Photo: Economic Faculty of Matej Bel University in Banska Bystrica
Back in Ukraine, I acquired Master's degree in Political Science and five years of working experience in two big different international companies. Self-development, challenging myself, improving business skills in international environment and language skills were my main drivers to go abroad and study in English.
Slovakia is the friendliest country within Ukraine’s neighbours for students in all ages, has quite similar culture, has affordable prices and in need of young specialists. That’s why I chose to begin my journey here.
It was not the first time, when I came to the EU, but my first time to Slovakia. I found Banska Bystrica very charming, calm and balanced town after living in Dnipro. I did not know Slovak language and I lived in the dormitory with other Erasmus students, so I found many friends from all over the EU. Studies in English and multicultural environment helped me not only to improve my English but also to work and grow withing international collaboration. Meanwhile, I found Slovak friends and had my first attempts with Slovak language. In January 2018, I started working in a shisha bar in the city centre where I dramatically improved my Slovak and networking skills in Banska Bystrica.
Photo: Yaroslav with his colleagues in shisha bar in Banska Bystrica, August 2018
Economic Faculty of MBU gives so many unique opportunities for students such as: studies in English and even some courses in French, double degrees with French universities, language courses and many exchange programmes all over the Europe and several non-EU countries with financial grants. I did not know that before, so I decided to use the chance to go for Erasmus exchange to the VIVES Business Academy in Kortrijk, Belgium in autumn 2018.
This is how my next academic year and a new chapter in my life began. Education in Belgium is a bit different. I went to the academy, which gives more practical skills and applied knowledge. For example, courses were held by people, who worked in that particular sphere, with accent on real business cases from their experience. In addition, many of those courses were taught in an extensive one-two weeks classes from morning until evening, with assignments for teams of mixed nationalities. I realised how valuable such skills and knowledge are and I was so excited, that I took almost one-year programme in 1 semester. It is hard to describe what the Erasmus experience gave me, how it changed my mindset in a good way and how I felt better and more open as a person.
Due to my good academic performance I had more time back in Slovakia in the spring semester, so I began to attend more conferences including SOFTIP HR conference and visit more companies, production facilities such as Continental, organised by the Economic Faculty of MBU. It improved my networking skills even more. It is when I came across the opportunity to become a part of the KapaCITY project run by the Human Rights League (HRL) in cooperation with other NGOs in Slovakia. Bit by bit we began to build integration bridge for foreigners in Banska Bystrica region. HRL organised a meeting with foreigners with the support of the municipality of Banska Bystrica. That summer I met my Slovak girlfriend Anna who has had a very positive influence on me ever since and who has helped me much to improve my Slovak language skills.
The academic year of 2019/2020 began with a calm study routine. As for my international life - HRL organised the Integration Forum 2019 on the topics of foreigners in the cities, their integration and the level of their involvement which was attended by various civil servants, professors from Spain, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics and many other participants. I got an opportunity to attend this event as a speaker, where I talked about my experience as a foreigner in Slovakia.
Photo: Yaroslav as a speaker during Integration Forum 2019, Bratislava
2019 was my last year of the bachelor's study program and because of my previous academic performance I had much free time during my last semester. To use this time efficiently, I decided to go for the Erasmus practice to VIVES Business Academy in Belgium again, but this time as an intern. It was not an easy decision for me, as my girlfriend and I would be away from each other for almost five months. We tried to visit each other as much as we could.
I was in my favourite international environment again. This time I wasn't there as a student, but as an intern and assistant for teachers. My responsibilities were to assist in an international office, help teachers, support and navigate students not only at the campus, but in their studies in general. The first two months were very exciting for me and went by so fast. Meanwhile, news and rumours about COVID-19 became the main topic of everyday discussions. One day I was preparing for visiting my girlfriend and suddenly, two days before my departure to Slovakia, the Slovak government announced a closure of its state borders. My flight was cancelled. I tried to rebook my flight but even the other one was cancelled as every other flight bought in advance in the upcoming weeks. There was no possibility to return back to Slovakia - my second home. In addition, the schools went from face-to-face learning to online learning.
I was accommodated in a hostel, where only three other students were left. First month of the lockdown, I dedicated completely to my thesis. Thanks to my new local friends I didn't go crazy and some of them became my new family. Afterwards, I had to move from my hostel to the student’s residence, which helped me in terms of work with the students. We were living under one roof, lockdown restrictions did not apply to us, so we could meet each other and have more social life. All this time I was trying to find some safe, economically reasonable and adequate way to return to Slovakia. Unfortunately, all my efforts were in vain. My legal stay in Belgiun was coming to an end and there was still no way for me to return to Slovakia. Luckily, Belgian government prolonged my stay until 15th July.
Finally, I was able to get a flight ticket in June but only to Budapest, Hungary. I was lucky, because just at that time, Slovakia added Hungary to the list of safe countries and opened its borders with them. My girlfriend was able to pick me up from Budapest by car, which was the moment of our reunion after almost four months.
Photo: Yaroslav on his way back to Slovakia in an empty plane Photo: Reunion with his girlfriend after spending several months apart due to COVID-19
To put it mildly, it is not easy to be a non-EU resident who is stuck with very limited budget in Belgium. Thanks to the MBU and VIVES, I had two grants, which allowed me to cover my basic expenses with strict budgeting. By the time of my return, neither my studies were finished, nor my issues with budget were resolved. I dedicated my summer to finalizing my thesis, bureaucratic procedures with my papers and finances. Moreover, I helped my mother with registering as a sole-trader in Slovakia and with her enrollment for the Slovak language courses at the UMB. Fortunately, the summer went well. We had a small vacation, I graduated at the end of August and my mom was able to come to Banska Bystrica, where her first courses begin in september.
It is hard to predict and prepare for what is waiting for us this year, but we have stay positive. With problems that we tackle, we find more opportunities and a perspective to see old, unresolved issues from a different angle. All of us could see how our society is unprepared for the global challenges, how necessary it is for people to have a social life and be in touch with others. Hopefully, there will be some improvements in collective mindset and responsibility.
During the COVID-19 time, I started to appreciate the simple things such as as freedom, health and being with my loved ones. I also realised how clumsy and slow the education system was. Many students experienced how distance education could be efficient and flexible. However, on the other hand, we realized how important it is to acquire practical skills and apply our knowledge in practice.
As for the current life in Slovakia, many positive improvements have been done, especially in Banska Bystrica. At the same time, I see that we have to work harder than I thought we would have to three years ago when I came here the first time. I really appreciate my life and studies in Banska Bystrica and I am glad for all the opportunities and experiences I have had. In addition, I want to thank to my Belgian colleagues and friends who helped me as much as they could during the lockdown times. Big thanks to all Erasmus students who kept my mind active. And of course, incredible respect to my girlfriend for her support and patience.
Personal testimonies of foreigners were published as part of activities of the KapaCITY project, which is co-funded by the European Union from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Affairs Funds.