious matooke bananas, why ICEF master's programme is one of the best in the world and how to survive in an unfamiliar country.
Where did you study in Uganda, how did you become interested in economics, and what made you choose the HSE to continue your studies?
I studied for a Bachelor of Science in Economics at Makerere University in Uganda from 2014 to 2017. I always wanted to study economics because I found it interesting and applied, therefore, when I chose the area that interested me most – the financial economics – I decided to check foreign universities where such a programme would be most strongly represented.
Pretty soon, I found HSE and then its MSc programme in Financial Economics, I carefully considered the programme – academic staff, their research fields, prospects, conditions etc. Everything was great. Then I thought about learning and living in a completely new country, and this did not seem to be an obstacle, but adventure.
Why exactly Russia? After all, it’s quite cold here.
Honestly, I didn't investigate this country in a proper way and didn't know much about it besides the obvious facts about its cultures and history. I was not interested in news, especially political, I was rather attracted by the opportunities to develop in science and I needed that. In addition, I always wanted to travel much, to see places with a completely different lifestyle, mindset and people.
In Uganda, they speak high of Russian education, which partly reinforced my intention to go to Moscow for MSc degree. I didn’t think about the cold weather at all, I just watched the snow on YouTube vlogs and wanted to experience that for the first time.
Did you consult with HSE students or graduates before enrolling about how it feels like to study here?
Yes, in Uganda I met with a graduate from another Russian university who majored in engineering and who was returning here for a Master’s degree, and he really admired the students. He said that the atmosphere at the university is very welcoming – everyone is friendly and open hearted, which helps to make yourself at home, you always feel their support.
Secondly, the teachers themselves participate in your life not only academically, but also personally. All these factors inspired me to apply to the HSE and come to Moscow.
I know that Uganda is close to Russia religiously – there are very developed Orthodox communities where Russian volunteers work. Do you know anything about that?
Yes, in the Kampala region there is a large Orthodox community and even a monastery. But there are many religious denominations in Uganda and this is just one of them and I was not really interested in that aspect.
The HSE also has the Faculty of Economics Sciences, why did you choose the ICEF programme?
Honestly, when I found the “Financial Economics” programme, I did not even look through at other faculties, because everything was explained very clearly. Everything suited me perfectly: this is an international programme where lectures are held in English by professors with PhD qualifications from different universities around the world, main focus is on financial economics and mathematics.
What did you know about Moscow at that moment?
I made some research just like a scientist woul do. I found out that this is a very big city, there are about 400 museums and galleries, a lot of architectural attractions literally around HSE and so many cultural events that you can spend all the time on education.
Of course, I watched few vlogs about Moscow by travellers and international students and made sure that it’s really cold here. But at that moment I had no idea what it was like in real life.
And how did the climatic adaptation go?
Oh, it took a while. When the autumn came, firstly it became cold outside, so I began to spend more time in the dorm. But when it became cold in the dorm I started to worry.
Fortunately, the period of wearing several levels of clothing did not last long. After about a week of frightening cold the central heating started, and it became quite comfortable, at least in the rooms. In my second year I was ready for this. In general, I like walking around Moscow, and for some reason now I always feel warm during a walk.
What were your first impressions of the people here?
When I first arrived in Moscow, the taxi driver didn’t bring me to the dorm, but immediately to the university campus on Shabolovka. I don’t remember why it happened. But ICEF programme managers helpfully led me to the dorm, told me what to do and helped me settle in. From the first day, I felt that I’m not alone and that I can ask these people any question at any time, not only about studies, but also about life – where to buy a SIM card, where to find exchange, where to get good food, etc.
In addition, I was lucky with my roommates – we became real friends. They are very curious and attentive, interested in other cultures and asked me a lot about Uganda.
What don’t you like at the HSE as a foreigner? Honestly speaking.
Sometimes there are too many home assignments that are challenging at first and you can’t always find enough time for the main subject. With time it becomes easier to adapt.
There were many talks about navigation for foreign students at Shabolovka and Pokrovka, now it’s much easier to find the right audience or something else on a new campus.
How about new friends here in Moscow?
Most of the time I spend with my dorm roommates than with classmates. We enjoy talking about our homelands – Russia, Uganda and France, so we have a real cultural exchange. Each of us knows a lot about these three countries.
I have friends among students from Uganda who study at RUDN University, we often gather at the embassy, where events are often held for Ugandans. For instance, we already celebrated the New Year Party at the ambassador’s residence.
What do you like to do most in Moscow?
I like to walk around shopping malls with friends, lie in the park on the grass in the summer, walk around the Muzeon park, galleries at the Vinzavod and Artplay. And in winter, I like lo look at the snow from the window of some warm cafe. I really like this city.
Moscow has a lot of food courts with dishes from all over the world, but I have never seen Ugandan. What is the food of your homeland?
We have a lot of ethnic groups that can eat completely different food. Maybe it’s a main obstacle to define and classify the Ugandan cuisine. But a pretty common combination is chickpeas, rice, and sometimes peanuts. We often prefer bowled food than fried and oily, for example – we prepare steamed bananas called matooke. And we eat meat.
What are your research topics? What are you currently working on with your supervisor, Anna Yurko?
I make a research in microeconomics policy field, and topics are informal sector and wage gap.
I am interested to find the reasons of the formation of wages in formal and informal sectors of the Ugandan economy based on data from a certain number of private firms. My term paper in my first year here was on the Russian pension reform, however.
What are the current economic challenges in Uganda?
Slowly, but the issue of women's rights is being addressed, the adoption of certain laws on the protection of women's rights in the family is especially important. Laws on the advancement of women in the civil service, the army, generally in the workplace, in the police and parliamentare are already being lobbied.
The most important issue is still female education. Other equally important aspects are the development of the domestic consumer market and the low wages for reasons like the limited capital of informal sector employers.
Do you think about introducing some changes at the government level in Uganda based on what you are developing now?
Of course, I plan to return to my homeland and perhaps work in a commercial bank, or likely the Central Bank of Uganda or government agencies related to the development of bills that regulate financial issues. But in fact, even with a good education, finding a job in Uganda is not easy. A large part of the qualified workers do business or make low-paid work. International qualification is highly regarded by Ugandan employers so I am optimistic about my employment prospects.
Why don’t you want to work in other countries?
I wasn’t thinking about it. Maybe later. I’ve seen only a small part of the world. I need to travel more first.
What is your most daring research challenge at the moment?
I think about more applied activity and would like to study financial markets in Uganda more deeply, using the mentoring of my professors and supervisor. The Uganda markets didn’t particularly attract the attention of economists working in their labs. I want to “work out my scientific muscle” in advance.