Photo: Rahul Puniani
Rahul Puniani, originally from India, has graduated from the University of Tartu with a Master's degree in Innovation and Technology Management. Today, a Business Analyst at Finnair, he shares his experience of living and studying in Estonia. This is the first part of the Alumni Success Stories series, created in collaboration with the Estonian tech news platform Geenius.ee. The Estonian version of this article has been published here.
— So, you were a mechanical engineering student in India. Of all places, you decided to come to Estonia. How exactly did you find Tartu University?
— Well, while doing my Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, I went on a year-long exchange to Germany and got a chance to travel around Europe. At that point, I already knew what Estonia was: a technological and startup hub of Europe. Back then, still into design, 3D printing and scanning, I have landed a job offer in Germany, which, however, didn’t go through due to bureaucratic complications. So, a little disappointed, I took a gap year to reinvent myself, the field of my interest. While searching for high-profile universities, I came across a perfect course at the University of Tartu: Innovation and Technology Management. I like to discover all sorts of things and, at a certain point, considered studying analytics. At the University of Tartu, it was a mix of computing and management courses that starts with the basics, anyone could apply even without having a relevant background. We have all come from different fields and eventually reached the same level.
— How did you find the course? Did you just randomly visit Estonia, while in Germany?
— I did visit Estonia, but started searching for a Master's degree later. Got accepted in Austria and Hungary, but ended up placing Estonia at the top of my list. The university was the best among all, the oldest here. Tartu is a student town; I wanted to be in a small place, such as this one. When I got accepted in Estonia, I didn’t think I would stay here forever. But eventually, the university's course and the student life in Tartu have bought me completely.
— So, how much about Estonia did you know before moving here to study, before you have been accepted?
— Well, I knew that the whole country was a forest (laughs). The Estonian language, the same family with Finnish, entirely different from any other known language. I have checked Estonian websites, everything was online, all the information about the university and the country itself. In this sense, coming and living here is equally easy. Even in Germany I didn’t have as much freedom to do things online as I do here.
— Was there a culture shock at first?
— India was quite loud before, until I came here to discover silence and peace. So, that’s a bit of a shock. Then again, in India, everyone has different facial expressions, you read people. Although it's harder to do the same in Estonia, I had no communication issues in here. I have lived in Europe before, one year in Germany has helped. People in here are generally nice.
— So, what exactly did you study?
— As I have mentioned before, my program, Innovation and Technology Management, had an interdisciplinary focus, not exclusively data science. It has courses from both Innovation Management and Business Analytics. So, there were five courses dedicated to business analysis, and then the other part was management courses. There’s so much to learn in this area.
— When you think of Innovation Technology, what’s the big thing in your field?
— Data science. I have enjoyed taking courses from different faculties, such as Data Science, which makes me a business analyst and a data analyst at the same time.
— In your opinion, what was different in your student life comparing to India?
— In India, I was studying in my hometown, so at the end of the day, I was with my family. Here, it's a different feeling, when you get to be much more independent. It’s a blessing and a curse! You have to manage your own things. On the positive side, there are fewer students in Estonian classes, which allows you to have a direct contact with the professors. Also, the power gap tends to be quite low. I mean, in cultures like Indian, you cannot have a conversation with a senior without proper appointments, whether I am talking about a professor or a teacher. Here, I could always approach anyone easily. Besides, I did some projects for the university staff, such as the Head of the Academic Office and the International Marketing department. It was quite nice!
— I’ve heard there’s a lot of competition on the academic level in India. Is it less stressful here in that sense?
— It’s less stressful here. In India, everyone tends to go for the one thing, and ten people end up doing the same. In Estonia, people seem to be more independent in their minds and the field they want to do, their interests in life. Even at the university, I studied with students of all academic backgrounds, like marketing or international relations. Being an engineer myself, I like this openness, the diversity of ideas.
— And there’s a lot less people for the same spots in Estonia. Okay, so it’s calm, there’s a good weather. What do you like about Tartu?
— It’s an amazing city! Everything is in a walking distance, you feel the student vibe everywhere, every week something’s happening, like a city festival, for example. Volunteering for such events always makes me feel included.
— Estonians are said to be very closed and cold people. Do you think that’s true?
— It’s a complicated question and answer. Not everyone’s the same. People might seem cold, because they’re not used to us, foreigners. While Asian cultures are quite close-knitted, it’s much more individualistic here, one needs more space. In India, for example, there’s no such thing as space. But once you get to know somebody, you never sense any coldness. Estonian friends of mine are always amazing to talk to, to hang out with. You can never know if you don’t talk to people. Estonians are sometimes afraid to be open. They have to take the first step by themselves, and it turns out to be fine.
— This is a bit of a personal question. I know that Indians have a very, as you have said, close-knitted families. Your family, how accepting it was of your traveling for several years?
