Beyond The States
Affordable, English-Taught Degrees in Estonia

In this episode, Jenn interviews Crystal LaGrone about her experience attending the Master’s program in e-Governance Technologies at Tallinn University of Technology in Tallinn, Estonia. Crystal’s tuition and living expenses were quite reasonable, especially since this program was exactly what she wanted to study.

Podcast Transcript –

Intro: You’re listening to the Beyond the States podcast with Jenn Viemont. Did you know that you can go to Europe and get your entire degree taught in English for less than one year of tuition at many American schools? Jenn will take you on a deep dive into the many benefits and options around English-taught higher education in Europe, helping to make the possibility less foreign.

Jenn Viemont: Thanks for joining me for episode four of the Beyond the States podcast. I’m Jenn Viemont, the Founder of Beyond the States. And one of the things I love about my work is learning about an experience in countries that I either had no knowledge about, or misinformation about before. Today, we’re going to talk about the benefits of studying and some of these less known off the beaten path countries, namely Estonia. So some of our members opt to have me complete a best fit program list for them. I’ve mentioned these before. In other episodes, it’s another part of the work I really love. The student fills out a questionnaire I developed that tells me about their interests, their qualifications, their preferences, their desired field of study, and things like that. And then I develop a list of a handful of programs I think they should check out. One of the questions I ask is whether there are any countries they know they’d like to study in, or they know they’d like to avoid. Not once have I seen Estonia listed as either desired country or a country to avoid. It’s one of those countries we’re really not aware of. I myself could not have placed it on a map before doing my work with Beyond the States. As I learn more about it, as I was researching schools I knew I had to visit, I had a trip plan to visit schools in Scandinavia in November of 2015. And I was able to easily tack a day trip onto my time in Helsinki, which is just a two hour ferry ride away. So why did I feel like Estonia might be a hidden gem for international students? Let me start by telling you what I didn’t know about it. I knew that it was a small country, the entire population of the country is a sixth of the size of the population of New York City. And I knew that they were under Soviet rule until 1991. I don’t know what I expected based on that. But I was totally surprised when I learned that they’re one of the most tech savvy countries in the world. They’re actually called the next Silicon Valley. So they’re an E society, which our guests will explain more about in just a bit. But they also have the world record for the number of startups per person, they have the world’s fastest broadband speed and get this there is free Wifi everywhere. They teach all the kids to code in school, Internet access is seen as a human right. And actually, the software made for Skype was made in Estonia or developed in Estonia. I guess it’s what you call it for software, if not the most tech savvy person in the world. So probably due to the Soviet occupation. I thought of it as more of a Eastern European country, though certainly geography had a bit to do with that. But it turns out they’re actually considered Northern European. So as many of you know, I really love Northern Europe, I heard the term of scanned Amenia, which may apply. But boy, it’s expensive there. We were just in Bergen. We were in Norway over the summer. And I was blown away at how expensive just living costs are in Estonia, on the other hand, is incredibly affordable, but with many of the same features as the other Nordic countries, including really high English proficiency. So all of the schools with English conducted masters or bachelors programs are either in Tallinn or Tartu. There are a total of six schools that offer a total of 74 English conducted programs. These programs started just under $2,000 per year, and almost all of them are under $7,200 per year. Tallinn University of Technology is one of the schools I visited two years ago. 

Our guest today, Crystal LaGrone, recently graduated from Tallinn University of Technology with a master’s degree from the egovernance technologies and services program. Thanks for joining us, Crystal.

Crystal LaGrone: Glad to be here.

Jenn Viemont: So can you tell me about how you decided to pursue your education in Tallinn?

