At a summer house in Estonia. Photo: Gayanjalie Dissanayake
As a little girl, Gaya dreamt of meeting people from other countries and exploring foreign cultures. She exchanged postcards and letters with pen pals from all over the world. As a teenager, Gaya dreamt of going out of her home country, Sri Lanka, and travel the world. Eventually, she discovered her interest in the field of digital forensics and resolved to find a dream job, wherever that may have been. “It was quite hard to find a Digital Forensics master's degree in Sri Lanka or even abroad, so I was prepared to travel far away”, Gaya begins her story.
Estonia's tranquil bog landscape. Photo: Sven Zacek
Coming to Estonia
Six years ago, she started searching for a master’s degree in Digital Forensics. The list of possible destinations included Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. “One day, I found an MSc in Cyber Security with a major in Digital Forensics, a double-degree programme of TalTech and University of Tartu in Estonia. two highly ranked institutions. Finally, I have found a course content that matched all of my expectations”, Gaya recalls. “I didn’t know anything about Estonia back then, and I thought to myself: what’s next? How do I convince my parents that I am going to such a remote country? How do I get a visa? In the meantime, I applied, got selected with a full scholarship, and that’s how it all started!”
Gaya arrived in Tallinn four years ago. “I didn’t feel any culture shock, but it’s been quite challenging in the beginning: I am a vegetarian and very particular about the food I consume”, Gaya shares. After a brief adaptation, she came to enjoy Estonia’s relaxed lifestyle and beautiful nature, just a short drive away from the city. “Less population, less crowded… An ideal place for me to be, although it was the first time I traveled outside of Sri Lanka alone. At the very beginning of my life in Estonia, I even introduced myself as a person coming from an island, because I wasn’t sure if people would know Sri Lanka by the name. It turned out that many locals have actually been there!”
During two years of MSc in Cyber Security, students acquire core skills in wide aspects of information systems security and expertise in a chosen major: Cyber Security, Digital Forensics, or Cryptography. Students also receive unique guidance from high-level cybersecurity practitioners representing Estonian universities, industry, law enforcement, national computer emergency response team (CERT), as well as the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, located in Estonia. As for the admission, TalTech represents the admitting side, but students spend time in both universities, depending on their major.
TalTech library. Photo: Tallinn University of Technology
Apart from the general studies and compulsory core subjects, students choose from the list of optional courses, which give them freedom in deciding what they want to study. Collaborative group work fosters critical thinking and helps build practical skills. “It’s a combination of theory, assessments, and practice”, Gaya explains, “Which also means that one final exam doesn’t define your entire course grade”. Essentially, such a student-oriented approach, in addition to regular tests and assessments, allows students to go beyond memorization and be judged by their analytical abilities and individual talent. Finally, studying in an international environment adds another dimension to higher education. “We had about 20 nationalities in our class, which I have always been excited about: imagine exploring so many different cultures, traditions, and national foods!”, Gaya shares. “I am in touch with many of my classmates, even one year after graduation”.
Graduation day at TalTech. Photo: Gayanjalie Dissanayake
Working in the IT Sector
"I was curious about hacking ever since my childhood, and it later sparked my interest in digital evidence analysis". Before coming to Estonia, Gaya already had over five years of work experience. In her first year at TalTech, she decided to concentrate on education and keep the grades up: “Instead of looking for a job from the very beginning, my plan was to take some extra study credits and make the most out of my studies”. The job hunt began after the summer break, and within two weeks, Gaya received a call from her current employer, Arvato. “I started working there as a Cyber Security Engineer in my second year of master’s. It has been a hectic experience, studying and working full-time at once, but definitely more balanced than during my years of bachelor’s. Back then, I worked night shifts and attended university lectures later in the day”. Indeed, Estonian university schedules at the level of master's often enable students to work, earn their living, and develop professional experience.
Photo: Tran Mau Tri Tam via Unsplash
What’s it like, working in the IT sector? “It’s all about change and continuous learning”, Gaya explains. “If you pause for a couple of months or if you don’t follow any updates, you can be lost. Even after three months of a summer break in Sri Lanka, I felt like I was lagging behind concerning the news and updates in the field of Cyber Security. You have to be passionate about what you are doing and learn every day; otherwise, your work may turn into a stressful experience. Stay up-to-date on something that interests you the most. I follow the latest developments in different aspects of cybersecurity, for example. Learning is the best thing you can do for yourself”.
We ask Gaya if she intends to stay in Estonia. “It took me two years to find the course I was looking for”, she says. “I live in the present, and I don’t know where life takes me tomorrow. Right now, I am focusing on becoming a better professional and building my career. It’s not the most prestigious thing that counts; it’s about what’s right for you, what matches your dreams and interests the best. Whatever may come up tomorrow, I’ll go for it”.
On a bog hike. Photo: Gayanjalie Dissanayake
Studying in Estonia: Things to Know
“I highly recommend TalTech and the University of Tartu, especially if you prefer to be engaged in a practical approach towards learning”, Gaya contends. “There are also many opportunities apart from the coursework, but don’t get lost in them. Prioritize your interests and find what’s best for you. Do what you are passionate about, not what you are expected or obliged to do”. She also recommends learning some Estonian: although only a small share of IT employers require Estonian language proficiency, it will certainly increase your chances of finding a perfect job. “Besides, it’s always good to learn a foreign language, so I have already passed the A1 level of Estonian”.
"I have heard of cold temperatures in northern Europe, but my first winter in Estonia hit a record low of -26°C. In Sri Lanka, I would shiver from 15°C. It felt like a huge challenge being alone in a freezing country. Fortunately, a fellow Sri Lankan student had been there for me; I knew I wasn’t alone. You might not meet your future friends in a month or two, but it shouldn’t stop you from exploring the new world around you. Don’t be afraid of a culture shock; look at it as another learning opportunity. Create your own journey. If you miss your pets, Pets.ee helps fight homesickness and care for the animals that do not have a family yet. Finally, I believe that my family’s prayers, strength, and support kept me going, which I will always be thankful for”.
Text: Anastasiia Starchenko