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An unexpected journey or the right choice of a Master’s program

"Probably it’s better to start from the beginning. And by beginning I mean my enrollment in the incredible Master’s program “Comparative social research”, where international academic mobility is not only by all means supported but is even somewhat expected in the second year of studying." Our student about her journey in The University of Lisbon , Portugal

Probably it’s better to start from the beginning. And by beginning I mean my enrollment in the incredible Master’s program “Comparative social research”, where international academic mobility is not only by all means supported but is even somewhat expected in the second year of studying. Applying to this program I had very little intention of participating in academic mobility – I had a job, I scheduled my internship in Russia and I was quite certain that participating in academic mobility was difficult and stressful: you need to find a receiving institution, go through a competitive application contest… and what if you are not accepted?

But here comes the second year of my Master’s and I receive an email from the study office with the message that Universidade NOVA de Lisboa is accepting mobility students for the second semester and that preference is given to sociology students, namely, the students of the program “Comparative Social Research”. This sudden news made me realize that it could be my very last year of being a university student and thus, every opportunity given should be taken.

So, just like that I applied for the Erasmus+ program in October and in about a month I received a letter with congrats and invitation from NOVA.

For and against

Getting ready to leave for Portugal in the 2nd semester, I had known that on the one hand, this would be a great memorable experience, but on the other hand, it would be the last semester of my Master’s degree, so I would have to combine studies at New University of Lisbon with continuing classes at HSE and the work on my Master Thesis.

With that in mind in the middle of February I came out of the Portela airport into +16, felt the warm air on my face and shortly after the whole new experience of living and studying in Lisbon.

Later it turned out that nothing is impossible and that the previous 5 years of studying at Higher School of Economics proved to be a great practice for the challenges of multitasking. So, after the amazing 3.5 months I came back to Moscow, defended my Master Thesis and proceeded forward with new crazy dreams in my head, which I would not have imagined, if it was not for the decision made two years ago and then later during the 1st semester of the first year of my Master’s.

About university and studies

Higher School of Economics sets pretty high standards when the process of studying is concerned. Having come to NOVA though, I realized that I didn’t have to get used to something completely new. Being one of the youngest State universities of Lisbon, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa is somewhat similar to HSE in terms of its mission and the ideas put forward at the founding of university: innovative approach to higher education, contribution to social and economic development of the society, the new educational model, which concentrates on the interdisciplinary approach to studying and new technologies, while at the same time keeping the traditional areas like medicine, humanities and social sciences… all of these are the goals that NOVA has followed since it was founded. Just like in Higher School of Economics, high quality of teaching and emphasis on research are of great concern. At the same time, being a decentralized university, NOVA grants a great deal of autonomy to its faculties and institutions, thus enabling them to develop independently, while still being a part of university.

Overall, not only the university but Lisbon itself has perfect infrastructure for studying. There is a variety of study rooms all around the city, which are open to students from any university (you would need a student ID to enter). Approximately a half of those study rooms is open 24/7 and has air conditioning (which is quite important when starting from April it’s 25+ outside), wall plugs, Wi-Fi, vending and coffee machines… and many other things to keep students comfortable while studying. And I’m not even starting on the libraries!

About life in Lisbon

But before going to Portugal I had no expectations about any of this and, frankly, about the life in this country in general. I thought of this mobility as simply an interesting experience in a new location but this country along with its capital swept me off my feet from the very beginning. I had traveled a lot before and had already participated in academic mobility programs, but I had never felt as comfortable and homelike from the very first day as in Lisbon.

This city represents a perfect combination of historical heritage and modernity. Numerous royal gardens, palaces and historical sights coexist harmoniously with contemporary tendencies, one of the brightest examples of which is the region of the city called Parque das Nações or the Nations Park, where you will find the longest bridge in Europe, unusual business centers and a conceptual aquarium. The whole city is full of sunlight, warmth, atmosphere of easiness and laid-back way of living – it feels like every day of the week here is Friday. Nice and welcoming people, picturesque landscapes and the ocean in a 30-minute drive from the city would definitely win over anyone’s heart after arrival from the cold Moscow winter.

Local cuisine

But of course not only the heat of the bright sun and the salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean would melt down the ice in one’s heart, but also the local cuisine and the low prices.

In order to get a true taste of the Portuguese cuisine, one should certainly try local pastry with coffee (oh, how much do I still miss those traditional flaky custard cakes – pastel de nata), meat, fish and Portuguese green wine. Supermarkets (and small veggie markets by the house) are always full of fresh vegetables and fruits, some of which you will rarely come across in Russia. And even after having lived in Lisbon for over a month I still could hardly believe that salmon may cost 8-9 EUR per kilo, wine – 3-5 EUR and coffee and a croissant from a bakery – 2-3 EUR.

Traveling

Sure enough, those 3.5 months that I spent in Portugal simply couldn’t do without traveling. From Lisbon it is very easy to take a suburban train to reach nearby Sintra with its picturesque parks and palaces, a small resort town Cascais with amazingly beautiful beaches and the westernmost point of Europe – Cabo da Roca (or Cape Roca), which absolutely compels by the views that open from it.

A different story is the so-called northern capital of Portugal – the city of Porto, which looks nothing like Lisbon (partly because Lisbon is a relatively new city due to the fact that it was completely destroyed in 1755 after the earthquake and the fire that spread over the city, and was rebuilt in the consequent years). Still, Porto is as impressive as the southern capital of the country – you can hardly take your eyes off the imposing cathedrals, narrow streets with bright houses which are often (especially in the historical center) tiled with white and blue tiles and, of course, the beautiful bridges. By the way, Porto is the city where Joan Rowling lived for 2 years and which inspired her famous Harry Potter novel that represents many details reflecting Portuguese culture – like the wizarding cloaks, which are very similar to the usual uniform of the students in Portugal; or the mesmerizing library that very much resembles a bookshop – Livraria Lello – in the center of Porto.

Special attention deserves the southern coast of Portugal – Algarve. In Algarve you can find another utmost point of Europe – Cabo de São Vicente (or Cape St. Vincent), not far from which lies the most scenic and purest port that I have ever seen – Port Baleeira. Algarve is home to the most colorful beaches and rocky coasts that stretch forth along the coastline washed by the water of all shades of blue and vivid small towns staring with Sagres and Lagos and ending with Faro, which are the most desired holiday destinations for many Europeans.

Of course, there are also Azores islands, Madeira, the northern mountains along with magnificent landscapes and the nature of the central part of Portugal… but all of this is waiting for when I return next time, which is definitely going to happen, because Portugal is an extraordinary country, which one can explore over and over again and keep finding something remarkable. 

Margarita Maltseva