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As the 70th anniversary year of Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) draws to a close, the International Student Department is starting to celebrate its 30th year. As this anniversary can unfortunately not be celebrated as widely had been hoped, or with an exhibition at the RSU History Museum due to the ongoing epidemiological restrictions in Latvia, we will instead publish two interviews with medical students from this department. To compare student life then and now we will speak with alumni Houssam Abou Merhi from Lebanon, and current student Hoshika Sivapalan from Sri Lanka.

hosika_sivapalena00.jpgHošika RSU Medicīnas izglītības tehnoloģiju centrā ķirurģijas nodarbības laikā. Foto no privātā arhīva

‘Sri Lanka is a small island in the Indian Ocean and there are not many of us in Latvia. There are, however, quite a lot medical students from Sri Lanka at RSU,’ Hoshika says at the beginning of the interview.

The previous interview in this series was with alumni Houssam Abou Merhi, who is now a well-known gastroenterologist and politician in Latvia. He studied at RSU from 1993 to 1999. Read both interviews and see how different student life was then and now!
International Student Department 30th Anniversary: Houssam Abou Merhi is Becoming More and More Latvian

Do you remember when and where you first heard about RSU?

I met Māris Ginters [now the Head of the International Admissions Office – ed.] who had come to Sri Lanka to speak about the university. At that time, I really wanted to study in Europe. I liked the idea of getting experience outside Asia, traveling from country to country.

I considered several options and universities, but the idea of studying at RSU appealed to me. Māris was able to explain the advantages of his university, the experience that students could get there, and what the international environment was like.

I like Riga and the kind people here. I appreciate that I can study, that there is a lot to see and many opportunities for fun here. At the same time, it’s not too much so as to distract me from my studies. I feel I have a good balance between studying and relaxing.

What were your first impressions of Latvia, Riga and the university?

I must admit that I was surprised that I have found that there is a lot in common with Sri Lanka here. I have also been to other countries in Europe like the Czech Republic and Switzerland and these countries weren’t as similar to Sri Lanka because of the architecture and because the cities are larger.

As soon as I landed in Riga, something made me feel like home. It was as green here as it is in my country and the distances in the city are short. I didn’t get the claustrophobic feeling that you can sometimes feel in overpopulated places. Here, I feel like I have more personal space. 

Speaking of the university, I like that the RSU main building is modern and comfortably furnished. At the Anatomicum, on the other hand, you can feel its important history. The modern and history is in a good balance at RSU.

Do you feel as good here in the winter too?

(Laughs.) Yes, it’s a bit harder in winter. We don’t get a lot snow and cold weather in Sri Lanka. At first, I couldn't even imagine wearing heavy clothing, looking for warm jackets, having to be careful on slippery roads, and so on.

But actually, I see the positive sides too – I like snowmen and that everything is so white all around. 

The only thing that is not very pleasant in the winter are the dark mornings and evenings. It's tough to get up at six-thirty in the morning for an eight o’clock lecture, but otherwise everything else is great.

How are you doing with your studies at RSU? Which lecturers inspire you?

I really liked microbiology that was taught by Asst. Prof. Aigars Reinis in the third semester. He was very friendly, and he always found ways to motivate us, even with humour. He is very knowledgeable in his field. Besides that, me and one of my fellow students went to the opera together with Asst. Prof. Reinis! He encouraged us to get to know the local culture. These are moments that I’ll remember fondly.

hosika_sivapalena10.jpgAsst. Prof. Aigars Reinis (in the centre) with international students at the Latvian National Opera and Ballet

I would also like to mention the anatomy teacher Assoc. Prof. Dzintra Kažoka. She's very inspirational. Even if something seemed very complicated, she would find simple ways in which to explain things. 

You can also study medicine in Sri Lanka, but histology as a subject is not separate from anatomy. Histology seems very exciting to me.

I have kept my histology notes, so that they remind me of how we had to get up early on Saturdays and Sundays to go to the Anatomicum with my group members. We were there studying at eight o’clock already looking through study materials, presentations etc.

hosika_sivapalena03.jpgIn the Anatomicum. Hoshika Sivapalan (third from the right). Photo from private archive

You can sign up in advance to study at the Anatomicum also on weekends. I will always remember this time with pleasure, because I liked to draw samples. Actually, I like to draw in general. 

