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Regular version of the site

From Law to Linguistics: How a Columbian Student Came to Study at HSE University

 Andres Cuéllar

Andres Cuéllar
© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

What’s the best way to learn Russian? Is it difficult to get used to the Siberian winter? Can you teach Russian language if you’re not a native speaker of it? Andres Cuéllar, a student of the Master’s programme ‘Russian as a Foreign Language in Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Perspective’, has discussed these and other issues with HSE News Service.

Coming to Russia and studying the Russian language

My long-term ambition was to get a master’s degree, but I couldn’t do it in Colombia. People have to pay for their studies in my country, and it costs a fortune. Besides, I wanted to have some experience living abroad. I chose to study in Russia because I felt like trying out something different – discovering another culture and learning another language. I didn’t know a word of Russian before I came here.

I have been living in Russia for two years now, but I have just arrived in Moscow. Before this, I lived in Siberia.  First, I studied Russian at the preparatory department of Tomsk Pedagogical University, and then I spent a year as a master’s student of law at Novosibirsk State University (I studied law for my Bachelor’s).

I liked law when I was an undergraduate student, but working as a lawyer is a different thing. Eventually, I realized that it wasn’t my cup of tea. I wanted to do something entirely different. After graduating from university with a bachelor’s degree, I took to creative writing in Colombia, which I liked.

I believe it is vital to learn a language because languages help us perceive another’s point of view to analyze every phenomenon in the world. That is why I want to study languages and linguistics

Andres Cuéllar
© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Our Russian teacher in Tomsk fostered a love for the language in us rather than just teaching us grammar. That is why I decided to continue studying Russian—I would like to teach this language in the future.

Entering HSE University

Last November, I read about the Open Doors Russian Scholarship project and I thought, ‘Why not try it?’ I submitted the documents and took the examination. The exam was quite hard, especially since I didn’t have a degree in linguistics. Fortunately, they let us choose the language to write our paper in, and I chose English. I had already learned some Russian, but linguistic terms would have been difficult for me. I had studied for the exam carefully by reading a lot. Thankfully, I passed the exam and was admitted!

I told my Russian friends that I was planning to enter university through the Open Doors event, and they asked me what universities I could choose there. I gave them some names, including HSE University. My friends recommended HSE straightaway, because it provides high quality education even though it is quite a young university. Having studied here for two months, I can assure you that it certainly is true.

I find the HSE online international admissions platform very convenient. You can use it to submit you application documents. Everything is simple and clear — you are told clearly what to do step by step. Before I came here, I knew what dormitory I would be staying in. Even though I arrived at one in the morning, they welcomed me at the dorm, accepted my documents, gave me the key, and I soon was in bed. I liked the fact that everything was well-organized there.

What studying at HSE is like

We have to study really hard. We’ve got a lot of lectures and classes every day, but that is alright. Moreover, we are supposed to do projects. I like this aspect, because it means that our theoretical studies are complemented by experimental research. I’m planning to take up phonetics, and I would like to write a paper on phonological interference of the Spanish language in Russian. I’m also interested in grammar and translation from Russian into Spanish.

Andres Cuéllar
© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

We are now focusing on linguistics only. Next semester, we will study Russian teaching methodology. The curriculum includes observing experienced educators teach Russian. We attend classes of the International Preparatory Programmes to see different teaching styles. Next year, I will have to hold classes as a teacher. It sounds a bit scary, but I hope I will manage. Since I have been studying the language for a while, I understand what difficulties Spanish-speaking people might face. I also have many friends from all over the world, and I always try to see what difficulties they experience in phonetics or grammar. I believe these observations will help me teach Russian in future.

Most of my group mates are Russian. Naturally, they speak this language fluently, and the majority of them have a degree in linguistics, which means they find it easier to use the relevant terminology. I have to read and learn a lot to keep up with them. Some people may think it is an inconvenience, but, in fact, I consider it an advantage, as this makes me study even harder to show my peers what I can really do.

