TARTU - When Joshua Dean from the United States arrived in Tartu last year to take a Baltic studies course he had little expectations. Dean said he wanted to enjoy his time and learn a little bit about the language and culture. The original plan was to stay for six months.
"However, as I felt so at home in Estonia I extended my stay and signed up for the intensive language course. I found Tartu to be a great city to mix academic life with social life," says Dean, 25, now back in the States.
Dean remembers Tartu as a town with a youthful and amiable milieu, and the winters were not as harsh as he had been told they would be.
"Rarely did I feel unwelcome despite the often hostile opinions toward George Bush and the war in Iraq. The few negative experiences I had were more than countered with the positives," he said.
His experience is not uncommon.
Anders Kleberg, 24, came to Tartu from Sweden to study medicine. "I found the University of Tartu on the Internet by coincidence. I sent in an application, and it was accepted," he recalls.
Kleberg says he was ecstatic about how things turned out.
"A country so close to Sweden and yet with such different history," he comments. "It has exceeded all my expectations."
Indeed, if there is one town in the Baltics that attracts such a diverse range of people, it is Tartu - all thanks to the city's heralded university.
Ulle Tensing, head of the international student office of Tartu University, says the institution has 420 - 430 foreign students, among a student body of 17,500. The largest part is supplied by Erasmus, the European Union program for higher education that the university joined in 1999. Tartu also has 32 direct bilateral agreements with institutions of higher learning across the world and nationally sponsored student exchange programs.
Tensing says that most of the single-semester exchange students come from Germany, while the majority of degree-seekers are from Finland. Some students, however, come from as far away as India, China, Japan and Korea.
"The majority of the degree seekers come to study medicine. Philosophy and social sciences faculties are the second most popular," says Tensing.
Foreign students who study for the full term pay the same tuition as locals if the language of instruction is Estonian, while those who attend lectures in English must pay an extra fee.
The Erasmus students freely select courses to attend during their one-semester stay in Estonia, yet they have to gather 16 to 20 Estonian academic points, which equals 24 to 30 points in the European credit transfer system. In Tensing's words, that kind of workload can't be written off as "academic tourism."
For Finnish students, Tartu represents a chance for a degree that can't be obtained at home.
"I think one reason is that there's a significant demand for doctors in Finland. Not all the people who want to become doctors find a place in a Finnish university," says Tensing. "There's also a number of people who think they should earn their degree - bachelor's or master's - from a foreign university."
Though Finns do not pay for higher education at home, those studying in Estonia can receive financial aid from their government. Besides, the Finnish language is similar to Estonian.
Tensing says the Finns who got their degree in medical science from Tartu University have no problems with getting a job at home after passing a special qualification exam.
Indeed, the language factor plays the biggest role for most foreigners.
"The relatively low tuition fee does play a certain role, as well as the low cost of living in Estonia, yet it is the language that keeps many foreign students from coming," explains Tensing.
Starting in September the number of one-semester programs taught in English will increase from two to seven, while English-language MA programs will likely start in 2005. This, in Tensing's opinion, will increase the number of foreign students.
But for many foreigners, the Estonian education system is a welcome change.
"There was more time to decide which classes to take and less structure guiding your decisions," Dean recalls of Tartu University. "The ability to add classes from outside your assigned area of study was a welcome change of pace from my previous experiences."
Also, Estonians' attraction to IT technology does not go unnoticed.
"Lectures in Estonian seemed more dependant on PowerPoint presentations than in the United States, and many times I felt that the teacher seemed to be relying too heavily on these presentations," Dean says.
The most fascinating extracurricular activity Dean remembers was the improvised vessel race, a regular event at the annual student festival in Tartu.
"Our group won the prize for the most original boat. The whole process of putting together a boat with friends and 'racing' with all the other boats was incredible. There is nothing like this at my home university," he says.