Crystal LaGrone: Well, it’s sort of a funny story I had, I was a non-traditional student, I went back to school. After many years of staying home with my kids. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma State University in 2011. And just after that, one of my friends from church came up to me and she said, Hey, I know you finally graduated. So you don’t have the excuse of school. Would you mind going to this country for to do a mission trip and I said, Okay, where do you want me to go? And she said, Estonia. I said, Okay, wow, where’s that? Exactly? Right. So I we arrived in Tallinn and that first day, I was just taken aback by the beauty of the city, because it’s sort of this mix of old old world and new modern. And meeting people and talking to them. I discovered that they had this great e government infrastructure. And they had Internet voting. And Internet voting was a hot topic for me. I back home and Oklahoma, I worked on political campaigns. And I was really adamant about people getting registered to vote. I’m one of those people variance. And so I thought, wow, Internet voting, here’s this tiny country, former Soviet country and look what they’ve done. They’ve created this wonderful solution to help people vote. And we don’t have that. Well, a couple of years later, this program started, and I stumbled across it. And I said, that’s the one. It would position me well teach me what I need to know and how to implement a services and do e government better in the US. That’s really cool.

Jenn Viemont: It’s cool that you found this program to pursue a passion. I’ve seen a program in Italy that I feel similarly about called Italian food and wine, I think I think I’d be a natural. But um, so most people have no idea what Estonia is like. And you know, you don’t see it on the travel shows, you don’t see a lot of books about it at the bookstore, though I did see an old House Hunters International episode about it. But for those of us who haven’t seen our listeners who have not seen this specific episode of House Hunters, can you describe Estonia a little bit to us?

Crystal LaGrone: So first off, when I told my family I was going to study in Estonia, they said is that in upstate New York, and it’s a little further to the east, right? So Estonia is nestled just south of Finland. If you can, if you can visualize what Finland and Sweden and Norway sticking there. And you see Finland sticking down and just south of there is a Estonia. It’s a part of the Baltic countries, though, as I was talking with a friend of mine, the Baltics are grouped together very often everybody says, oh, it’s the Baltic states. That’s true. But each of them are so different. Estonia is very, so you have this medieval feel, and when you’re walking through old town, and then you go to some of the tech centers that are positioned around the city. And so you get this very modern feel. And then sometimes when I’m writing one of the trams, that goes through the city center, I think 50 years ago, I wouldn’t have been here because they didn’t let Americans come here very often. And so you kind of take him back in time a little bit sometimes. But Estonia has a lot of lovely forests. It’s very, it’s very natural. They love nature. And it’s a wonderful sort of mix of old world and then this sort of new Nordic feel.

Jenn Viemont: That really struck me when I was there too. And just with the architecture, you know, just medieval buildings with a huge you know, modern class building directly behind it. And even just little quirky things. I was walking through old town and saw a Depeche Mode bar. Some of our listeners are probably younger and aren’t familiar with Depeche Mode, but they were pretty big in the 80s. And at a bar devoted to Depeche Mode that Depeche Mode has visited, it was just not something I expected to see it and just kind of made me laugh a little bit. It was pretty cool. I like quirky a lot. And I definitely had this this kind of like, a fun feel from it. Not uptight.

Crystal LaGrone: Yeah. Well, just imagine, imagine the time period if you can’t, if you take a take a step back a little bit, Depeche Mode, and actually all 80s music is really popular here. 80s and 90s music because they they gain their independence and 91. Right. And they were getting little tidbits of Radio Free Europe at the in the 80s when glasnost and perestroika came in, right? So they were starting to get some of this western music. So that is like their classic music. You know, that’s the classic rock music.

Jenn Viemont: Well, that’s awesome. Then I need to go there. That’s mine too.

Crystal LaGrone: And so, I appreciate.

Jenn Viemont: So tell me, being from the south, how do you cope with winters in Estonia?

Crystal LaGrone: Winters are hard. I was speaking today with the girl from Turkey. Because remember, this is a very international program here. You get a lot of international students and Turkey they also have a lot of sun like we do back home. So wintertime is challenging. In about starting, when I’m starting now through mainly October, November, the dark, the dark times come in. And when I say dark times, it means the sun doesn’t come up till almost 9am. And then it goes down around 430 in the in the afternoon. And so this is it’s sort of a shock to your body. In Oklahoma, we get, on average about 300 days of sun a year. So during November and December, it’s tough not having the sunlight. The cold, you can manage. Estonians will tell you there’s never cold weather, it’s just bad planning. More and more close.

