One aspect of culture that is under constant discussion amongst students on study abroad is comparative academics. With people coming from all over the world to study together, one thing you can guarantee they have in common is schoolwork—but it’s amazing how differently different countries (even countries next door to one another) handle the same basic education. In France, classes are graded on a scale from 1-20. In the Czech Republic, grade school is assessed on a scale of 1-4. In Italy, almost all exams are oral exams so written finals seemed very strange to my roommate from Milazzo. In Germany, your entire grade depends on your final so doing smaller assignments throughout the semester really threw my friends from Berlin. Even the variation in how education was viewed was stark—my Czech roommate told me that going to a private university there is considered embarrassing because if you have to pay to go to school you clearly aren’t all that bright.
My personal observation was that the main difference between university culture in the United States and Estonia was the level of trust between teachers and students. While in the US it often feels like there is a constant subliminal tension between students (doing as little as they can to do as well as they can) and teachers (trying to get as much out of them as possible), with presumed ill will on both sides of the equation, this feeling has been nonexistent in Tartu. Professors assume that their students want to get the best education possible and will make good choices to ensure that that happens. They don’t police students from using phones or laptops in class or pose pop quizzes. They are very flexible with deadlines and helpful in giving students resources. Over all, the tone of classes was much more cooperative and relaxed. I don’t know what steps would be necessary to bring more of this culture to the US, but in whatever ways we can I think we ought to try; I feel I have learned more this semester than in the rest of my undergraduate experience combined.