— They’re still not used to it, because in India, we live for our family, and the family lives for us. Speaking of the priorities, it's your family that comes first. However, while being here, I have found a good self-development opportunity, which was okay with them. They want me to grow, academically as well, they are happy that I am here. I will invite them to visit me sometime.
— Is there anything you miss a lot at home? What you miss the most?
— My family! Food… I like to cook at home, and that's something I still can’t really perfect myself at. But even in Tartu, a city so small, there are good Indian restaurants. So mostly, I miss my family, everything else I have here. Estonia has everything.
— How do you like Estonian national foods?
— I am a vegetarian! But I haven’t had any problems buying or ordering vegetarian options in here.
— What do you think about Estonia and e-Estonia, as in our technological advancement, compared to other countries you have been to?
— Well, from my travel experience, it's not breaking news that there's a lot of bureaucracy in Germany. Here, I was amazed by the speed the Estonian government works with. My Estonian ID card is connected to all social and administrative services, with the privacy being well-protected at the same time. Just an example: in Germany, it took me at least two or three weeks to get an appointment to register my residency. Here, I have uploaded my residence and contact information online, and after 15 minutes, I was already able to use transport in Tallinn, while living there. Estonia might be a small state, but it's a pioneer in e-governance and online solutions.
— Speaking of transport. Germany still uses paper tickets, from what I recall, while in Berlin.
— Yes, they do. Here, I am not used to it, I haven’t had cash for two years, ever since I am here, only cards. Even one card is sufficient, because your ID number is connected to everything: your debit card works as a money card, a transport card, etc. It makes everything easier for the city dwellers.
— You work at Finnair. How did you find your way there?
— Well, my journey had started back at Swedbank, at the Business Intelligence Academy, in the course of a three-month internship in Tallinn. I was quite happy with the experience of working in Estonia, Swedbank has offered me a job. Yet since I wanted to study for one more semester before my thesis, I went back to the university. So, that was it, until I have discovered the Finnair office in Tartu; we did a collaboration project with them during the course. That's how I have become a business analyst for them and I am happy to be back.
Photo: Rahul Puniani
— Was there a question of language skills or they didn’t require you to speak Estonian?
— No, neither Swedbank, nor Finnair. At Swedbank, I was astonished to be working in an English-speaking environment, although my colleagues were mostly Estonian. Here, at Finnair, more than 90% are Estonians as well, but English remains to be our working language, I have never faced any communication problems in here.
— It’s crazy though that most people in Estonia speak English.
— It’s a pleasant surprise be able to speak English in Estonia practically anywhere, with anyone. Back in some other European countries, people appear less open if you don’t speak their language. In Germany, it’s hard to live without the German language. Of course, I have learned German as well, but at the same time, if you want to volunteer somewhere, they would expect you to speak at least a B1 German. Here, I have never had such problems.
— Okay, that’s quite surprising. How well do you speak Estonian? You have learned it for two semesters!
— Eesti, natuuke! About A1-A2… It’s not the easiest language to learn, but it gets much better with practice, I like to learn languages. Sometimes I listen to Estonian music, often I understand some of the lyrics! I am quite slow in Estonian, but it takes processing.
— What exactly do you do day-to-day, if it can be explained simply?
— Although some of it is confidential, as a business analyst, I analyze data and use business intelligence tools to assist my stakeholders with the process of decision making. I have the responsibility of a quite specific area, the ticket distribution.
— So you intend to stay here and work?
— For now, yes. Usually, I don’t plan too much, that has been my life for the past few years. I just go with what I like. But for now, I am really happy with Estonia, Tartu, and the company, Finnair. I’ll stay here for several years, let’s see what happens then!
— Have you already recommended Estonia to any of your acquaintances?
— Yes! I share everything, at least on my Facebook feed. People don’t know much about Estonia and they’re happy to explore what’s e-Estonia and how it’s number one in digital solutions. My friends have already visited me here, they’re always quite impressed.
— Do you read Estonian news?
— Yes! I like that EER (Eesti Rahvusringhääling), Estonia's national news agency, has an English portal as well, I do follow them. For me as an expat, it’s not simply about living here, but also being part of society, knowing what’s going on here. Not only I pay the taxes, but I am interested in giving back to Estonia, volunteering, organizing events, helping in any way. I am very happy to be here and I would promote it to other people as well.
— What would you say was the best thing that has happened to you in Estonia? Do you have any fond memories?
— I am part of the ESN (Erasmus Student Network); before, I was an International Student Ambassador at the university. Also, it’s always a nice thing when I start speaking in Estonian, which Estonian people are not used to… But they’re happy when I try! I have taken two semesters of Estonian and I am happy to give back to the Estonian culture by learning your language, so… That’s a good thing. By the way, once, I have found a dictionary at the back of my Estonian textbook with my name in it, Rahul. Wait, what?! Turns out, it means “satisfied”!
— So, by introducing myself, olen Rahul, I am saying: I am Rahul and I am happy here!
Text: Joonas Alliksaar, Anastasiia Starchenko