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Dr. Cindy Heaster studied Medicine at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) between 2003 and 2009. Although originally from Australia, she found her way to Riga via Vilnius, and has chosen to stay in Latvia with her husband and children who were born here. We met at the first International Students Alumni Reunion organised by the RSU International Student Association (ISA) on 16 November 2019 where Dr. Heaster was invited as a guest of honour to reminisce and share her experience. In this interview we talk about her studies, the importance of learning Latvian, and how much the international student community at RSU has changed in the past 17 years.

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Cindy Heaster (second from the left) with her graduating class in 2009.

What brought you to RSU?

I met my husband in Australia when I was studying physiotherapy at the University of Sydney. We met at church, and after several months I came to visit him in Vilnius where he was living at the time. We got married the following year and spent a lot of time traveling. I learned Russian during this time.

After a while I decided to get back into medicine, so I started looking for places where I could study. That year there wasn’t anything on offer in Kaunas, or in Vilnius, so we started looking in Russia. For most of the universities in and around Moscow, you had to learn Russian for a year first, and then study in Russian. You could study in English at one of them and I nearly went there, but we thought we’d give it a bit of time. During that time we came to Riga to visit some people here. In a conversation with one of our friends they mentioned that you could study medicine in English here at RSU, so we came and had a look. I was really impressed and spoke to Dr. Smuidra Žermanos, the Dean of the International Student Department, and that was it! She was very helpful regarding advice about what areas of Riga to live in, for example. I’m really grateful to her for helping us get started in the beginning.

Remember that the internet wasn’t as developed back in 2003 as it is now, so my decision to come to RSU was based on a personal recommendation!

How did you decide to switch to medicine from physiotherapy?

That again was Dr. Žermanos’ suggestion. She told me, ‘You could study physiotherapy here, but you’d be the only person in your course. It will be quite difficult and you won’t have any course mates, besides you have many more options if you study medicine. It would open up a lot more areas to you.’ Which, of course, is right, so I’m really glad for her wise advice. It was actually always my dream to study medicine and be a family doctor, but I didn’t know how I would manage the whole six years and combine it with family life afterwards. I thought physiotherapy would be easier to combine with having a family, but I’m really glad that I went for it.

You and your husband have not lived in your home countries for many years now – is it difficult, and do you discuss returning?

I hope to go back to Australia one day when my parents are elderly and need me, but at the moment they are still fairly young and fit, and while they don’t need us too much we are happy here in Latvia. We feel at home here. My husband has his work here running a church, and we’ve got a soup kitchen that we run with the church. So he’s got his mission, and I’m really enjoying my studies here. And the kids are settled in school.

How many languages do your children speak?

My daughter speaks English and Latvian, but she understands a lot of Russian. My boys mainly speak English and Latvian.

How was learning Latvian for you?

Dace Žibala was my Latvian teacher and my first class at the university was Latvian class! I realised that if I was going to live here for at least six years it was important for me to learn Latvian, and Dace always made our lessons interesting and relevant. I think it’s important for all medical students to learn Latvian. If you don’t invest in a language, it means that your communication skills can’t be as good later on, because you’re not getting the practice you need with patients. I wish that more students would make that commitment. Learning Latvian also helps integrate into society too, of course.

How important is learning Latvian to their education?

Very. If they don’t learn Latvian it means that when they get back to their country they’ll have very good theoretical knowledge, but their practical skills won’t be as good as they could be if they had invested in the language to start with. The way they teach Latvian here is amazing!

I was also active at church and that gave me a chance to practice. I think it’s important to get out into the community – join a choir, join a local church, get out into the community, meet some people! Meet some old Latvian ladies who don’t speak English, and get out and find out what Latvia is. Don’t just stay in your hostel and spend all your time in your books. Go out and find out what a great country it is.

How long did it take before you felt comfortable seeing a patient?

Probably by the time I got to third year. I could have a conversation in Latvian after about two years, and then by the time we got to patients in third year I felt ready.

What was your overall experience studying, and how does it compare with other universities you have experience with?

Things have changed a lot from when I started. The studies are more problem-based, which is good because it makes studying more effective. When I was studying there was a lot of memorisation, which is necessary, because there’s a lot you need to know and is still an important part of learning medicine. I think it’s the same worldwide, though. The quality of education here is world class – it’s not in any way inferior to other universities and I think it shows if you look at where RSU graduates end up. They can end up anywhere they want to! Anywhere they’re willing to put in the effort to end up, that is. From the students I studied with one is a leading gastroenterologist in Israel, another of my course mates is working in Sri Lanka, which is where she wanted to go, and there are some other guys in Ireland and all over the world. The graduates show the quality of the course.

The resources we have for our education are as good as resources anywhere else, so if someone is determined to study, if they are focused then I think they can get as good a quality education here as anywhere else. It’s important for students to think about their communication skills, about how to get to see as many patients as they can, and to get as much contact with patients as possible for their practical skills.

How has the international community changed since you started studying at RSU?

When I graduated there were only twelve of us.

I came back from after my break from having kids in 2018, so I’d been out of medicine for 9 years to be with my three children, and I was really amazed at the changes that had happened at RSU! At how many more international students there were and at how much more active the students were at organising themselves. The support was just amazing. I was also glad to see mixed groups, because when I studied I really wanted to be in a Latvian group to improve my Latvia, but I was told that if I was in a Latvian group I would have to sit my exams in Latvian, and that made me a bit scared, but I think it’s great that Latvians and international students can mix now.

What did the international community look like when you were at RSU?

Sri Lankans were the largest group of international students when I was studying, and there were multiple Sri Lankan nights, which was fun. We’d get dressed up in sarees – they always had a spare one to lend me, so I had fun dressing up and eating spicy food, which I learned to love. I feel like I’ve been to Sri Lanka even though I never have. I hope I will get there one day.

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The Sri Lankan students I studied with – Bodhini, Kirithika, Fizna, and Sharmila – were such a great support to me when I was studying, especially in my last year when I was pregnant (I graduated seven months pregnant with my first daughter), and they were so amazing and I really just wanted to identify with them and show respect for their culture, so I decided to wear a saree for my graduation.

What have you been doing since 2018?

In 2018 I started my residency in family medicine here at RSU and I’m really enjoying it. The first year and a half consists of different cycles where we get a taste of all the different specialities. Starting in February this year I’ll be here at RSU and doing my training in family medicine, so I’ll just be here as a family doctor trainee.

Do you have any specific teachers that stand out from your time here?

Anatomy will always stick in my memory, because we had Associate Professor Dzintra Kažoka teaching us, and I think she was the best anatomy teacher of all time! She really cared about us, and was interested in us, and at the time I felt like it might be because we were a small number of international students, but now I can see that it wasn’t. She’s still like that with her students even now! She’s just such a lovely, caring person. She really made us feel at home.

Also Professor Regīna Kleina in anatomical pathology. She was also like a motherly figure for our group and she really encouraged us. We had lots of great professors and teachers, many of them local experts in their field – there are too many good ones to name them all.

Do you have any advice for a student studying here, or someone who’s browsing the website and considering applying?

Go for it! If medicine is your calling, if you want to be a doctor, if you think this is the right thing for you personally, not something that your parents or someone from the outside is pressuring you into doing, but if this is what you are sure is right for you, come to RSU and the world is at your feet.

What advice do you have for someone who’s never been to Latvia?

Make sure you’re ready for winter and dress properly! Get some boots and a proper jacket for winter! There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.