Discussing with Vlad Mărgărint. First Part: Student-life in Zürich.

Discussing with Vlad Mărgărint. First Part: Student-life in Zürich.

Trimis de Livia B la Dum, 10/25/2015 - 10:02
Versiunea în limba română este disponibilă aici.
 
If you’re already familiar with his name, you might think this is another eulogizing portrait-interview with one of the participants at high Olympiads, a list of prizes, an idealized characterization. Without stealing any acknowledgement of his academical achievements, this interview will tell the story “the way it happened”. I took advantage of Vlad’s enthusiasm, who’s now at the end of a road that proved to be more than a simple Master in Mathematics at ETH Zürich, and about to leave to Oxford, where he will start this month his PhD studies. We propose you, dear reader, to get to know his values and to let ourselves convinced that the financial power doesn’t solely decide where we end up in the scene of life. 
 
He grew up in Bîrlad, Vaslui – a city whose cultural impact influenced him as well. At 22, with few money in his pocket, he left Romania to get in contact with one of the biggest schools in the world. Vlad has plenty of stories to share from the past two years spent in Switzerland, a time when the “divinity has shown to help when least expected”, as he’s admitting, things we can all learn from.
 
This is an interview meant to offer “onsite” details to the ones that dream about a first-class study in Switzerland, an interview dedicated to the ones that graduated and who might nostalgically find themselves among the following sentences, an interview for all the Romanians, in an attempt to understand those people’s past and experiences, an invite for further dialog. 
 
In this first part of the interview we will see how the social reality influences the relationships in the academic world, together with the small details that bring colour in the life of the Romanians students in Switzerland. In the second part, we will analyze the two social dimensions, Romania and Switzerland, reflecting on our small community, that ended up to be an anchor to Vlad to the reality he used to know: his childhood and teenage years in the Vaslui county, the student and academic life at the University of Bucharest and the preparation-time as an Astronomy and Physics Olympiad participant.
 
casa-romanilor.ch:  We want to get to know you better. What was your journey? What about personal experiences, expectations vs. realities?
Vlad Mărgărint: I left Romania in 2013 with few money, a sum that evaporated in a second as I paid my first rent and guarantee. With this initial set of coordinates, I was expecting a difficult path. However, it proved to be even harder. I won’t avoid admitting that it wasn’t a comfortable journey, but which offered me the chance to get a financed PhD position at the University of Oxford. It is a road experienced by anyone who left to explore the world. I am not the first, nor the last, and I am not a unique case, I can assure you: there are a lot of similar stories alike, which I know. I have no doubt that with the time they will be shared as well.
C.R.: You were using the word ”Hard” to describe your journey- is this exclusively from the perspective of the financial efforts?
V.M.: Well, not only. This just amplifies every impediment one faces while adapting. It’s the kind of experience which get you ripe immediately, this was my student life, a proper “Swiss academic army”.  
 
Here there was no such thing as a social dimension, with the exception of the official contact, of course. 
C.R.And how did this social dimension reflect on your expectations regarding the student life?
V.M.: Honestly, I was expecting more international students to take part at the Master program, which wasn’t the case in the Math department. I was expecting to communicate more easily and to find a place to stay. I was wrong concerning the latter. I found the social dimension of the university disappointing as well. 
 
C.R.: How come? A lot of people describe their study times mostly with respect to the social contacts they made then.
V.M.: Here there was no such thing as a social dimension, with the exception of the official contact, of course.  
 
C.R.Are there any positive aspects at all?
V.M.: Absolutely. ETH overcame any professional expectation. Its efficiency, everything that is offered for the fee of 600 CHF per semester is incredible . All the facilities one has: reading rooms, pub, gym, mensa, rooms for relaxing, very modern lecture halls, the human and academical resources etc. make you never leave the school.  Maybe that’s why, not just a couple of times, I’ve been spending the evening and even the nights around.
There is even a statistical study that shows the investment made for each student yearly versus the study fee. You will be surprise how generous the Swiss are in this regard. They gained my respect for the way they chose to (massively!) invest in education.
This system sets a marathon regime, which is different than the “sprint” that takes place at other universities. Having the whole Summer to prepare your examination session, the level requested is very high.
C.R.: You had the chance to experience two universities: Bucharest and Zürich. What’s alike? What’s different?
V.M.:A significant difference is the way and the schedule examination takes place- this leads to a difference regarding the required level. Here the Master exams take place in August and are mostly oral examinations- a 30 minutes talk with the professor you had the lecture with. This system sets a marathon regime, which is different than the “sprint” that takes place at other universities. Having the whole Summer to prepare your examination session, the level requested is very high. And even with such a long preparation time, it is still constantly a lot of work to do.
 
C.R.: So to say: “learn, learn, and once again learn!”?!
V.M.:  Surprisingly, even without a proper Summer vacation you can use this schedule in your favor. You can have a part-time job during the semester (this is how I earned the money to afford a living here).
 
