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Interview with Visiting Faculty- 10



Dr. Ekaterina Selezneva is a young researcher from the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, Germany.  Our institute welcomed her as our visiting faculty from July to October, 2015.  Ekaterina’s research interests cover happiness economics, inequality and poverty studies, economics of gender, demography, migration, and labor economics, especially in the context of comparative studies.  Ekaterina is a cosmopolitan who communicates in six languages, and enjoys a vast network of people from around the world.  
Let’s hear some of her life stories she has kindly shared with us!  We hope you’ll enjoy her interview!    

My school days

Q: How did you spend your childhood days?
I was born in St. Petersburg, Leningrad in those days. I have very good memories from my childhood. I remember I was very excited and happy to be a pioneer. I was extremely proud to be born in the Soviet Union. As a child, I could not really understand how difficult the life actually was there in those times.
Q: What were your dreams as a child? What did you aspire to become?
Already before starting school, I was playing “school” at home. I had several dolls, and every doll had a notebook for every subject taught at my “school”, each meticulously prepared by me. I had a teacher’s diary as well. I interrogated the dolls and gave them homework to do. I did prepare the homework as if I was my own student, and then corrected them in a role of teacher. 
My teenage years coincided with the tumultuous period in Russia when the transition towards the market economy had begun. As a child in the Soviet Union, I was planning to become a komsomolets and later the communist party member. I hoped to work at university as my parents did. Future looked pretty planned and predictable. When the social and economic transition started, most people had mental difficulties to accept the reforms and growing uncertainty. The country I was born in was dissolved, and me as many others experienced a huge sense of loss. I used to be a part of the Soviet Union, the big and respected country. Then, at the beginning of the 1990s, I became a citizen of Russia, a country begging for international assistance and financial support. 
However, I was pretty young, so the most important thing for me at that point was not the political and economic situation in the country, but my school life. I should say, my parents were focused on my contentment with the learning process. They always said “You study not for getting grades, but for being more knowledgeable in your life. If you need help, just tell us”. My parents often suggested some extracurricular activities. I studied drawing and sculpturing for four years at an art-school. The school was one of several in St. Petersburg, located in a beautiful old wooden “dacha” in a park. It was three times per week, after the obligatory secondary school, from five in the afternoon until eight or even ten in the evening. 
When I was around 12, my father brought me to a programming course. This was something new not only for me but for the majority of ordinary people. Twice a week after school, I was learning how to program, while most people didn’t even know how to switch on a computer. It was amazing. I remember I wrote a piece of code over some weeks, and then, look, those little pixels are moving on the screen obeying my commands. It was giving a great boost to my creativity and self-confidence.
Another creative experience offered by the school I studied at was a theater group. I acted in several plays. Let’s say these were the first experiences of “speaking” in front of a big public. Good preparation for the future conference presentations! 
Q:  How well were you doing in school? 
I was pretty good. In Russian system, the grades vary from “one” to “five”. To get “one”, you should be really unprepared, a complete disaster, to make a teacher really angry. “Five” stays for being excellent. You can get grades when interrogated during a class. Usually you either just stand up and say the answer, or go to the board and write something. You can also get grades for your homework and, obviously, tests and exams. I finished school with a so-called “golden medal”, which means I mainly had “fives” for the tests, interrogations, and homework for the two last years of high-school. Studying well at school was not difficult but sometimes it felt like a psychological burdain. I remember once during the Russian literature class our teacher asked a question several people in a row, but no one knew the answer. I thought, “Oh my, I am unprepared as everyone else. Now she, as she usually does, ask me.” But the teacher continued, “As I don’t want the lesson to be a benefice of Ekaterina, I will not ask her for the answer this time. But beware, next time I interrogate everyone on this topic.” She expected me to be well prepared. That made me feel really ashamed, like betraying somebody’s trust.
We had very good teachers for chemistry, physics, and math. The math teacher believed that the normal school system was only stimulating us to prepare for exams and not to study properly with an interest. During her classes we were seated in groups of four, with one person being kind of responsible for the whole group. The latter meant that the other group members could ask for help - not just a copy of a solution, but a detailed explanation of unclear topic. The main idea was that the best way to learn is to explain to somebody else. In addition, pupils are generally prone to ask for help from the other children than from a teacher. This teacher also gave us a really huge amount of exercises, usually due one month later. One could have solved all the questions in the first evening and then to relax for the whole month, or to spread the work over time. Decision making, responsibility for ourselves, time management: she taught us not just math.      

