Friday, October 12, 2007

Studying at TSMU

Tbilisi State Medical University’s main campus is located on Vaja-Pshavela Avenue in the Saburtalo district of Tbilisi, a couple miles west of downtown. The campus itself is quite small, consisting of only 3 large white buildings which, together with the street, enclose the “grounds” (nothing more than a few trees and benches). The university is divided into several departments of instruction: the faculties of medicine (by far the largest), dentistry, public health, and various graduate programs in the sciences. All in all, the university enrolls approximately 5,000 students.

TSMU is considered to be a prestigious medical university within Georgia, and during the Soviet era, was considered to be only second to Moscow. Georgian students who wish to enroll at TSMU must perform spectacularly on the National Exams. For international students such as myself, however, the only requirement is $2,000 and a transcript—and approval by the Minister of Education, a feat which I’ve found to be terribly frustrating as I and many of my classmates still haven’t been “approved.”

Medical education in Georgia is a six-year process as opposed to our four. In Georgia, students go straight to medical school after graduating from high school—there is no college intermediate. So in reality, the first two years at TSMU closely resemble a pre-med program (i.e., theory classes such as chemistry, physics, biology, etc…) at a US college. Since I’m halfway through my own pre-med college education, I am already quite familiar with most of the material being taught. But that’s ok, because I’m here to learn Georgian and experience Georgia—not to get my medical education from Georgia. Why, then, am I a student at TSMU? For three reasons: 1) it’s a cheap way to learn Georgian (the $2,000 includes Georgian language classes) 2) as I am a pre-med student who has taken a leave of absence from the University of Chicago, I won’t be rusty when I return and 3) this is a unique opportunity to be an international student and meet other students from around the world in a setting where I’m also an outsider.

For those who might be wondering how I and the rest of the international student population manage to study medicine in Georgian, a language one wouldn’t learn unless in Georgia, the instruction for international students (and a handful of Georgian students with aspirations to leave Georgia for further medical studies or residency) is in English. Because of this, we international students are effectively isolated from the Georgian students. And within our own little world, we are further isolated into groups: each group, usually consisting of 10 students, takes all the same classes together. Only during lectures do all groups mingle. In a way, it is nice to be in groups because I know that our group will become very close-knit.

Overwhelmingly, my first-year classmates (totaling around 40 students) come from one of two countries: either India or Turkey. It makes sense that there would be a sizeable portion of students coming from neighboring Turkey, but as for the Indians, the only rationale I have for their coming in such large numbers is that Georgia is the closest “European” (technically, it’s in Asia) country to India. There is one Thai, and technically speaking, a German and another American, but they don’t count—they were both born in Georgia and speak fluent Georgian. I’m the only first-year student born west of Turkey.

I did get a chance to meet three upperclassmen from Trinidad and Tobago, but as far as I know, I’m the only true American at the university, a fact that’s always begs the question: “So, why in the world would you ever come to TSMU?” Before they jump to the conclusion that I must be some failure who couldn’t get accepted at an American institution, I explain that I’m here for Georgia, not for medicine. Which of course leads to the next question: “Why would you ever want to come to Georgia in the first place? And why of all things would you want to learn Georgian!?” I try my best to explain that I like Georgia for its people and culture, but more often than not I still see “he’s crazy” in their eyes.

In return, I like to ask my colleagues the very same question of why they are at TSMU. The majority of responses go like this: “I didn’t do well enough on the national exams back in Turkey/India to study at a Turkish/Indian school, but if I study well for two or three years here in Tbilisi, I can go back home and complete my education there.” As one of my Turkish group-mates put it to me during a particularly boring Physics class, “Four questions. If I hadn’t missed four questions [on the national exam], I would be in Turkey right now.” The same story goes for Sopho, the Georgian-German student; as for Nick, the Georgian-American who graduated from an American high school, he hopes to get ahead of the game by graduating from medical school and entering a US residency program two years before his American counterparts. No one, it seems, intends to stay at TSMU for the full six years; even Nick plans to transfer to a private institution in Tbilisi (Aieti) which has a better track record of putting its students into US residency programs.

