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“If you haven’t yet decided what you want to be in the future, a year in Rome will help you to rediscover yourself”

In 2019, after their first year in ICEF Master’s Programme, three students, Anastasia Melnik, Arseny Turyshev and Nikita Tsyrlin, went to Rome-based LUISS through a double degree programme. Now that they have completed the first term at LUISS, we’ve asked them to share their impressions. Let’s find out why Italians’ relaxed mindset is nothing but a stereotype, why there is power in the ‘Russian mathematics’, where in Rome students can get the best accommodation options, why even thesis defense procedure has a baroque touch at LUISS, and why innovations and fundamental education should evolve separately.

“If you haven’t yet decided what you want to be in the future, a year in Rome will help you to rediscover yourself”

What fields are your bachelor's degrees in?

Arseny: Applied Mathematics and Informatics. I earned my degree from HSE Faculty of Computer Sciences.

Nikita: So did I. I major in Software Engineering.

Anastasia: I’m a graduate of HSE Faculty of Fundamental and Applied Linguistics and I major in programming.

Why did you choose Economics as a domain to continue to explore computer sciences in?

Arseny: That was the first thing Maxim Nikitin asked us at the enrolment interview. My goal is to build expertise in FinTech.

Nikita: I chose Economics because this would be a domain in the humanities sector where technologies have penetrated deepest.

Anastasia: When I was doing my internship at Sberbank I realized there were gaps in my knowledge of Finance that had to be filled in before I could go further. I enrolled in ICEF to learn Finance and brush up on my math.

But why did you choose to do a full-time academic programme when you could simply join Sberbank’s dedicated course, Anastasia?

Anastasia: Many of my acquaintances were ICEF students at the time, and they all told me ICEF was a good choice for them, so I didn’t have to think long. Besides, an academic programme is what guarantees in-depth knowledge, something that many hands-on courses tend to be missing out on. I might consider a PhD in some years’ time, but for now, my plan is to learn the ins and outs of the industry by doing an in-depth fundamental programme.

Does anyone of you have previous experience in FinTech?

Arseny: I did a traineeship at Ernst & Young past summer. But that was mostly about applied data analytics and for me a test of what I’ve learned when doing my degree at HSE Faculty of Computer Sciences.

Anastasia: I did a year-long internship at Sberbank Treasury before I received a post of analyst. And my latest traineeship was during this past summer at Goldman Sachs, London.

How did you get a place on LUISS programme?

Anastasia: In our first year of master's studies we had a chance to learn about LUISS University from some of its professors who came to present the double degree programme which was first launched in 2017. Also, we had Maria Elisabetta, a student who at that time was an ICEF student through that double degree programme and who was our main source of information about LUISS, and this is basically how we arrived at the idea of enrolling into this programme. Besides, my bachelor’s programme included a course in Italian.

Nikita: With the double degree programme, the application deadline is spring. So, by the time you’ve completed your first term you will know whether the programme matches you and whether your capabilities match its requirements. We’ve now completed the first term at LUISS and will be defending our theses after the second term – first in Rome in July and then at ICEF in autumn. It wouldn’t have been right to not use the opportunity of graduating with two diplomas, which also went together with the opportunity to experience a new country and its learning concepts which I find to be more of hands-on nature than academically-oriented. To get enrolled into this programme, you need to perform well academically and be highly motivated. If you haven’t yet decided what you want to be in the future, a year in Rome will help you to rediscover yourself, not to mention the effect this city’s atmosphere will have on you.

Can you say that European students enjoy greater freedom of research and increased timing for self-study?

Arseny: I don’t think so. The curriculum seems to differ from that of ICEF only slightly. There are two optional courses only, and the time you are allowed for self-study is almost the same. ICEF’s learning environment is such that you soon learn how to schedule our time properly and you have to be your own boss when it comes to self-study. Italy, but the way, practices a grading system that looks very similar to Soviet Russia’s: examinations are conducted mostly orally. This would be biggest difference between ICEF and here. At ICEF, tests are administered mostly on paper, while HSE Faculty of Computer Sciences uses also colloquiums as a form of examination.

Your fellow-students, where do they come from?

