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We have been in touch with Arkādijs Zvaigzne twice, in February and in May, and it seems like an entire era has passed between the two conversations. He returned to Riga from the East Coast of the United States shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic and obtained a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania online. Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) was the first higher education institution Arkādijs attended. Now that he has three diplomas, we spoke to the young man about the importance of choosing one’s alma mater, Latvia’s higher education in a global context and our students’ strong voice.  

Having started with economics and business studies and worked actively in Latvian student organisations, Arkādijs realised over time that his real calling was higher education research – an area that has not been researched much in Latvia. He will start his doctoral studies at Harvard University in August, but until then he is very active about sharing his knowledge: he has carried out a study on the state’s contribution to Latvian higher education institutions and how international students are attracted. He has also participated as an expert in the subcommittee on higher education and innovation of the Saeima’s Education, Culture and Science Committee.

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Latvian secondary school students are currently choosing their higher education institutions and study programmes. Tell me, how did you decide in favour of RSU?

I studied in the International Baccalaureate programme at Riga State Gymnasium No. 1. The studies were mainly conducted in English and the diploma I received is internationally recognised. My initial idea was to study abroad. I was also admitted to a university in the UK, but then I figured out that studying and living there for four years would cost about £50,000, and I started to consider whether taking such a big loan would be worth it.

I realised that a bachelor’s degree in Latvia can be a great launching pad. As one of the subjects I studied in depth in high school was economics, I started studying at the RSU Faculty of European Studies in the European Economics and Business programme*.

What do you remember best when looking back on the time when you were studying for your bachelor’s degree?

Writing countless summaries! This is well known to all RSU social science students, of course. (Laughs) They were exhausting, but they taught me how to extract the essence from almost any amount of information. It is a skill that is useful anywhere.

Also, the extracurricular life, which is very vital at RSU. Looking back, I would say that RSU not only has good study programmes, but a wider ecosystem that has allowed me to improve and develop as a human being. While studying in the first year, I was just figuring things out, in the second year I got involved in the RSU Student Union, where I was the head of the foreign affairs department for two years and a council member of the Faculty of European Studies. My task was to look for development and improvement opportunities.  In the final year of my bachelor’s studies, I was elected to represent the RSU Student Union in the Student Union of Latvia, where I gained a lot of experience that I can now share.

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Together with his peers at the Student Union of Latvia. Arkādijs has been elected a senior member this year. Photo: Student Union of Latvia archives.

Is this where you realised that you were interested in higher education as such?

It all started in the RSU Student Union, but the realisation that finance and business management would not be the fields in which I wanted to develop my career came at the end of my master’s studies. If there was a doctoral study programme dedicated to higher education in Latvia, I would have studied there, but we only have a doctoral study programme in pedagogy, which is understandable, because there is simply not the critical mass for such a niche programme in Latvia that would be just about higher education.

And the closest place where you found such a programme was in the US?

Yes! (Laughs) I had planned to start my doctoral studies in the US immediately after obtaining a master’s degree in Riga, but unfortunately I was not admitted to the programmes I was aiming for.

However, the University of Pennsylvania wrote that I looked like a good candidate and invited me to a programme where I would be able to get a master’s degree in higher education. Although the programme was designed to take two years, I chose to work hard and completed it in one year. It was a valuable experience to work as a research assistant at the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania at the same time. The University of Pennsylvania is one of the so-called Ivy League schools, which is a group of the eight most prestigious universities on the East Coast and has become an internationally recognised category.

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This spring in Philadelphia. Photo: private archives.

What did the Latvian education system look like to you from the East Coast of the US?

How can I put it… (Laughs) It is definitely not as black as it is painted. Of course we have our problems, but at the same time we need to appreciate that we have come a long way. Currently, when entering “higher education in Latvia” into a search engine, the results you get are about corruption, a lack of funding, or poor quality. This is not good for attracting talent and international experts. Any political statement that Latvian higher education is worthless looks very unattractive from the outside and kills any desire to do research in Latvia. It seems to me that this is what is largely lacking in Latvia – a more in-depth assessment followed by more science-based higher education policy. 