Jenn Viemont: You know, I was struck by that I was there in November. And I thought it was going to be much colder than it was it really wasn’t. But in Estonia and throughout Scandinavia, the lack of Sun was was very jarring. But you know, I grew up in Chicago, where winters were brutal. And I love Chicago, and I miss it every day. And one of the things that prevents me from moving there full time, you know, permanently our winters. But if someone offered me the opportunity to live there for three years, I absolutely would in a heartbeat. I feel like you know, as a student, you’re there for three years with your bachelor’s, or you’re there for two years with your masters. So you’re not committing to dealing with hardware winners for the rest of your life. You know, we’re talking about like, taking a cool opportunity, you know, stock up on your vitamin D, bring a sunlamp if you want to, I don’t think it should be a deal breaker.

Crystal LaGrone: Absolutely not. And they study and Sir great about helping non Estonians cope with those times of year, they’ll encourage you to eat more salmon, absolutely take vitamin D, visit the sauna. And there’s a lot of indoor pools. So getting an opportunity to swim as well. All of these you know getting exercise and moving when you can all this helps helps with the with the dark, the dark days during the winter. But we always remember once we get into into January, and we’ve now turned the corner, we get our white knights back again. So there’s one night a year it’s on Yanni five, and we get almost 24 hours of sun. So yeah. So in in the spring, the sun’s coming up around 4am. And it goes down around 1130. Wow. Yeah, so that’s your bonus.

Jenn Viemont: So tell me this, I’m not the most technologically advanced person in the world. And as a matter of fact, when we spoke before, you used a phrase that I loved cyber hygiene. And I really wish I had more opportunities to incorporate it into my daily life. But I don’t talk about technology a lot, because I don’t know a lot about technology. So I’m hoping that you can explain to our listeners, Estonia’s technology, particularly around what it means to be an E society.

Crystal LaGrone: So Estonia had during this Soviet occupation there, they had a specific sort of interest here. There was a lot of technology that was coming here, this was sort of the tech hub of the Soviet Union. And, and when the Soviets left, the people remain. So you still had that competency. Here, you still had the people and the work that they were doing. So they began to build on that. And again, also, when the Soviets left, they had a clean slate, they got you know, they were recreating their government, they were enacting new laws, and they were able to implement things. And so they decided to implement these technological solutions to help citizens. This, their study was also telling you because they’re only a country of 1.3 million, they can’t have a UN Office in every small village. So they had to come up with a solution to get basic governmental services to people who are in the rural areas as well. So they created what they call the Estonian X road. And not to get too technical. But what this is, is it’s just a distributed network of of databases. So for instance, if you have to go to a government office, in the US, you would go to the office, and you would have to fill out all the forms, you know, name, address, and all this, then you if you needed if they sent you to another office, you would have to duplicate that information, you would have to write it all down again, here in Estonia, all of that information is shared, which means you have easy access to services. So they implemented an ID card that has the chip, we have these chips and our credit cards now in the US. And the chip allows the citizens to log in securely and they know that they’re there Automation is safe. I can’t always say that about the US government that might always say. So they log in, they can do almost everything online, there’s a few things you cannot do online in Estonia, you can’t get married online, you can’t get divorced online, and you can’t sell property. But you kind of can sell property, because actually, you have to go to a notary and show intent, I’m meaning to sell my property. But once that connection is made, all the all the documents go electronically, they’re signed digitally. And it happens in about two weeks in. 

Jenn Viemont: And so, I think of how that could change our lives here. For instance, my husband, Tom, just lost his wallet yesterday. And so you know, of course, the process of getting his driver’s license replaced calling every credit card company calling our bank, you know, all of that consumed hours this morning. Yeah. Or even just little things like the last time I was at a doctor, they asked me when the last time I had a tetanus shot was, I have no idea. And you know, there was no central way to look that up. Just how incredible. One of the things I think that’s interesting about the technology in Estonia is how many educational opportunities there are around technology. So can you tell me about your educational experience that you had in Estonia? My,