My recipe for studying languages; learn first what is used most

Q: How many languages do you speak? How did you learn them?
At school I had German as the foreign language. Unfortunately, teachers were changing every half a year, so it was difficult to learn anything. Back in those times, languages were not among my favourite subjects. At the last year of high-school, I was lucky to enter a preparatory course for the department I was aiming at. We had mathematics, history and English. The latter course was so much different from what I had at school. Teacher treated us as friends, told us stories of his travels, and stimulated us to speak. The knowledge I got during that course, I could use it already in the first summer after finishing the high-school. That year, 273 pupils of St. Petersburg finished school with the golden medal, and each of us got a trip to Denmark as a prize from the local government. This was the first time in my life when I traveled outside the already former Soviet Union. During that week in Copenhagen, a stranger approached me and a friend in one of the museums. He asked us in English where we were coming from. At that moment I realized I could actually communicate in a foreign language. 
At the forth year of university, I took a non-obligatory French course. Out of 30 people on the list, only two or three were attending every lecture, making them, practically, a private course. Our teacher was young and motivated, we truly admired her. We rarely used textbooks. At the lessons we exchanged stories from our lives, all strictly in French. It felt like speaking to a friend and learning the language real people speak in their everyday life. I must say, these French classes really made me starve for studying a language. 
When I moved to Turin, Italy, for the Master in Economic program at CORIPE Piemonte the lectures were in English, but for any kind of informal life you really needed to speak Italian.  At the beginning it was mainly listening in order to get used to the sound of the language. Then I started sneaking into some grammar books looking for simple constructions that would help me to answer some simple questions. New people tend to ask similar questions, hence exposing you to the same vocabulary and grammar structures. I was checking a dictionary or a grammar book at home in order to know how to answer the next time I am asked a question. With time, the conversations started to be longer. I was expanding my knowledge by small pieces, words and constructions I was meeting in my life, not in artificial situations described in study books. By the end of my Ph.D program, that followed the Master, I was already speaking in advanced level of Italian, while having taken only one official course in advanced grammar for writing.
After defending my thesis, I moved to Germany. I had only the rudiments of the German language in my head. Unfortunately, it was also not so simple to make friends with the locals. I tried to find a TV program I would be able to follow. It was Germany’s Net Top model. Pauses for advertising were the best part, as the contents of the series were summarized and repeated several times. I was listening, checking the meaning of some words that were repeated often, and even checking on internet some parts of the episodes to understand the meaning better. This helped me a lot in studying German.
Currently, I can work in English, Russian and Italian, I can communicate and explain myself, in German, French and Spanish.
Q:  And how about your Japanese? 
I would be happy to speak Japanese. What I really like about the language is that it is so much different from what I am used to. This forces me to assume a position of looking at things in a different way, both grammatically and culturally. I believe we can understand a lot about local culture when we learn a language.  
Unfortunately, I could not enjoy the free classes, organized by a community center in Kunitachi. My visiting period here started at the very end of the semester, so I could attend the basic course only twice before the vacation started. I bought the textbooks, but studying like this is very boring because it does not relate directly to my life. Moreover, the beginner book has no kanjis, while everywhere in restaurants and shops you need to deal exactly with them. I use the kind of snow-ball effect for kanjis, and language constructions, I meet often. For example, on the train I see a kanji. I look it up on my mobile phone; it means “electricity”. Here a path of adventure starts. I look for this sign in phrases and combinations and try to translate them. So, later I have “telephone” and “train” in my collection alongside with “Do not use phone on the train!”. Yes, I cannot say I speak the language, but slowly my knowledge grows into the context and this is the type of knowledge that stays.
It might be difficult to study languages as adults. We want everything to be perfect, and as fast as possible. When it doesn’t work, we lose motivation. So, I prefer to play as a child when I learn languages. Small achievements every day keep me satisfied and stimulate to   study further.