C.R.And maybe it’s worth as well mentioning the experience of the academical work complementary to the lectures.  
V.M.: You can (and even must!) involve yourself in high-level research projects for several months. I did this twice, receiving assignments of high complexity, which I couldn’t have been able to solve during a standard semester, while having examinations in the end.  The fact that anyone at the university is available and that all the services are constantly available even during the Summer, gives you the opportunity to continue your projects, which are very helpful for a further academic or industrial career, as they are a strategic experience for any kind of further professional reference.  I strongly recommend the future students to take advantage of these rules and schedules: there are opportunities which don’t arise that easily anywhere else, which you gain a deep insight into a specific specialized professional field from. 
 
 
C.R.: What about the lectures?
V.M.: You may sign up for how many lectures you want and you can choose what exams you take. Exceptions are of course, the additional requirement, which I strongly advise you to pay a lot of attention to. The students are allowed to write a certain exam only twice! 
 
C.R.: Are you talking based on any experience?
V.M.: Unfortunately, yes. I failed once an exam. Obviously, this stuff is quite common even at the top-ranked universities, but that shouldn’t be an excuse. At least I had by my side a few of my most gifted colleagues that were in the same situation and whom I became very close to.  It is absolutely fascinating how the hard times brought us together, regardless of the cultures we come from.
 
C.R.: A take-home message for the freshers?
V.M.: I recommend them to participate at many lectures during the semester and decide later which exams to take. The grades may be useful later. You are allowed to deregister from any exams you like a month before the examination session. This way you can study harder for the ones you feel confident about.  Basically, everyone designed his own Master program, according to the reglementations about credit points that have to be gained in each lecture category. However, one has to keep in mind that there is the risk of “falling in love” with  the lectures and the professors that inspire you and overcrowding the study schedule-the effort requested for each lecture is substantial!
I am lucky to have found loyal partners whom I can spontaneously, anytime, discuss mathematics with. I do hope I will find this spirit in every place I’ll go from now on and wish everyone to find this kind of people.
C.R.: Going further with the comparison between universities, could you share any impressions about the studying style?
V.M.: In Bucharest I was used to work a lot on my own, asking my roommates for tips sometimes.  Here, on the other hand, I found people with whom I studied together for the exams. I think I could not have managed to succeed without any of them. The examinations, our weakest moments, brought us together.  We developed a friendship that was very constructive regarding our studies, in the most unexpected places and ways: in the study rooms, at the mensa, on the hallways. It was a collective effort to solve the homework. I am lucky to have found loyal partners whom I can spontaneously, anytime, discuss mathematics with. I do hope I will find this spirit in every place I’ll go from now on and wish everyone to find this kind of people. If you don’t find them, look closely! They exist!
 
C.R.: What’s the best thing you’ve lived here?
V.M.: I had the chance to find the mentor that changed my life, the professor I’ve been doing research within the last one year and a half.  This man offered me the chance to gain a PhD position in Oxford. It was, of course, a chance I’ve been hardly looking for: I insisted to take the hardest projects to work on, I’ve been constantly looking for opportunities. With a bit of luck, this person came into my life. Someone up there made a miracle for me.
 
C.R.: Congratulations! Now, with a little bit of bitter taste, what was the worst thing you’ve experienced here?
V.M.: I experienced a nervous breakdown for several months because of a failed exam. If I wouldn't have passed it the second time, then my whole degree was compromised. This exam was scheduled during the PhD interviews. Basically I lived in January 2015 a major absurdity:  I didn’t know if I’ll get a Master’s degree, but I was already interviewing for a PhD position. All these events mixed terribly and generated the most excruciating time of my life. There’s no need for details, I just wanted to persuade you that nothing is for free.
 
The common fact of being there was my constant motivation to “struggle” all these years.
C.R.:  Doing the calculus: was it worth being at ETH?
V.M.: Absolutely! I lived at a minimal level, but I was constantly fed by my ambition. I was lucky to meet people who offered me a place to sleep for more than one month when I was left without any housing during the exam session. I repeatedly hit physical walls and reached exhaustion, but someone brought them into my life at the right moment and, without them, none of these would have been possible today.
I consider myself very lucky, being aware that there are people who paid enormously for their education or who did loans to study where they wanted. ETH Zürich offered me a great chance, since I am a person who couldn’t afford any of the above mentioned paths, to develop myself in this school and meet models whom I had the chance to discuss with. You might consider talking to your professor or to your peers as a banal thing. However, everything is seen in a different light when you have to work complementary to your studies in order to afford the living there. I cherish this kind of moments spent together and I am grateful to them for being there for me when I couldn’t see any light anymore. The common fact of being there was my constant motivation to “struggle” all these years.
 
 
The second part of the interview will be available next week.
Interviewed by Livia Bălăcescu
September 2015 , Zürich

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