Crystal LaGrone: So I, of course, because I was passionate about E government and E government services and Internet voting, specifically, coming to Estonia was, I knew that I was I was studying in the right place. So for me, I could come here, the country’s young, the people that design the technology are still here, they’re still around, you can still talk to them. And that was an important part of my educational experience, especially at the masters level, because you sometimes you need real, you need some historical perspective on how things happened. And so it was, it was so amazing to be able to actually speak to the people that are actually creating and implementing the solutions that we get to use every day. So that was one of the big, important things for me was, you know, getting getting education from very high class, published authors. And they worked hard to bring these people to Estonia, to share to share their knowledge, this system is a little bit different. The class system. So you know, in traditional US universities, you have a class that goes Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday, right? Right. Well, so sometimes I would have classes that were in week, five, of, you know, 16, or whatever. And that was only it was only that that week, and then we would have five lectures. And then from there, you know, you had to kind of schedule all of your other classes around that. So it all it all gelled in the end. But so learning the class structure is a little bit different. And then some of the some things that I enjoy about studying in Estonia specifically, were the schools just like schools in the US, we have traditions, Song traditions, or places that they traveled together. These are, it makes you feel like home. Right? It was just overall, it was a great experience.

Jenn Viemont: So you’re talking about traditions. And that brings me to sort of my next question, which is, when I met with an administrator in Tallinn, for a good 30 to 45 minutes of our meeting, I didn’t think she liked me. And then, you know, after 3045 minutes, things were warming up and I’m like, oh, you know, awesome. She doesn’t think I’m an idiot or whatever. But she did tell me that Estonians are more reserved, and sometimes with the students with international students, that kind of reservation is misinterpreted and misjudged as grouchiness. And then the student ends up learning that no, the professor is not grouchy, unless, of course, I showed up late she told me Punctuality is also crucial for Estonia. But how does that sort of cultural difference of being, you know, I live in the south to and I know, when I go home to Chicago, even there is a little bit of a culture shock of like, here, you know, you way that everybody even if you don’t know them, you’re in the South and in Chicago, you know, you kind of go along your own way. And so how does that play out for you in your everyday life?

Crystal LaGrone: Well, I had a great, one of my really good friends from school, my studying friends who studied in the US for a little while. She had this great analogy, and she said that Estonians are like a coconut. You know, they have this sort of rough, hard exterior, but once you get in, you see that it’s sweet and soft. doughnuts, you know, they’re very warm and giving and loving. Americans are more like a peach. So we’re soft on the outside, and we’re friendly and squishy. But then there’s still something in the middle that we keep to ourselves. And so that little hard pit, right. So I love this analogy, because really, I feel that Estonians overall are extremely giving. And they’re very generous, and they’re very open hearted. But you do have to get past that initial sort of reserved, sure, conservative type, a type, Outlook, but this hasn’t been a problem for me again, in the university bubble. Because you’re around a lot of international students, you’re around a lot of students. And I think even Estonian students are inside the university are typically very open. So I didn’t have a problem. Still. Yeah, they’re pretty grumpy on the bus in the morning. Sure, but I think everyone’s grumpy on the bus in the morning.

Jenn Viemont: Well, you shouldn’t be that brings me to my next question, because tell me how much your bus fare is? 

Crystal LaGrone: Well, as a resident of the city of Tallinn, public transportation is actually free.

Jenn Viemont: Isn’t that crazy? And that I mean, that’s a real benefit of Estonia I talk about is this affordability. You know, so many I just said in the introduction before we got on the call, about how it has so many of the same benefits as the Nordic countries, but that it’s so much more affordable. I actually, this might offend any vegetarians who are listening. But whenever I go to visit schools, I you know, I bring my kids back something and my son is 16. So he doesn’t really care about T shirts and stuff like that. But when he heard that I was going to, to Scandinavia, he said he wanted me to bring him we had read about like candy bear can bear meat. And so when I was in Helsinki, I was looking at Canberra, me and I’m not going to spend this much money on on a souvenir form is crazy. And the students who I met in Helsinki said, Oh, wait till you’re in Tallinn and buy it there. It’s much cheaper. I guess a lot of people from Finland go to Estonia to buy their alcohol to is just tremendously less expensive. So I was able to find there in Tallinn, and then my son and his friends, you know, high school lunch, were able to eat canned strange meat. But anyway. So do affordability. Can you tell me, for instance, what tuition is for the program that you went to?