I think that my histology teacher, Asst. Prof. Anna Junga, also really likes her subject. I could feel it by the way she was teaching us. She was always excited and encouraging, which made the subject easy to learn.

I could go on and mention more teachers who are both real professionals in their fields and just overall nice and responsive people who are always ready to help.

For example, in my first colloquium, I got a nine as my first grade, but then got a seven for my second. Together with the teacher, we always analysed our mistakes, which helped us understand better.

Have you already chosen what you want to specialise in?

Yes, you can tell from my Facebook activities that I’m interested in cardiology. I have joined RSU Cardiology Academic Society together with one of my group mates. We both really got into this subject after taking the cardiology course in the sixth semester. Of course, this happened because of our cardiology teachers, especially because of Asst. Prof. Larisa Umnova.  Those classes were quite practical, and

I admire how patiently and thoroughly our teachers worked with us.

Are you also involved in any extracurricular activities, such as the International Student Association (ISA)?

I've been a volunteer at several events organised by the ISA.

Medical studies are serious and take much time, but socialising and being involved in extracurricular activities gives you a different kind of experience.

For example, we just finished working on the Breaking Barriers event. This is an interactive event for Latvian and international students that will help us get to know each other. There were both international and local students in our work group. In everyday life, we don’t communicate that much with one another, but events like this gives us an opportunity to meet and get to know others too. I am now also a project coordinator for MedTalk 2021.

I was also involved in organising the RSU International Student Conference last year. The conference was held online for the first time in its history due to pandemic. I was assigned to lead the Neurology Section. 

You’ve been in Latvia for four years. Have you learned any Latvian?

I would like to say that my Latvian isn’t that bad, but I still have to practice.

I use a lot of medical terminology in my daily classes as well as outside them. It’s easy to pick up phrases that we use in public places like on public transport, in shops, etc. I find that it’s easier to understand Latvian if someone speaks slowly. I still find it quite difficult to speak fluently on my own. We had compulsory Latvian language classes in the third semester. After that, Latvian was as an elective course. There was also an option to choose Russian as an elective course, which I tried out. And to be honest, it wasn't that bad at all!

hosika_sivapalena09.jpgHoshika Sivapalan (centre) at the RSU Medical Education Technology Centre. Photo from private archive

How do you spend your free time?

I spend time with my peers and we often go hiking. This is very popular in Sri Lanka too. There are many opportunities for going into nature in Latvia. We’ve visited Ķemeri, Kuldīga, walked along the seashore, and I’ve seen many other places in Latvia. We’re always looking for new nature trails. It’s especially nice in summer. I couldn’t go back home last summer because of COVID-19, so I stayed in Latvia.

I like to participate in activities that are meant to bring people together. For example, our fellow students from Germany organised a ‘90s party. This was before the pandemic, of course.

Do you have Latvian friends?

Yes, and quite a lot! One of them is Lāsma Ludborža. We got to know each other working together as volunteers on some projects organised by the RSU Student Union. Lāsma helps me get to know Latvia and Latvians.

In Sri Lanka, everyone smiles and is happy to start a conversation with you even if you don’t know the person. Latvians are more reserved. However, once you get to know one another, they become more open and friendly.

For example, when I need help and ask someone in English on the street, people always try to help, even if they don’t speak English at all. 

What is your everyday life in Riga like?

First I lived in a dormitory, but then I decided to find an apartment and live on my own. I've learned to make one big meal a week, then freeze it in portions. My parents always did that at home. 

Speaking about food, there are of course differences between Latvia and Sri Lanka.

The biggest difference seems to be that Latvians eat a lot of potatoes unlike Sri Lanka where we mostly eat rice.

Otherwise, I think it's the same – the same fruits and other products are available in both countries. Of course, there are products that can only be bought in special shops.

What Latvian foods do you like?

I really love “riekstiņi”, the cookies filled with condensed milk. I also like white chocolate with crunchy strawberries. I hadn't eaten chocolate like this before in Sri Lanka. 

hosika_sivapalena07.jpgHoshika (centre) celebrating Midsummer. Photo from private archive

I tried cold beet soup for the first time at the RSU canteen. It was a pleasant surprise! I don’t eat a lot of potatoes, but sometimes I like to eat potato salad with sour cream.