Majoring economics for life



Q. Why did you decide to take economics as your major? 
When I was an adolescent, my interests were pretty broad spanning from arts to programming. I was lucky to have a conversation with a friend of my parents, who suggested to combine my interests towards mathematics, programming and social interactions. He told me about the “economic cybernetics, or mathematical methods in economics” department of the St. Petersburg State University.   
Q: When did you first think about becoming a researcher?  
At the end of my specialist studies (this is 5 years, old Russian standard which is higher than Bachelor but lower than Master), my diploma supervisor insisted that I should continue my studies. She also suggested me to enter the European University in St. Petersburg, the place with high academic standards and engaged students and professors. I think, when you are surrounded with people who are really interested in doing something, you catch this “virus” too. 

Hitotsubashi and I

Q: When did you first know about Hitotsubashi University?
It was in 2010, when the XI Bi-annual EACES Conference of the European Association for Comparative Economic Studies was held at the University of Tartu, Estonia. At a session where I presented, on demographic issues, also Professor Kazuhiro Kumo took part. We presented ourselves and exchanged several questions. Later at the conference dinner, we met again and introduced our colleagues to each other. I was very amazed to learn that he and his colleagues spoke Russian! It was a big surprise for me that Russian studies were so developed in Japan. Some time later, our institute in Germany invited Prof. Kumo to deliver a seminar on his research on Tadjik migration. It was a very interesting and informative talk, we kept discussing the topic at a dinner. A year later, in 2014, I came to Hitotsubashi for two weeks.  During this visit, an idea for a joint book - with Prof. Kumo and Dr. Tatiana Karabchuk - on Russian demography was born. So, we organized this three months visit of mine in 2015 to work closely together on the book.   
Q: Please share with us your expectations of your research during your stay here. 
As I said, my main goal is to work on the book “Demography of Russia: from past to future”. I also appreciate a lot the fact that I will be able to attend ICCEES IX World Congress in Makuhari where Tatiana Karabchuk and I will present our preliminary findings. I have already visited several seminars here at Hitotsubashi and had several talks to other researchers; local and international. I think, this university is a perfect place to work. The whole environment is very stimulating.  
Q: How and when did you first become interested in Japan? 
I can say, it was totally because of Kumo-san!  When I first arrived to Tokyo, Japan looked so different from any other country I visited before. I was just overwhelmed by all the new information around me, and was completely lost in translation. But Professor Kumo was a great host, he patiently gave answers to all my questions starting from restaurant menu entries to cultural habits. He was explaining all possible small things about Japanese daily life, and I was asking lots of questions, like a child. It helps a lot - for becoming interested in a topic or a country - to have such a kind and helpful guide!  

What I like and how I want to be in life

Q: What is the one thing that you appreciate in life?
Variety.  Variety of things that one can meet. If you pay enough attention to people and things around you, you can learn something new every day. If you pay a bit of attention, life is never boring.  
Q: What does talent mean to you, and how should it be further developed?
I think, being talented in something that means to enjoy an activity when you try it, and then progressing with joy. This doesn’t mean that talented people do not need to work. But for me, talent is always closely linked to enjoyment of doing something, to that feeling of not noticing how fast the time flies when you do something you are talented in.
Q: Have you any experiences in giving up half way? 
Yes, it was handball. I started playing it together with some friends at school, but even though attending multiple weekly trainings with friends, I cannot say I was looking forward to play. After one and a half years, I stopped playing.
Q: Is there anything you wish to accomplish in your lifetime? 
I do not want to estimate life success in a number of books written or a position in a society. What I want is to continue studying new things, and to encourage people to learn something new, to become enthusiastic and passionate about something. Sometimes you can change the life of a person by just opening his/her eyes about something they are good at, as my supervisor once did for me.   