Crystal LaGrone: So the benefit of when you’re looking at the programs here in Estonia, it’s some of the programs actually have scholarships and free tuition. So for so many students still waive tuition, which is really wonderful. And but if you do have to pay, I think tuition runs around 3000 euros, which converted, that’s probably about $3,500 a year. So can you imagine?

Jenn Viemont: I mean, that’s significantly less than you would pay for in state tuition.

Crystal LaGrone: Absolutely. And so this is, this was one benefit also after your first semester, because as an international student, you don’t have a history of academic academic history here and here in Estonia, so you can’t get the scholarships the first semester because they have nothing to pull from. However, once once you have an academic record, and you’ve performed well, you’ve you’ve gotten the amount of credits they’ve required and and you’ve maintained solid GPA, you can you can then apply for scholarships. So for me personally, I was under the tuition waiver program, so I didn’t have any tuition. And then as my second semester began, I applied for this scholarship. And so I was able to get scholarship to help with living expenses. So which are also quite reasonable.

Jenn Viemont: How much does housing cost on average, if a student were coming to Estonia and wanted to share an apartment with another student, for instance, what should they expect to pay?

Crystal LaGrone: Yeah, so an off campus apartment you can get for anywhere I would say from 320 euros a month, plus utilities. So you with that? The dorms, there are dorms available at the Italian University of Technology, and you can apply to be in the in the dorms, and they’re quite reasonable. I’m not quite sure what the price is on the dorms. I lived off campus. I lived right across the street from the University, which was right across the street from Skype.

Jenn Viemont: Uh huh. Very cool. So tell me about how much you paid for books when you were a student?

Crystal LaGrone: Yeah, we didn’t, we didn’t pay for books. Because our professors believed that if they are going to give you something that you need to read, they’re going to supply that for you. So we got PDFs of the required reading. And, and there’s a library if you need a book. But generally, we didn’t have to buy books.

Jenn Viemont: This is pretty common in Europe. And it’s so different, I think it really speaks to the difference in the educational approach of how it’s not being treated like big business. When you hear at a local university, there was just a big thing because Barnes and Noble was buying the university bookstore. And, and I was reading that $600, on average, is what Americans pay for books each semester each semester. So it’s another $1,200 a year, which is like half of tuition at Tallinn University of Technology.

Crystal LaGrone: Exactly. I can’t I can’t imagine, I think students would probably revolt if they were told that they had to buy books.

Jenn Viemont: Well, and interesting, you talk about students revolting, until just recently, Finland was a country that offer free tuition to all international students, they recently changed that. But as they were changing that even Finnish students were protesting saying, you know, versus starts with international students. And then are they going to start charging us tuition, as well. And so people do see that? How sort of the bigger picture of things, which is interesting.

Crystal LaGrone: Well, it may be partly because there has been more news coming out in regards to these kids coming out of universities in the United States with mounds of student loan debt, and what do they do? So I think, and that’s been internationally in the international press. So I think I think that yeah, that that could really scare some people in this sphere here.

Jenn Viemont: Absolutely. So you’re now working in Estonia does Does this mean you speak Estonian?

Crystal LaGrone: Oh, I wish I spoke to Estonia. So I do know some some common phrases, of course, and in pleasantries, so I can not be rude to people. However, Estonia makes me really lazy. Just about everyone here speaks English, if you’re over 10. And under 65, most likely, you have some proficiency in English. So they start learning English in the first or second grade. Now, they also learned computer coding in the first and second grade here. Wow. They’re really, they’re really trying to set the kids up to be ahead of the pack. 

Jenn Viemont: And I had read that all students learn coding, and I didn’t realize it started that young, I guess I just sort of assumed, you know, there’s some mandatory high school class that they have to take, I didn’t realize this is like, integrated into their education like that. 

Crystal LaGrone: Yeah, they learned it in elementary school. And it’s simple. It’s simple circuits and connections, but it helps build build their proficiency. Because they know that that technology is a good driver for their economy. And they know that they need to be producing kids with these competencies coming out of high school coming out of college. And so this is a nationwide effort to try to improve that competency.