Nikita: Most of them come from Italy. And there are many Erasmus exchange students from Belgium, Holland and Germany.

Anastasia: My impression is that Erasmus exchange students don’t focus that much on their studies. They are more into get-togethers and cultural experiences, which is something the Italian students tend to avoid because they choose to study hard, from morning till night. They spend hours in the library, they come together to discuss home assignments and they are very concerned about their grades. They have clear expectations of their learning outcomes. We, in the beginning, were very much surprised to see the Italian students grinding away at their studies. Relaxed is certainly not the word to describe their attitude. Their great concern is probably due to the fair amount of money that they pay to this private university.

The Italian students, on their part, said they were somewhat surprised at the strong focus ICEF is placing on abstract mathematics. Oppositely, Italian math courses focus mostly on findings.

Nikita: What also sets Italian students apart is their passion for printouts. There’s always a long line for the printer and the PPT documents to be printed out can be dozens of pages long. That’s because PowerPoint is the standard method of lecture delivery here. It’s easier for students to make notes on the slides than copy down the formulas. And the textbooks are expensive. The library is not a lending one and there is a limited number of even books that are used most widely. This is the reason why Italians may have to print out the entire books.

How is your strong mathematics background working out for you at LUISS?

Arseny: It depends on a course unit. There are some statistics problems that we can tackle without preparation.

Are there any teaching methods that you’ve never experienced before?

Arseny: I am amazed at how willing the professors are to address a student’s question as to the lecture material and the quality with which they communicate nuances.

Nikita: Most of the professors are practicing experts with experience in consulting and banking.

There is one professor who catches early-morning flight from Switzerland every Tuesday to deliver a lecture and fly back on the same day to resume his duties at the bank next morning.

What is LUISS campus like?

Nikita: Very green. It’s the first thing you notice. LUISS has five campuses and their premises are more like botanical gardens with historic buildings, Viale Pola for example. The lawns are community gardens – very aptly named. There’s even a soccer field. On the second level of the main building, there are open study spaces one is free to use any time they want. And there’s a bus connection between the two most remote buildings. To use it students are required to download a special app. Also, LUISS operates an electric car sharing service, Luiss Green Mobility, even though most of the venues on its campus are within walking distance.

Anastasia: On every level, there’s a couple of administrative staff. Their job is not to watch the students but to ensure that the lecture halls have everything they are supposed to, that they have chairs sufficient and the overhead projector works fine. They will always know which of the quiet study spaces are vacant when you need them.

Does LUISS offer student support services like HSE does?

Anastasia: Almost all of the integration activities for international students are provided through Erasmus programme. The support services providers have a diverse activity plan with get-togethers, tours and cultural activities to facilitate integration into the university community, whereas all administrative issues lie with the Office for Studies. On our first day here, we were issued booklets with ‘LUISS user instructions’ and answers to nearly all the question one may have at the beginning and where to address on them. We’ve never felt neglected at LUISS.

How is accommodation situation at LUISS?

Nikita: Not easy at all. There’s CasaLUISS, which is like an on-campus real estate agent helping students to find accommodation. The options we were offered, however, didn’t quite suit us so we decided we find housing on our own, but it turned out a real challenge because Rome is very expensive to rent housing and the options we found were so diverse for us to judge as to their comfort levels. There are a few dormitories, though, but given their permit system, dorm curfews, etc., and the price, you may as well rent somewhere else.

Anastasia: The main problem with finding a place in Rome is that tenants are asked to pay a several months’ deposit. Now I realize we should have started finding housing long before we arrived, at least several months in advance. We couldn’t find a place for the three of us, so each one lives separately.

I rented a small house which according to Moscow resident’s standards was more like a garage. Even though it wasn’t very far, getting to the campus took more than an hour because the public transport system in Rome leaves much to be desired. So please know that Moscow is one of the places with best public transport infrastructures in the world.

Nikita: At least Rome is a warm place. Being able to wear a T-shirt on an October night overweighs all disadvantages.

How is student canteen food?

Nikita: The local shawarma is simply divine.

Let us now move on to research options. How is LUISS different in this respect?

