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Study Abroad! Destination: Vilnius

Foreign students, leaving their native countries to study abroad in Lithuania have become an increasingly visible feature of the educational landscape in Vilnius, as more and more students find themselves drawn to the Lithuanian capital's exotic and bewitching charms.

And the numbers continue climbing. As of last autumn, approximately 50 institutes of higher learning (both colleges and universities) reported enrollment of more than 3,000 foreign students, the highest number ever reported in Lithuanian history. In addition, there are more than 100 visiting professors from abroad lecturing in Lithuania. Many of these foreigners come from countries as diverse as Poland, Turkey, Byelorussia, Israel, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, China, and the United States.

Some stay for a year, under umbrella programs like the popular Erasmus exchange between different European countries, while others build a more permanent nest and pursue undergraduate and/or advanced degrees at a variety of prestigious academic institutions. While all of the capital's foreign students share the common experience of having been born abroad, the path that each walks, during his or her time studying in Vilnius, inevitably takes a decidedly unique and independent direction. Many international students develop enduring and potentially life-long friendships with both their foreign colleagues and local Lithuanian students, and some find themselves staying here much longer than they had originally planned.

Vilnius, in all of its glory and splendor, is a difficult city to walk away from. And the word is out: this capital city is a hip place to hang your hat. It is almost impossible to either generalize, or specify, what it means to be a foreign student in Vilnius. Consequently, the following explorations are intended to capture a mix of personal biographies, fleeting moments, and personal experiences from a diverse set of inspired individuals living out a valuable time of their student lives in Lithuania

Parallel lives.

Marta Zuravskaya and Maria Grimuk have followed similar timelines that brought them both to Lithuania. Zuravskaya was born and raised in St. Petersburg, before later deciding to pursue her university studies at the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts, specializing in Graphic Design. Further south, Grimuk grew up in Kiev, and followed a similar path to Vilnius, having chosen to study the restoration of historical paintings. Both of the student's mothers were ethnic Lithuanian, hence their strong ties to the country's cultural heritage (Grimuk has been perfectly bilingual in both Ukrainian and Lithuanian since her childhood), and both plan to remain in Vilnius indefinitely.

Zuravskaya is already building a promising career through her involvement in illustrating children's books in Vilnius, while Grimuk has dedicated herself to the ambitious task of renovating and restoring the interiors of the capital's many historical churches. As far as their living situation goes, both Zuravskaya and Grimuk have set up long term residence at the central and convenient student dormitory, home to approximately 70 art students (located in Old Town, just off Pilles gatve). In addition to the residents' shared academic and creative interests, this "Art Hostel" has served as the perfect vehicle for Zuravskaya and Grimuk, assisting them with cultural integration and Lithuanian-language learning (essential, as both girls attend lectures exclusively in Lithuanian), while also offering a vibrantly active social life. With a little help from the Lithuanian state scholarship, both students speak fondly of their time learning in Vilnius, and each plans to pursue a Master's degree or Doctorate in their respective fields.

Come a long way.

Zhao Xinzhen has been living in Vilnius for more than 8 years, having arrived in Lithuania in 1999, as a teenager, but born and raised in Xian, China. Currently enrolled in law school at Vilnius University, Xinzhen will become the first Chinese student to graduate from the faculty (Class of 2008), as a specialist in International and European Labor Law. When he first arrived, Xinzhen took intensive language courses for 2 years, and spent the subsequent 6 years attending lectures entirely in Lithuanian. In addition to his academic studies, Xinzhen teaches Chinese to Lithuanian students at a local language school (Soros International House) several evenings a week, and is actively involved with the Lithuanian-Chinese Trade Association.

Zhao Xinzhen enjoys teaching Chinese in Vilnius, and his flawless Lithuanian makes him an ideal foreign language teacher. While he also speaks English and enjoys the company of other foreign colleagues, his closest friends are Lithuanian, with whom he feels truly integrated. A bit of a hermit, Xinzhen rents a single flat in Vilnius, but also spends his free time socializing with his Lithuanian friends at one of Vilnius's many Old Town pubs. Looking toward his post-Vilnius University career, Xinzhen intends to either return to China or work as an attorney in another European country. Time will tell, where his path will lead, but in the meantime Xinzhen has completely acclimated to life in Lithuania, and feels very much at home here in Vilnius.

Embrace the moment.

Steve Tartakovsky, a Washington DC native who came to Vilnius last summer, found himself lured to the city by a strong personal interest in Lithuania. A year later, Tartakovsky has decidedly made the most of his year living in the Baltics: pursuing and finishing an MBA, working full-time, and enthusiastically partaking in the plethora of tantalizing nightlife opportunities that reverberate through the city center. His home and professional career lie in the states where he worked for several years for the Department of Defense (DOD), after graduating from Virginia Tech with an economics/ foreign languages degree in 2004.