Jenn Viemont: That’s really cool. So are there any other specific benefits to studying in Estonia that we haven’t touched on today?

Crystal LaGrone: Well, I think I think you can definitely get a world class education, you get a new experience of living in a foreign country. It’s very accessible. It’s also a good lesson in history, and learning about different cultures and how wonderfully deeply rooted the culture is here. As we have we spoken previously in the US is such a multicultural state. And so coming to Estonia and seeing the traditional costumes hearing the traditional songs and seeing the pride and you know, the tears and in the standings eyes when they sing their national anthem. It’s really powerful. And I think that that’s that’s a big part of getting that full experience when you’re studying abroad.

Jenn Viemont: That’s really cool. And Crystal you you recommended a movie to me and I put it on my I believe it was on my Amazon watch list or my iTunes watch list. I have not watched it yet but absolutely plan to to Tell me the name of it so that we can so our listeners can hear about this too.

Crystal LaGrone: It’s called the singing revolution.

Jenn Viemont: And how many times have you seen it, Crystal?

Crystal LaGrone: About 17 times, after we talked last time, and I recommended it to you, I watched it again. So maybe 18. Now, it’s a wonderful, it’s a wonderful story. And you get to hear a lot of the traditional Estonian songs. So you get to hear some of these great vowel sounds that I’m learning, because we don’t have these vowel sounds in English. And it’s really powerful.

Jenn Viemont: And my understanding is that it really it talks about the history of Estonia. And when I think about learning about the history of a country, I’m gonna own it, I think it’s gonna be so boring. But when we think about it, this is really recent history, you know, as you were saying, with, with the people you’re able to talk to about the technology, you know, that’s history. And that’s very recent. So it’s just interest. It’s so interesting to me to learn about these places that we really don’t learn about here in the States.

Crystal LaGrone: No, and actually, in the movie, you’ll see clips of American news reporters covering the sort of collapse of the Soviet Union, and they were talking about the Baltic states. And this was in the 19. You know, this was in the, you know, 1990 1991. And I was just blown away that I didn’t, I wasn’t paying attention. We didn’t see this. And you remember one thing, it was really interesting, they had this event here, where they held hands and made a human chain from Tallinn, through Latvia and down to venues in Lithuania. And I was this happened in 1989. This was sort of this hands across the Baltic that I was thinking of hands across Hands Across America happened in 1986. So I don’t know if they heard about it, and or if the if, if it just sort of happened organically. But there were sort of in that sort of was a connection for me. I was like, I was a part of that. I remember that. And you see people in the film saying, we were part of something great. Right. And, and but yeah, the one thing about the movie, it does talk a lot about the history of, of how the occupation sort of happened back and forth during the during World War Two, and then it moves forward. But it’s quite compelling. And, again, because this is not, you know, long ago, you see people on the movie that are still around today. And as a matter of fact, one of the people in the movie, he came into one of to my office, and I got to meet him. And I emailed him later, and I let him know that it was such an honor to meet him because I had seen the movie and and I understood what courage it took for him to do what he did during that time.

Jenn Viemont: Well see, you just messed up my weekend, I was gonna watch the big sick, which just came out on rental. And now I think I’m gonna have to modify that. Chris, I really appreciate you being here and telling us all about a Estonia today and the benefits of being an international student in Estonia. We’re gonna have links on our show notes to the movie, and also to the programs at Towson University, and such and thanks so much for joining us.

Crystal LaGrone: It’s been my pleasure.

Jenn Viemont: Today’s takeaway is that a country can offer incredible educational opportunities, even if you’ve never heard of it. And even if it’s not a popular tourist destination, in addition to Estonia, there are other lesser known countries that are worth exploring. This November, for instance, I’m heading to check out schools in Bulgaria. I think that might be a future hotspot for international students. And I’ll keep you posted on that. You can find information about other schools I visited on our website beyond the under blogs and also under our webinars. You can also find all the show notes on our website on the podcast page, or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If you enjoy the podcast, I’d love if you’d rate it on iTunes. Thanks for joining me.