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‘It Is Essential for University to Reach Common Understanding on Key Issues’

Valeria Kasamara, HSE Vice Rector for Student and Alumni Relations, Senior Director for Government Relations
Photo courtesy of Valeria Kasamara

Valeria Kasamara, Senior Director for Government Relations, has been appointed new Vice Rector for Student and Alumni Relations, taking over the position from Igor Chirikov*. She spoke to the HSE News Service about what is special about the contemporary students, and about her plans for the new position.

Start of work at HSE

In 2004, I worked with Mark Urnov at Ekspertiza Analytical Programmes Fund, carrying out research on corporate cultures in big Russian companies. Evgeny Yasin once called and offered Mark to become Dean of the Faculty of Politics. Mark replied that he would only come to HSE if he could bring his team, and by ‘team’ he meant me. I was very scared by university life and spent several days mourning my free life of an expert, which I was exchanging for the ‘bureaucratic machine.’ This was what I had thought of HSE from a distance. Mark made the decision for himself and for me, which was how I became deputy dean of the Faculty of Politics.

As soon as we came to HSE, the faculty got relocated. And it was a huge logistical shock. First, everything I had been scared of broke into my life: teaching load, curricula, syllabi, complicated HR issues, and many other things. At the same time, it was HSE that allowed me to feel the vibe of student life. I had started working from my second year of studies at Moscow State University, and I gave birth to my daughter right after graduation, which is why student life had passed by me. It was only at the Faculty of Politics that I felt like I was catching up with my youth.

What do you find special about students nowadays?

Are students today different from HSE students 10-15 years ago? Both yes and no. On the one hand, if you look at the ‘Higher School of Memes’ posts, the HSE community is worried about the same problems as always: getting to the cafeteria before the ‘fixed menu’ lunch is sold out, not oversleeping early classes, getting a higher GPA and surviving the endless exams.

On the other hand, a contemporary student represents another generation. At HSE, I am heading the Laboratory for Political Studies, which has been studying Russian youth since 2008. As a result of our studies, I can say that a student from 2008 and a student from 2018 are two completely different people.

First, a 2018 student has spent their whole life in an IT and visual content world. That is why these people have a demand for high-quality lectures with a good visual support. Second, they demand for multi-tasking since they get bored when they only have one goal.

That is also why we have to change and develop as teachers.

We even offered our political science students an optional course in ‘Popular Memology’ for the older generations of HSE in order to facilitate a common language

Plans for the vice rector position

I have a lot of plans, but one of the most pressing tasks is a big survey of the young university’s organizational culture. The student protest about the new grading system on November 30 has proven that HSE has entered the next transition period, when it’s essential to reach a common understanding on some vital issues and when we need to improve our internal communications.

I believe we have to look into how the generation of HSE’s founding fathers and senior lecturers differs from the younger staff and students. What did HSE mean for those who started it, what were their primary challenges, and what do they think about HSE today? How is it perceived by the young generation of teachers? How is it seen by the students today? It is not uncommon that you can recognize an HSE graduate intuitively. People understand what ‘being like family’ means, but what is the formula of this ‘family’? If we succeed, we plan to publish a book on deciphering this HSE’s cultural code.

Another important area is popularizing research work among students, as well as their active involvement in research and expert analysis projects. A contemporary student is not about rote learning from textbooks and lecture notes. If you are really willing to become a professional, you should understand how real research works. This field will be supervised by Ivan Gruzdev, who has been appointed Director for Institutional Research and Student Academic Development.

Students’ social activities are no less important. HSE has a lot of student associations, but the share of people involved is not that high. We are working with Pavel Zdorovtsev, Director of theStudent Development Office, on how to motivate students to participate in such projects more actively. It’s important to understand that such participation is directly related to their training as professionals: one of the key competencies on the job market today is emotional intelligence and ‘flexibility skills’ at large, and the easiest way to develop these skills is to take part in various student initiatives. That’s why we are planning to support and promote social activities among students.

In addition, HSE has already done a considerable amount of work to promote student potential. We’ve launched the ‘Rediscovering Russia’ expedition project, which is very popular among students and lecturers, and we’ve organized the first Lunokhod research festival, the ‘Research Battles’ are gaining momentum, and so on. Undoubtedly, all the successful initiatives need to be further developed.

HSE is a place of freedom

At the Golden HSE awards ceremony on the 26th anniversary of HSE, Yaroslav Kuzminov called HSE a place of freedom. This is a very precise definition. Regardless of your political, religious or other attitudes, you feel very comfortable here.

This freedom allows people to find their way and realize their potential. You can do it in research or arts, on you own or in a team. You can create the Conservative Alliance for Decent HSE party or become an editor of a student publication. In this regard, HSE is highly diverse and multifunctional. I love it very much and will do my best to make sure more people share this feeling with me.

*Igor Chirikov, Academic Supervisor of the HSE Centre of Sociology of Higher Education, has held this position for the last two years. He has recently moved to the U.S. after accepting an offer to become Managing Director of the Student Experience in the Research University International Consortium (SERU) at the Centre for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley. He remains as Professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at HSE.