Yet, Tartakovsky's 12 month stay in Vilnius has served as an important stepping stone for him moving forward professionally. Earning an MBA in Management from Vilnius University will assist him in moving up the ladder stateside, at the DOD, in a specifically tailored director- grooming program, where a workforce of Baby-Boomers, upon reaching retirement age, are being replaced by young managers, such as himself. Tartakovsky's interdisciplinary academic background (in addition to Economics/ Business Management and the Social Sciences, Tartakovsky speaks fluent Russian, Spanish, and even some Slovenian, Croatian, and Ukrainian) has bolstered his CV; pretty much guaranteeing pay raises over the next several years back home in Washington, D.C..

Tartakovsky's learning experience in Vilnius has been generally positive. His 1.5 year program at Vilnius University is relatively affordable (particularly when compared to American Business schools) with tuition being 9000 LT (2,550 euros) a year, allows him to have lessons in English, and he can schedule his classes in the evening. Also he has been able to interact with the large international student body (50% Lithuanian, with some Erasmus, as well as Ukrainians, Moldovans, Russians, etc.) . For several months, Tartakovsky also worked during the daytime at Euro Monitor, a private market research company where his work focused on sales, marketing, and business development in CIS countries. Following the completion of his MBA this summer, Tartakovsky plans to head back to the states and resume working at the DOD.

Looking for the party.

Uzgay Bijik and Alvaro Brandon (from Izmir, Turkey and Leon, Spain, respectively) are happily participating as core members of Lithuania's funfilled Erasmus program. Both students have been living it up during the past year of their study abroad program, hanging out with fellow Erasmus students, club-hopping their way around Vilnius, and enjoying a flexible class schedule. Bijik, coming from a business management background, is currently studying logistics at the College of Social Sciences, while Brandon is specializing in computer science at Vilnius Technical University.

Brandon finds the university work level to be both fair and manageable. He attends lectures in English 3 days a week, for 9 academic hours and his study schedule allows him to wake up around noon or one o'clock most days of the week without having to worry about being late to class. Living in the student dormitory filled with scores of Erasmus students, as well as Lithuanians (about 400 Erasmus students are currently living in Vilnius, many of whom also call the dorms home), Brandon passes many evenings playing cards with his roommates, enjoying a cold beer at studentfriendly pubs like Transylvania or Sol y Luna, and spending personal time in the Old Town with Bijik.

This friendly, smiling couple met last year through the Erasmus network, and their most precious memories of life in Vilnius revolve around good times spent with the multicultural mix of Lithuanian and international students they have warmly befriended. As an alternative to dorm life, Bijik is sharing a flat with 3 young female Lithuanian working professionals over the past year, and appreciates the experience as a bridge to the local Baltic culture. Erasmus parties and excursions are the weekend norm, while their student party culture guarantees evening entertainment at least 3-4 nights a week.

There's never a dull moment; it's like a one-year holiday, they say. Both students have received some financial support from scholarships attained through their home universities and the EU foundation. Describing life in Vilnius as one of the best years in their lives, Bijik and Brandon have nothing but the best to say about their study abroad experience, and look ahead to their return home with heavy hearts.

Short-term summer studies.

Sebastian Pilone, originally from Southern Italy, arrived in Vilnius a few weeks ago for intensive Lithuanian language study, to be followed by a practical, voluntary internship at an international NGO. Pilone recently finished a civil law degree in Rimini, and will spend the summer months working for SOTAS (Socialines tarnystes savanoriai), a Lithuanian-Italian partnership organization working to assist vulnerable Lithuanian children. This program is being run through the Leonardo Project, an Erasmus-like exchange designed for young professionals who have just completed their university studies.

The project has generously covered Pilone's travel expenses, lodging (he shares an apartment with another Italian and a student from the Czech Republic), and local transport (i.e. bus passes). Ten Italians in total are participating in this summer's internship and Pilone spends most of his free time with this lively and energetic group, playing football in a park with locals or hanging out with the expat population at the local wine bar InVino. Pilone intends to make the most of his stay in Vilnius during the warm and vibrantly green summer months before returning home in the autumn and joining the Italian workforce as an attorney, working full-time.

Diplomacy and International Studies.

Saba Kerdikoshvili, a Georgian undergraduate student originally from Tbilisi, came to Vilnius approximately four years ago when his father became the new Consul at the Georgian embassy in Vilnius. Kerdikoshvili now lives in the city center with his parents and younger brother. Having gone through the cultural integration process of learning to study in Lithuanian (intensive classes), he has found his intellectual niche with the international relations student crowd at Vilnius University.

Actively involved in campus life, he recently participated in "Political Days" at his faculty, and has attended a variety of academically relevant seminars and conferences. Kerdikoshvili does indeed miss his native Tbilisi, but is enjoying academic life and is always willing to discuss the latest trends and developments in European or International Politics. He is eager to follow the diplomatic path taken by his father Giorgi, and in the meantime will finish the remainder of his undergraduate studies here in Vilnius.


A diverse mix of international students find their way to Vilnius, soak up the atmosphere in beautifully bittersweet, seemingly eternal snapshot moments, and sometimes remain here for longer than expected. Looking across the spectrum of these personal narratives, many stories unfold and continue onward and homeward, individuals living out the life and times of Vilnius. What does it mean to study here as a foreigner? Ask any international student for a unique and personal answer; there is simply no single path to walk upon.

by Michael Durnan