‘Every Experience Is New to Me’
Trang Ly is a 25-year-old master’s student from Vietnam. In addition to her studies on the Critical Media Studies programme at HSE University-Moscow, she works as a composer and contributes to the Life in Moscow series on the university’s website. In her interview, she talks about the unusual events she has helped organise, the many opportunities available to foreign students at HSE, and much more.
In 2021, I enrolled in the Master’s in Critical Media Studies at the HSE-Moscow Faculty of Creative Industries.
My dad used to deal with Vietnamese students in Russia and was a long-term student in Moscow himself. He introduced me to HSE University and said it offered innovative programmes in social science in addition to economics programmes. I had a bachelor’s degree in economics and I loved the idea of doing a master’s in media and/or sociology, so I quickly made my decision to enrol in the Critical Media Studies programme.
I was also encouraged by the HSE social media pages and some posts by Vietnamese students on social media.
A lot of people said that the students and professors at HSE are very open to speaking English. The fact that a number of programmes are taught 100% in English was also encouraging.
It was a great decision. One of the best things about HSE is that it improves and updates its programmes and curricula, and there are many opportunities for foreign students.
The admission process required many documents, since I applied for scholarships from both the Russian and Vietnamese governments. Thanks to information from students who had been through the process, I managed to do it.
I did not have an entrance exam—I was accepted under the quotas of the two governments. The Russian government grants around 1,000 scholarships to Vietnamese citizens every year to study in Russian universities. I just had to submit my CV, academic transcript from my bachelor’s degree, and other medical documents.
Media Studies: Discussions and Debates
My programme is taught in English. It opened 3–4 years ago, and has many interesting courses and admirable professors from Russia and Europe.
We have had major courses such as Culture and Media, Critical Text Analysis, and Political Economy of Media, as well as electives such as Gender and Media, Soviet Cinema, and Digital Network.
We also had many Research Seminar courses, which were really helpful for writing my thesis.
Media studies involves much discourse, critical theory, mass and interpersonal communication, political dynamics, language, experience, and reception.
I like that the classes are divided into lectures and seminars. In seminars, we have open conversations with the professors, as well as discussions and debates among students. This means that there can be more than one correct answer.
My thesis is titled ‘Political Soundscape: Noise, Silence and Messages in Urban space in Vietnam during the Covid-19 Outbreak.’ I have a longstanding interest in sound (and music) in general, so I hope to explore various political manifestations of sound and its effects in my country during the pandemic from an interdisciplinary perspective.
I have a feeling of belonging to both the Vietnamese student community in my dormitory and with the students in my programme.
I chat with classmates and sometimes we go for a coffee after classes. I guess I am closer to the Vietnamese students, since we live in the same building and share the same experience of studying abroad.
Events and Exhibitions
I took part in Cosmic Bodies: A Philosophical and Musical Party for Cyborgs, an event devoted to popular culture portrayals of human beings in their exploration of outer space. I presented a video while playing live music centred around the topic of outer space and humanity’s role in it. It was the first time I had a chance to play music in Russia since I moved here, so I was both excited and nervous. It was a delightful experience and I really loved being part of the event.
My classmates and I also organised an event called Playing with Fear: New Image of Monsters in Horror Films. It was actually the final task of a course called ‘Project Seminar’ by Professor Panos Kompatsiaris. I helped organise the event and gave an audio-visual presentation on the soundtrack in The Shining.
I didn’t have much organisational experience, but my teammates were really active and experienced, which helped me a lot.
In the end, we all gained good practical experience of organising events while fulfilling the aim of the Project Seminar course.
I also write weekly articles for the ‘Life in Moscow’ series on the HSE University website. These often revolve around exhibitions and rich cultural sites in Russia. This has deepened my understanding of Russian culture and heritage. I have also developed better research skills, as I have to gather information about events, exhibitions, and cultural sites from various sources, such as museum websites, local news articles, and official event announcements. I have also learned to adapt my writing style to suit the tone and purpose of the website.
Music and Movies
I've been working on music and soundtracks for five years now. I think the genre falls somewhere between ambient, electronic folk and art pop. I utilise traditional instruments of my ethnic group (flutes, string instruments) and synthesiser, guitar and lyre. I released my first album in 2018 and I will release my second one in June this year. I also compose soundtracks for documentaries and experimental films.
And, thanks to one of our courses in Culture and Media, I made my debut short film last year—named Sisyphus's Cat—as a final task of the course.
This is my first time in a foreign country, and some of the differences hit me hard. I love the public transport and landscape, but the climate takes a long time to adapt to (especially in winter).
My dormitory is near the city centre and the main HSE campus. I like that there are a lot of parks surrounding natural forests, and that there are trees along the streets and around the buildings.
The public transport is really good compared to Vietnam and other cities in Russia. When I first arrived here, I was very impressed to see how people could just stand naturally in the metro without falling over. It took some practice, but now I can do it too.
Last summer, I visited Nizhny Novgorod, Tula, Vladimir, and Sergiev Posad. I also visited Surgut, where one of my friends lives. This spring, I finally had time to visit St Petersburg and Vyborg. The landscape is magnificent and the people I met were friendly and warm-hearted. The richness of Russian culture in each place also made a strong impact on me.
The language is difficult, but I can improve quicker by practicing with Russian-speaking friends and I enjoy the process of engaging with a new language and culture.
I was able to manage fairly well in daily Russian conversations during and after my preparatory programme. I tried to watch movies dubbed in Russian and listen to Russian radio.
That said, my programme is in English and my Russian and foreign friends mostly speak English well, so I started to get lazy. I hope to get back to practicing after my defence.
I would like to continue studying to get a PhD degree, but it is quite difficult to find English-taught doctoral programmes in Russia. I hope to become a professor while continuing my career in soundtracks, so I will consider a PhD in ethnomusicology or sound art in the future.
Every experience is new to me: discussions with colleagues, friendly chats with professors, organising events for the first time, meeting people from different cultures, sitting on the suburban train to the Golden Ring, trying ice skating and enjoying the traditional New Year holiday with my friends. I’m excited for more.
And I hope future HSE students will have a variety of delightful experiences as well. I hope they find a community of friends and loved ones that makes them feel a belonging, so they can adapt quicker and feel less homesick.