What makes the Eastern Partnership European School unique: a Belarusian student’s perspective

28-01-2020

The Eastern Partnership European School is funded by the EU, offering tuition-free education for all students from the Eastern partner countries.

In January 2020, the Eastern Partnership European School in Tbilisi, Georgia, started admissions for the new academic year. Young people aged 16–17 can submit their applications until 14 March 2020.

After spending a semester at the Eastern Partnership European School in Tbilisi, Alina Melnikova, 16, shares details about the application process and explains what students can expect from their time at the school.

Alina is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme and shares a dormitory room with another girl from Belarus. Everyone has to be in the dormitory by 9pm on weekdays and 10pm on weekends, and they have to use a special app to report their whereabouts. The programme covers food and health insurance for all students.

How did you learn about the Eastern Partnership European School?

Someone sent me a link to the programme's website. I already knew about IB schools, because in the summer after the ninth grade I attended an event organised by the graduates of such a school in Singapore. The pre-university programme was developed in 1968 in Switzerland, and today it is taught in 156 countries. In Georgia, the school is supported by the European Union. I was in the 10th grade when I applied and got in. The selection process took six months, which allowed me to think everything over and get mentally ready.

What exams did you have to take?

Mathematics and English. I also had two Skype interviews. Information about the selection process is confidential, so I do not know my exam scores or even how many applicants there were.

All subjects are taught in English, so level B2 is required. I’ve learnt English from reading books and watching films, and I have participated in several international programmes: the European Youth Parliament, Model United Nations, and the camp of the United World Colleges. I also took an advanced English course in school.

For the maths exam, I applied the knowledge gained from preparing for an informatics competition, as there were many problems on logic.

The programme duration is two years, and I have just finished my first semester. There are students from around forty nationalities at the school. As part of the Eastern Partnership initiative, there are 35 students from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Moldova, including five students from Belarus.

What do you study?

At the beginning of the school year, we had to choose one subject from each group: native language, foreign language, mathematics, humanities, natural sciences and arts. We have to pick three subjects at the advanced level and another three – at the standard level. Mathematics and English are compulsory.

You can study your native language on your own, without a teacher, and instead of arts, you can take any subject from the other four groups. We had a chance to change subjects until mid-October but I was happy with the courses I had chosen.

I take advanced English and literature, visual arts, and global politics, and standard Spanish, biology and mathematics.

There is also a subject called ‘theory of knowledge’, which helps students to excel in other subjects. There is nothing like this in Belarusian schools – it is a subject about studying. We learn how to ask questions, test the knowledge that we gain, and use only reliable sources of information.

What do you mean by ‘standard mathematics’?

The IB programme allows us to study some subjects at the standard level, and others – at the advanced level.

Advanced level is for those who want to continue to study this subject at university. I do not plan to become a scientist, so I do not need an advanced mathematics course. Many of the subjects that we study overlap with those in the Belarusian curriculum. However, we also cover topics such as statistics, probability theory and pie charts, and we use a graphing calculator for many tasks.

I study maths for real-life situations – for example, we recently learnt about financial maths. This knowledge allows us to understand how loans work, so that banks cannot manipulate us.

Apart from choosing your subjects, is there anything else the IB programme offers that is not available in Belarusian schools?

To get a diploma, we must be creative and proactive. We must participate in various projects, engage in volunteer work, and then write reflections that help us to summarise the skills and knowledge acquired. We do not get grades for this, but it is a requirement for obtaining a diploma.

Grades are not discussed in public at the school. Teachers do not announce students’ grades in the classroom, and after each project, they allocate time for individual feedback. The objective criteria for evaluating our work are announced in advance. Oral answers are evaluated in a similar way, and during seminars we work on understanding the topics better, which helps us to prepare for upcoming projects.

We do not have parent–teacher meetings, but a session is held in the middle of the semester, where parents can ask questions. They can also communicate with teachers via e-mail. Besides myself and the teacher, only my parents have access to my grades.

Teachers do not spend their time giving us information that can be read in a textbook. Most of the reading material is sent to us in advance, so that we are ready to analyse and discuss it in class. This allows the teacher to engage us in a conversation and help us to consider different points of view.

Another thing we do a lot in the school is writing essays, which helps us to learn to interpret the knowledge we acquire, understand how to use it in real life, and form an opinion. It is not about defending your point of view, but about seeing the problem and its solutions from different angles.

Another important component of the programme is writing a 4,000-word essay on one of the selected subjects. The students work on it on their own, but they can consult with the teacher if they need help. This is also one of the conditions for obtaining a diploma.

The school teachers are from different countries: Georgia, the USA, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Spain, Italy and Ukraine. This greatly affects how and what we are taught. Discussions are encouraged, and teachers are ready to listen to any opinion.

Where is it harder to study – in Tbilisi or in Navapolack?

In Tbilisi we have a lot of homework which takes longer to do than homework in Belarus, especially because of the different curricula. Now I usually study from the morning until 10–11pm. At the same time, I like doing my homework – not because I have to do it, but because it develops me as a person. I think I made the right decision when I moved to the Eastern Partnership European School – it is a great place for those who like to explore the world.

We have a lot of free time on the weekends, and during the week, all we do is study. However, if you want to enrol in a good university, you have to work hard during your last two years at school – this applies to Belarusian schools as well.

You have studied at the Eastern Partnership European School for half a year now. Are Belarusians different from other people?

No. I realised that even though we are defined by our nationality, we are all different because of our character.

At the school we are taught tolerance. The slogan of the program is ‘Together we are stronger’ and now I realise that if I had not enrolled in the programme, I would be less open to other people and I would see the world differently.

We have students from countries that are in conflict with each other. I was shocked by their opposing views on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh – the territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Students from both countries consider this land theirs. As we study about conflicts like this, and other problems from global politics, we approach the issues from different angles, and I see people's views change.

Before we started classes, we went to a camp in Kakheti, Georgia, for two weeks. In total, there were students from 12 nationalities. I shared a room with a girl from Azerbaijan. When the Armenians were leaving for the airport, she did not even go to see them off. Now, when we were leaving for the winter holidays, she, like other Azerbaijanis, gave the Armenian students a hug. They have very different views, but studying together teaches them to accept different opinions. I think this is what is necessary to maintain peace and heal conflicts.

Are different views on the world order accepted at the school?

Yes. Teachers are trying to inspire us to have our own opinion but also be ready to listen to someone else's. Your personal opinion, even if it is different from everyone else’s in the classroom, does not affect your grades. This freedom of belief, which exists in the school, allows us to be ourselves, conduct interesting discussions, and be in good relations with everyone.

Are there any bad apples that spoil the barrel?

Some students had difficulties at first because they had been top of their class at home, but the school in Tbilisi is full of brilliant people. You have to adapt and learn to listen to others. Being in such an environment is certainly interesting. Our backgrounds are completely different and you can learn something new from every person.

What are your plans after graduation?

Before I graduate, I will have final exams in May 2021. I will have to take two to four exams on each subject. Most of the tasks are essays and individual oral presentations. For visual art, I need to prepare an exhibition and two portfolios. They will evaluate us independently, sending our work to external examiners.

About 30% of the 5000 students currently attending IB schools will fail their exams and not receive a diploma. This is a big number, but correctly set goals always lead to excellent results.

Once I get my diploma, I will most likely continue my studies abroad. I am thinking of studying communicative design. Then I plan to return to Belarus. I want to create an independent media and give people the opportunity to do what they are passionate about, as well as create an atmosphere in which they will feel appreciated.

Interview by Yelena SPASYUK

Interview published in Russian by Naviny.by