Of course, I could not refrain from joining a student organisation in the US and I became a member of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, which is a union for master’s and doctoral students. From my experience I could ascertain that on average, Latvian student unions are stronger than in the US, and they are listened to more. Our students have 20% of the votes and veto rights in decision-making at the university. Meanwhile, the master’s and doctoral student union of the University of Pennsylvania, while well-financed (with an annual budget of about $2 million) is mostly involved in organising grant awarding conferences. Even if a dispute arises between a lecturer and a student, student organisations do not really have any influence. In Latvia, students’ voices are definitely stronger.

In February, you received the good news that you had been admitted to the oldest academic institution in the United States, Harvard University, and you will be starting your doctoral studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) in August. Tell us a little about this. 

Yes, due to COVID-19, it seems that the first semester of doctoral studies will be held online, but it does not diminish my excitement about enrolling in Harvard and my next five years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is an opportunity that I could once only dream about. When I received the email from the admissions committee, I gave it to three people to read before I finally believed what it said.

The doctoral study programme will start in the second half of August. I will be studying for the first two years, but then my doctoral studies will start in the Latvian sense of the word where I will partly be a lecturer, and partly a researcher. On average, the path to a doctoral degree in the US takes four years, but in Harvard it takes five to six years. I described the experience I got as a board member of both the Student Union of Latvia and the Higher Education Council in my application. I mentioned my experience in writing proposals to improve the higher education funding model in Latvia, as well as helping students at the Latvian Business College, whose alma mater lost the status of a state-accredited higher education institution in 2017. The fact that the college lost its accreditation means that our higher education system is able to “self-clean”.

This experience was interesting to the HGSE admissions committee, and I got invited back for an interview. There are so many talented people applying for Harvard that virtually anyone could be admitted, and what is important is whether their research interests coincide with those of the heads of a particular year’s doctoral study programme. I was interviewed by the Director of the doctoral study programme and a Professor with whom I could potentially share research interests. He asked me the following in the interview: ‘I see you come from a small country. Tell me, what could Americans, who are very happy with their education system, learn from Latvia?’ I was confused and realised that we do not often think in such categories in Latvia – what are the great things that we have? I introduced the interviewers to the Latvian higher education funding model, and I said that Americans might be interested in looking at something like that as an alternative. The US has no understanding of the concept of a “state-funded study place” in the sense that the state first gives money to a university that “passes it” on to a student.

What do you plan to study during your doctoral studies?

There are several areas of research in the field of higher education of which two are currently most interesting to me. One is funding, which is a topic close to me, so I will work on this during my doctoral studies focusing on researching the “supply” side of higher education. The second topic I am interested in is recruitment, more specifically, how universities’ marketing strategies can be influenced to attract students from low-income families. This topic is very common among US researchers, as many see higher education as a substitute for social guarantees.

I recently completed a publication on Latvia’s contribution to higher education during the economic crisis and the proportion of international students together with co-author Berta Bartoli, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. I am very glad that we managed to draw in Manuel Gonzales Canche, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, as our mentor. He said: ‘Okay, Latvia sounds interesting, let's study it!’ We will soon send the result to scientific journals for evaluation and, hopefully, publication.

Which lecturers stand out to you?

From RSU it is Eugene Eteris – with his international experience, he is the most memorable lecturer for me. He supervised my bachelor’s thesis. A good lecturer gives you something more than a specific topic or study course.

In the US, I also had the opportunity to learn from fantastic lecturers, such as Professor Joni Finney, Head of the Institute for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her professional focus is on funding and access to higher education. Professor Manuel González Canché was not only my lecturer, but also a mentor whom I could go to at any time. His story is quite impressive – he went from being a low-income college student who was the first in his family to obtain a higher education to becoming a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the US.

Are you interested in becoming a lecturer yourself?

I see myself as a researcher. I am a real geek, I am interested in higher education research – I want to explore all aspects and, hopefully, to offer the most balanced solutions. I went abroad to gain experience and knowledge that I can use to help developing Latvian higher education. That’s why I used COVID-19 as an opportunity to be at home and contribute. 

* Currently, the programme has been expanded and is called International Business and Sustainable Economy.

Arkādijs Zvaigzne - CV

  • 2013–2017 RSU Bachelor’s study programme European Economics and Business
  • 2017–2019 RTU Riga Business School, Master’s in Management of Companies and Organisations
  • 2019–2020 University of Pennsylvania, Master’s of Educational Sciences in Higher Education
  • Since 2020, a doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education