We often read articles for our classes. Although many journals offer useful information in English, we have to read a lot in Russian too. I will have to write my thesis in Russian. It will be difficult, I’m sure, but everything is going to be fine as long as I study hard.

You just need to be open to everything. You also need to realize that if you come here to study, everything will be different, and you’ve got to be ready for the challenge. All you need is a willingness to study and learn new things

Learning Russian

During my first year in Tomsk, I took only Russian courses. When I was in Novosibirsk, I studied by myself, watching films every day to learn how to pronounce words properly. I always try to listen very attentively. I pick up words and collocations, which is quite useful.

Andres Cuéllar
© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Russian is a very difficult language, with a completely different system and typology. Some structures may be similar to those in Spanish, but our nouns do not have cases, so it is hard to grasp some changes of meaning in Russian.  Sometimes you ask, ‘Why is it used this way?’, to which the reply is: ‘Just memorize it!’ There are some things in the language that cannot be explained – they are as they are. I think cases and verbs of motion are the most difficult aspects of Russian. It takes some effort to understand how to use the prefixes ‘у-’, ‘в-’, ‘на-’, and ‘из-’, but it comes with time and practice.

If you really want to speak fluent Russian, you have to study day and night. I had four or five hours of Russian five days a week during my first year in this country. However, my Russian would have never been so good if I only studied it in the classroom. You have to keep on learning everywhere and all the time.

My friend from the Congo explained grammar rules to me every day, which was very helpful, but he also said ‘Andres, you cannot just stay in your room and drill grammar. You need to go out to talk to people as well.’

I often hung out in the dormitory kitchen, where there were lots of people I could chat with. I also met some new friends, going out in my free time. I would never have succeeded just by learning grammar. This is my rule — I speak Russian with everyone, even foreigners, although I do speak Spanish occasionally, as well.

I would advise people studying Russian to watch Russian movies again and again. When you are re-watching a movie you have seen before, you know what it is about, which makes it easier for you to listen to the characters’ words. Russian films are challenging for people who have just begun studying Russian, since the language in them is so colloquial. Subtitles are more than handy. Once I started watching Love and Pigeons (Lubov i Golubi), but I had to ask a friend of mine to help me because I couldn’t understand anything. As we were watching the movie together, he stopped the film now and then to explain some of the most difficult parts to me. There are many interesting scenes there. As for cartoons, I like Smeshariki. This cartoon is interesting for both children and adults. I also like old Soviet cartoons. They are very good, too.

I also read books, looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary. I mostly read short stories because they are not that lengthy, and it takes me an hour or so to read one.

Russia and Moscow

Moscow differs from Siberian cities in many ways. It is a huge megalopolis. I was a bit scared to come here two months ago. In Novosibirsk, I lived on the small campus of Novosibirsk State University. In Academgorodok, we practically lived in a forest. If I may put it like this, Moscow is a forest of buildings. When I was in Novosibirsk, I had enough time to study and go for walks, but in Moscow I always have to rush somewhere.

The pace of life in Bogotá is as fast as it is in Moscow, while my hometown is a quiet place, hardly bigger than Tomsk. I would have felt much worse if I had come straight to Moscow. On the whole, I find living in Russia comfortable

I’m used to the cold Russian weather. Some days, it could be minus 40 in Tomsk. Siberian winters are very beautiful. I have tried out skiing and skating, which was funny but painful. Skiing is more difficult than skating.

In Colombia, we don’t have the opportunity to take up winter sports, and I’m happy I was able to try doing them here, in Russia

I’m very keen on photography, so now that I’m in Moscow, I use every chance to stroll the city and take photos. Moscow is a very beautiful place. I love the city centre, but I often visit other areas, too, to look for impressive, though not necessarily beautiful, views for photos. Everything depends on how the photographer sees it. There is always something worth a photo.