There are eight other students in my group: six Turks (Merve, Irmak, Serhat, Ertan, Muhammet, and Saliha—these are approximations of spellings at best!), Sopho, the pseudo-German, and one Indian student whose name I have yet to learn. My group is relatively diverse: the other groups tend to be made up of entirely one ethnic group (i.e. Turkish or Indian) or the other. Perhaps it would have been better if the university mixed things up a bit, but they are practical considerations to be taken into account. Not the least of which is language barriers. While the university requires all international students to be proficient in English, it does not require TOEFL, for example, as a means of assessing such proficiency, and as I’ve discovered within my own group, many of the students struggle with English. By having groups of Turks or Indians (I’ve noticed that the Indians tend to be more proficient), chances are that one of them knows English well enough to translate for his or her group-mates. In addition, it is difficult for a Turkish student to understand an Indian student and vice versa because of their respective accents. I have found myself playing the role of translator, too: some of our professors have thick Georgian accents, intelligible to me, but utterly unintelligible to my classmates.

Lectures are a cacophony of not only thick Georgian accents and the Turkish/Indian accented translations, but also of general classroom disruption. I was shocked to find how disrespectful my classmates were when they talked in not-so-hushed tones about who-knows-what (i.e. because it was in Turkish or Hindi), but even more surprising was the fact that the professors did nothing about it other than to occasionally ask the class to be a little quieter (one exception is my History of Medicine Professor—he is quite strict and made it clear during the first class that he is the only one allowed to speak). Another annoying habit is the tendency of the Indian students to shout out what they thought the next words of the professor were going to be. My first physics lecture was a chorus between the slow voice of the professor and the sharp voice of one particularly confident Indian (he did make the mistake, after the professor wrote Force=m*a on the chalk board, of shouting out “Force equals mass times area”). And then there is the Turkish girl, knowing little English, who, upon hearing an English word she recognizes, parrots it, as if doing so will help her better understand the lecture.

As a first-year student, I’m taking Anatomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History of Medicine, Georgian Language, Latin Language, and will soon be taking Russian (the University requires a foreign language other than Georgian). Both anatomy and physics are entirely new subjects for me, and luckily, I consider my anatomy and physics classes to be the best taught. Manana (and no, her name doesn’t rhyme with banana), my anatomy instructor (she doesn’t lecture; rather, she has the more time-consuming job of teaching the individual groups) has a straightforward way of teaching anatomy which I appreciate. Right now, we’re learning the skeletal system and Manana teaches it by explaining all the parts of whichever bone we might be studying, gives us 5 minutes to memorize it, and then expects us to be capable of repeating what she had just told us. She begins every class by putting each of us on the spot and asking about material from day one.

Everyday I’m made aware of how poor the university and its students are compared to what I’ve experienced in the US. Graffiti-ed walls and broken desks aside, I was first struck by the absence of textbooks. Because of prices that make even US students groan, professors don’t expect their students to buy textbooks; instead, everyone makes copies of the precious few textbooks in the library—if they’re even there. The university has a dedicated copying office that is constantly busy copying thousands of pages each day. Computers, of course, are quite rare, but I was surprised to discover that virtually no one owned a scientific calculator. At the University of Chicago, chemistry required that you own a scientific calculator to calculate logarithms and perform other functions; yet at yesterday’s chemistry lecture, the professor pulled out her logarithm table and wrote on the chalk board those logarithmic calculations were we expected to know—even more surprising was the chorus of Indian voices following the moving chalk.


Anonymous said...

Amazing, I'm having so much fun reading your blog. I spend 2 years as an exchange student in US, I might still had asked you the same question, what on the earth made you think to study here, but I won't now:)
It whould be interesting to meet you, I just graduated from Aieti med school.

Ryan Erickson said...

Sure, it would be interesting to meet you. Send me an email at rugbyxm @

Anonymous said...

Darling you make the university sound really horrible, but I suppose having come from "America" it is third world to you. Not all the Indian and Turkish students are there because they failed their national exams, some like you wanted to experience a new culture. As for your professors my sympathies, we had much better teachers with stricted requirements. The foreign sector does not comprise Indians and Turks, there are many Mauritians, more than three Trinidad and Tobagonians, Jpanese, Swede, Italians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Shri Lankans, and people we can't tag. There are also foreigners in Georgian and Russian sectors. And Darling you're not the only American here ;)Before you label the university as disorganised maybe you should cash in on your visitors card and check out classes in the upperclasses, trust me.