Nikita: Since training here is very hands-on and relies heavily on case studies, the time you start preparing for your master’s thesis is shifted to a later date. If you talk to your professor in December, you are most likely to hear them say ‘it’s way too early to start preparing’. Besides, students can’t choose scientific supervisors from among the faculty staff, as is the case at HSE. They are allowed to choose only from the staff of their department. This, in turn, considerably limits the choice of research topics.

So how do students choose topics for their research?

Nikita: For me, that was very challenging. Mostly because at ICEF they require you to decide, and advise, on your topic well in advance. After I’ve spoken to some of the local professors, I chose cryptocurrency analysis.

Arseny: I wanted my research to deal with what I’ve chosen for myself as future career – finance and machine learning. LUISS offers an advanced course in time series econometrics, as well as job opportunities in my chosen career field. Also, my research paper is co-supervised by professor Svetlana Bryzgalova of ICEF. I like that there are workshops at LUISS, where international students can learn about the rules and procedures of the research paper defense, how to work with sources and structure preparation work when it’s under the responsibility of two supervisors, etc.

Nikita: There is also the academic tutoring option and invited advisors, the latter helping students by providing their expertise in the field they are currently working in.

Anastasia: The defense procedure, by the way, is quite pompous as it takes place in a cupola-topped historic hall with a grand piano, draperies and baroque plasterwork. It’s always a memorable experience, and it is customary to invite your family and friends to be your support group, which only adds to the excitement.

What are your plans for the future?

Anastasia: I received an offer from Goldman Sachs and will go to London under their New Analyst Programme in Engineering.

Nikita: I am less certain at this point. I still haven’t decided where I want to work and in which capacity.

What I am certain about though is that Italy is not the place where I’ll be searching for job vacancies. Italy is a great country, but the best thing to do here would be rest, not work.

My plan is to do an internship in a new country or go back to Russia and get a job there.

Arseny: LUISS operates its own Career Centre. Although the number of offers for foreigners is rather limited, there’s a wonderful option of booking a space for interview in any language. There is Luiss Language Café, which is a student meeting venue and a place for rest. One is free to book a place here for an online conference, poetry readings or a music event. This café has a mini-library with books in different languages and is a common place for meetings with alumni.

Anastasia: I, for example, used Luiss Language Café for giving math lessons via Skype.

Luiss Language Café
Luiss Language Café
©courtesy of LUISS.edu

How do you think the present-day financial education can strengthen its links with technologies and be tailored to better meet banks’ staffing needs?

Arseny: LUISS maintains very strong links with finance people. This is what benefits its students greatly, despite the fact that LUISS cannot boast as solid a mathematical training tradition as that of the Russian universities. With four departments – of Law, Business and Management, Economics and Finance, and Political Sciences – LUISS was originally established as a school of humanities. Natural science subjects are therefore not in its concept. The training process here targets more to instill in students the ‘economic intuition’ through hands-on-experience case studies.

At the same time, there are courses that are very useful if you want to enrich your knowledge of FinTech – for instance, Empirical Finance, Computational Tools in Finance, and Risk Management. They revolve around mathematical models for risk analysis. When doing a course in Financial Economics we’ve learned how to adapt scientific and technical papers, a very useful skill as it turned out.

Nikita: There’s a great deal of papers, very important ones, that get overlooked by university students and society in general. The skills of presenting such papers using a more reader-friendly language, so that experts in different domains could use them in their own research, often remain neglected. As someone with a degree from HSE Faculty of Computer Sciences, I had a great difficulty dealing with the scientifically-oriented language of the articles I was exploring at ICEF.

Anastasia: Starting this year,  Fabian Slonimczyk of ICEF teaches a course in machine learning, which in itself is a big step towards FinTech becoming a part of academic training. Though I personally think that fundamental education and innovations per se should evolve separately. In math and statistics training, the fundamental education is meant, in the first place, to equip learners with skills they could use exploring whatever field they choose later. With FinTech, these basic skills come first, I know it from experience. When you are dealing at the interface of branches, it seems almost impossible to keep abreast of the up-to-date information. This information, like technologies, will never be fundamental. So, it’s not the understanding of technologies that schools should foster but the ability to sort out their operating principles to make people more efficient at tackling new challenges.