I like travelling by subway – it is truly a whole underground world, but I also love walking. It takes me half an hour to reach the dormitory on foot, so I prefer walking there as long as the weather is still quite warm. A nice stroll helps me take my mind of things. I can relax to return to my studies with renewed vigour.

Professional plans for the future

I think I’d like to become a translator in the future, although I am not entirely sure about it, as life changes so fast. I know there will always be a demand for translators because machines can never replace humans completely. Just like artificial intelligence will hardly replace teachers. In my opinion, online education misses something important – you can study online, but you feel entirely different when you find yourself in a classroom, where you can interact with the teacher and other students, rather than just consume information by yourself. However, smartphone apps are very beneficial for our education, of course. Every teacher should use them because the apps help us learn languages faster, memorizing new vocabulary and grammar.

Register for Open Doors Russian Scholarship Competition before December 18, 2019

Admissions to HSE’s Master’s programmes are now open. International students can apply online. To learn more about HSE University, its admission process, or life in Moscow, please visit International Admissions website, or contact the Education & Training Advisory Centre at: inter@hse.ru,  or via WhatsApp at: +7 (916) 311 8521.

See also:

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‘I Love Learning in a Multicultural Environment’

The Master’s programme in Governance of Science, Technology and Innovation at HSE University has long been popular with international students due to the versatility of its curriculum, strong practical focus, and talented faculty. International students of the programme talk about the advantages of the programme, their favourite courses, and career aspirations.

Record Number of Participants Register for the Open Doors Russian Scholarship Project

More than 56,000 international participants from 197 countries have registered for Open Doors: Russian Scholarship Project organized by Association of Global Universities for master’s and doctoral programme applicants.Registration for the competition closed on December 10, 2020.

‘I Can Definitely Recommend HSE University to International Students’

Rakib Hassan Pran, from Bangladesh, is currently doing his Master’s in Applied Statistics with Network Analysis at the HSE International Laboratory for Applied Network Research. Before enrolling at HSE, Rakib worked in information security wing of a Bank (Exim Bank BD) in Bangladesh. He got a leave from his job to study at HSE University in Moscow.


Students have registered for the Open Doors Russian Scholarship Project for international graduate applicants. The results of the first competition round will be announced December 30, 2019.

Open Doors Scholarship Competition for International Applicants: Register Now!

More than 40,000 participants from 183 countries have already registered for the Open Doors Scholarship Competition. The competition, which is held by the Association of Global Universities, gives international applicants the opportunity to enroll tuition-free in a Master’s programme of a participating Russian university of their choice without having to take entrance exams. The deadline to submit your portfolio for consideration is December 18.

‘I Would Strongly Recommend Studying in Russia’

Abrar Riaz has come to Moscow from Pakistan to study in theCognitive Sciences and Technologies: from Neuron to Cognition Master’s programme at HSE University. He was accepted to the programme through Russia’s Open Doors Scholarship Project. Abrar spoke with the HSE News Service about why he chose HSE University and what it was like to participate in the competition.

'I Am Very Happy to Have the Opportunity to Study at HSE University'

This fall, Madhavi Karunarathne came to HSE University from Sri Lanka, where she earned her bachelor’s in finance at the University of Colombo. She is now beginning her studies in the Master’s Programme ‘Strategic Corporate Finance’. The new master’s student came through Russia’s Open Doors Scholarship Project for international prospective master’s students, which allows scholarship recipients to study at one of 21 participating Russian universities tuition-free. Madhavi spoke with HSE News Service about why she chose HSE, what it was like to participate in the Open Doors Scholarship competition, and how she is liking her studies.

Master’s Programmes in Russia Welcome Talented International Students

Registration for the Open Doors: Russian Scholarship Project for international applicants to Russian Master’s programmes is open until December 18. The competition consists of two online rounds. The first round is a portfolio competition.

> 20,000

participants from 158 countries have already registered for the Open Doors Olympiad, an international competition organized by the Association of Global Universities. This event gives participants a chance to get tuition-free admission to English or Russian-taught Master’s programmes at Russia’s top universities.