Anonymous said...

hi. i want to say that desks and walls do NOT make a university and the vast majority of the university does not have broken furniture. have you ever entered any of the lecture rooms or classes in the upper years? apparently not. Also, the university IS equipped with a lot of computers....maybe you should journey to the upstairs library sometime. As for textbooks.....there is a big Russian library and for the foreign sector there is an english is small but compared to the number of foreigners it is sufficient. Also, most of the foreigners bring textbooks from their country of origin. And the campus is not as small as you say......3 buildings its true but thats mostly for the 1st 2 yrs because a lot of the other classes are in clinics and hospitals across the city and in campuses across Tbilisi. Maybe you should take the time to talk to other foreigners/students....not all are indians or turks. As for the professors.....u should take a step into a biochemistry or histology lecture or a physiology or pathological anatomy class. As for scientific do need one...especially for chemistry and medical physics....i know...i have already been through yr 1. knowing some of the functions without using a claculator is not a bad thing...its a sign of a good memory....maybe the west is 2 accustomed to devices for aid...not that thats bad. You should try to be more open minded.

Ryan Erickson said...

Hi "Anonymous." I'm quite puzzled that you left such comments on my blog--I thought we had discussed this matter already.

I stand by my post as it is. I am not writing fiction here--I write about my experience, about what I see, not what you see or want to see. Moreover, my blog's purpose is not to be a resource for those interested in what TSMU is really like; it's purpose is to give my friends and family a detailed description of my life in Georgia.

As for your comment about why I only talk about Turks and Indians being in my classes, I said this because this is the truth about my year. I think it is wonderful that there is greater diversity in the upper years, but sadly that is not the case with my year--and I say this is my post.

And the same goes for your comment about the quality of classes: I'm happy for you that you have better-taught classes in the upper years, but I repeat, I am only a first-year student who has poorly taught classes overall.

If you find my writing objectionable, please be my guest and write a blog of your own dedicated to glorifying the shell of a university that is TSMU. After all, we should always hear both sides of the argument, right? But please don't trash my blog with your comments.

Ryan Erickson said...

Oh, and I know that you are either the same person or both of you used the same computer (I have a tracker), so please don't pretend to represent a larger consensus--you don't.

Anonymous said... is 2 different people actually but i am responding to what i wrote. i didnt mean to make it sound as if i bashing your blog...i agree with a lot of what you said especially since i have been through it and it mostly is as you say it is but i thought you should hear other people's point of view. it does get better actually.....much better. you should attend some of my classes and see for yourself....if you are interested in that just tell me.....we can meet and talk

Ryan Erickson said...

I'm glad that classes get better in the upper years, but like I said, I don't really care. And how good can it be if 3rd year students still haven't even seen a cadaver?

I'm also disgusted with the amount of fraud the university thinks it's capable of getting away with. For example, the student activities page from the tsmu website ( is actually copied word for word from Ohio University's site ( TSMU seems willing to got to great lengths--as far as plagiarism--to increase student enrollment (i.e. for money) without any consideration for said students' education.

If you would like to continue this conversation, email me: rugbyxm @ blog isn't a messageboard.

Anonymous said...

Hi are exactly right. Its ridiculous that 3rd year students havnt seen a cadaver.
i hope that this blog will save students who are planning to come here by beleiving false promises made by university and consultants like OM and others.
Students will come to know what this University is really is! fraud even in making its own website!!

Anonymous said...

I can say that the medical study level here is not like in Europe or America that's quite clear and i'm not surprised! Because lets face it,it's TBILISI STATE Med. University and we know that in this city we have a huge socio-economic crisis during years!... There's same curriculum in Georgian and english medium,but the only difference and very essential is that in foreign groups students study much better than in georgian, these are not my words,i've heard it from many Professors(lecturers)...and i will add that who wants to study will study anywhere and foreigners usually come here to study as much as they can for their bright future in abroad...
I really like to see TSMU and many other georgian univesities in the same level as Europian or American universities are in very near future! That needs time!

Anonymous said...

regarding student's life page which is copied from Ohio University's site is quite shocking to me, but georgians are like this- if they "don't know" how to do something or they are "lazy" to do something, they usually find some easier sources haha(georgian habit)... but also we have to mention if you will see the same students activities page in Georgian language and this information is totally absent,instead it directs to the Student Union page.

i want to say couple of words about AIETI, well i knew one professor from TSMU, who was taking lectures in aieti too. This is first and plus as i've heard many times, study there is more theoretically oriented... generally speaking it's USMLE preparation school for real!... again and again i want better schools in georgia!

same person

Anonymous said...

It's not hard to communicate I think, because most of Georgian students know English at the speaking level. contact me at we can become friends :)