My First Semester in the University: Higher Education in the Soviet Union

As you could already figure out, there was no ACT or SAT in the Soviet Union. Your GPA was counted as one of the grades at the entrance exam, as I’ve described here (along with the rest of the admission process). Also, everything was decided after you actually graduated. For me, I graduated in June 1980, and the whole month of June was dedicated to the finals, both oral and written. I hope I remember it correctly: we had an essay exam, math (in writing), and a whole bunch of oral exams: physics, chemistry, the history of the USSR (aka the history of the Communist Party), which was combined with the “social science” material. I believe we also had English, and we should have had oral Russian and oral math, but I can’t remember for the life of mine.

Anyway, when exams were over, we had our diplomas distributed at the lavish graduation ceremony followed immediately by the graduation prom. In Leningrad, which is situated pretty far North, the nights in June are very short; actually, it hardly gets dark for an hour. That season is called “The White Nights.” It’s supposed to be very romantic to wander the city streets at night time during this season, especially the Neva River embankments. Lots of young people are outside the whole night; you are expected to meet the love of your life one of these nights :), and you won’t go for less.

It was raining really heavily on my graduation night, but a tradition is something you can’t break. So my boyfriend (you are supposed to have a girlfriend/boyfriend that night, even if you didn’t have them before) and I were both walking in the rain. Our mutual friend, who was unfortunate not to have a girlfriend at the moment, was wandering in the rain with us. My graduation dress was red because I wanted to be different from others, and also because that was the only long dress, I found in the store which looked good on me. I didn’t have money for a tailored dress, besides making your dress to order was considered bourgeois at that time. So I was wearing a long red gown with a white belt, a white neckless and white high heels. We walked all the way from our school which was situated in Gavan, the far side of Vasilevsky Island, up to my house on the other side of the river. There I’ve changed to the warmer clothes, flats, and handed the boys some dry socks, and we continued our wandering in the rain – it was a tradition!

Literally the next morning we brought our papers to the Admission Commission of the University, and then all the events which I’ve already described have happened. On July 10th, I became the first college student in my class.

I had the rest of the summer for myself, and I can’t recall what I was doing! That’s because I was not journaling at that time! I do not recall going on any trips that summer, most likely because it was hard to plan ahead due to the admission process uncertainty.

The classes at the University started on September 1st, same as at the rest of the schools in the country, and there was not a big difference between going to the high school and to the University. Our days were full, we had classes 6 days a week. One unit was called “a pair” , which meant that it lasted for two “academic hours” – 45 minutes each plus 10 min break in between. This made each class 1 hour 40 min long. We rarely had two “pairs” a day, most days were three to four “pairs” long. During our first year in the University we had the following subjects:

  • Calculus
  • High Algebra
  • High Geometry
  • The history of CPSU
  • English
  • PE

For the first four subjects, we had lectures and “seminars.” Lectures were held in the huge auditoriums, either for a “half-stream” (150 students) or for a “full-stream” – 300 students. Since attendance was rarely taken, and questions from the audience were not expected, the students flunked these lectures en mass, especially when professors were not charismatic enough. I do not recall any of the professors recommending any textbooks, we were supposed to be present during the lectures and taking notes. If you decide to take a break, you ask one of your friends for a carbon copy. Yes, we did have carbon paper with us at all times :). If you didn’t ask in advance, you could ask somebody to give you their notes for overnight copying. And “copying” didn’t mean using the xerox machine. It meant you actually had to write a copy. With a pen :).

“Seminars” were not different from the regular classes in high school. A “group” (about 25-30 students) was stuck together for all of the seminars. At the seminar, an assistant professor would explain how to solve some types of problems, we were solving them together in class, then we had some homework. For the seminars, we were supposed to get some textbooks from the library. Theoretically, the seminars were to cover the same material that was covered during the lectures, but in practice, the connection was remote :). We had quizzes and tests, but at the end of the semester, the grade was just passing or failing. If you pass, you are allowed to take an oral exam. If you didn’t, you had to retake some tests, or whatever the respective assistant professor would think you should do. The passing requirements were rarely announced at the beginning of the semester. Your semester grade was not calculated based on anything, it was just the grade you get at the oral exam. At the last lecture, your professor would dictate a list of questions for the oral exam. You would write this list down and study for the exam, most of the time for 4-5 days. At the exam, you would draw the “ticket” with three questions, and have some time to sit down and get ready.

If you flunked for the whole semester, but somehow got somebody’s notes copied, and happen to know these three questions, you could get “five” (or “excellent”) for this course. All of the above applied to calculus, algebra, and geometry, for the rest of the subject things were a little bit different, which will be described in the subsequent posts.

I will finish this post mentioning the fact that you could not choose any of your classes for the first 2.5 years in the University. Not just courses, but you could not even move to a different professor, nor you could switch to a different “group” (I managed to do it twice, but it was a project each time!)

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

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