My life as a Researcher

Q: Kindly share briefly about your current research.
My research interests are organized around people’s lives and experiences, such as behaviour and social norms, gender differences the outcomes. I am interested in labour market studies, demography and migration, poverty and inequality studies, and people’s well-being.  
Q: What would be your lifetime researching theme, do you think?
I think I will stick to the gender studies; maybe I will drift closer to the sustainable development and human rights topics.  

“You need to have small victories all the time”

Q: How do you keep up your motivation to continue your research when facing big challenges?
First, you need small victories, concentrate on them. When I see a kanji which I can read, even though I do not know the others around, it is my small victory. Second, stop thinking what other people might think of you, think how to transform your story into a story of success, and yes, track your success! Imagine, you have never run before. If I suggest you to run for one minute, you can tell me that one minute is nothing. If your neighbours see you they might think you are stupid. Well, tell yourself you are doing interval training; hence you run a bit, one minute, then you walk, let’s say for 5 miutes, then run again even for 10 seconds. If someone is looking at you and you feel embarrassed, say to yourself “I am not walking, I am doing interval training”. Write down what you have achieved. Another day you will run for two minutes. And if you think of it in mathematical terms, this is a 100 percent increase! Then two weeks later, you run for 7 minutes. You will open your note from the first training and wow…. be proud of yourself, you managed to achieve a 600 percent increase! This approach works for many life spheres.


Q:  Any other suggestions in keeping up your motivation? 
Try to criticize yourself less and ask for help if you are stuck. I went the whole way from the first station to the summit of Mt. Fuji with a friend. We enjoyed the trekking so much, but at some point, at 3,300 meters high, I could barely breath. It was just too much for my body, my bag, the altitude, sore muscles. I started to ask myself “Why did I take on this project at the first place? Why did I do it? Who forced me to come here? I’m dying, I want to give up!” And then my friend said, “This altitude is totally okay for me, do you want me to carry your bag?”  I think each of us should realize that if you are ready to receive help, there will always be someone who is ready to support you. Sometimes, you need a person who can carry your heavy backpack, from 3,300 to 3,700 meters of altitude. Sometimes, you need a tutor, to tell you that you are actually stuck, for example because you have a mistake in a formula you are struggling with. And moreover, sometimes you need a more experienced person to tell you that you are not stuck because you think you are not good enough yet, but in fact you have achieved the goal already!  
Q: Please write one word, in English or any other language, to encouraging young researchers in Hitotsubashi University in the same field. 
Okay, in one word, I’d say, “PLAY!”  Many adult people think playing is too childish. For me, playing means being curious about the world around you. Take the same old road, but play to be a tourist. Then you might notice a beautiful building you always rushed by but never seen before. When doing research, be curious about other fields of studies; you might get new ideas. Be like a child! Children can make toys and play out of nothing; it is all about trying to look at your everyday environment from a new point of view.
We sincerely would like to thank Dr. Ekaterina Selezneva for spending a lot of her time with us to share all her ideas and thoughts of how to enjoy life. During her stay here, she has been very active and communicative with the faculties and staff, sharing many of her good advices which comes from her own experiences. She has made everybody who had the opportunity to interact with her happy immediately, and we were always inspired by her point of view in life. We wish her and her family all the happiness and success in life, now and forever more.
Interviewed on Thursday, September 3, 2015, by CEI staff, Akiko Ito and Cindy R. Suzuki.