In Russia, students have the opportunity to make an important decision when they are in their 9th year of school: Will they graduate and pursue a technical career, or will they continue on to 11th grade and attempt to take the Russian Unified State Exam (USE) and attend university? For most, this decision is financial:
Students from low-income households may be expected to work and help their family financially. Two more years of traditional schooling is weighed against two years of potential income.
If students fail to perform highly on the USE, they will not be admitted to their university program of choice, and need to accept a spot in a program that is more financially probable.
Preparation for the USE begins in 10th grade, with a renewed focus on the sciences, math, and languages. Students who make the choice to continue their education understand the importance of this simple score—the USE is the only criterion used during the college admission process.
Students across the country take the USE right after graduation. A month later, they begin receiving their scores and must begin the difficult journey of college applications. Immediately, they know which universities are beyond their dreams, since the application process is very much public. Even before applying, students have access to public lists identifying applicants and their scores—the top applicants in each program are granted a full ride. All others must pay full tuition and are not guaranteed a stipend or any grants.
If a student sees that their scores will guarantee them a spot among the full-ride recipients, they must deliver their application documents in person; often traveling long distances and spending significantly on transportation and housing. If it is clear that the test scores of those in the top spots are higher than their own, students make the decision to choose another program, another university, or another profession.
For many students, the USE is an opportunity for them to travel beyond their small towns and experience the world. However, because they come from the small towns and villages of Russia, they are not nearly as competitive as Western students from Moscow and Saint Petersburg—students whose highly technical parents have invested in supplemental education and the best money can buy to ensure their children’s USE success.
However, periodically, a particularly talented student exceeds all expectations and receives exceptionally high scores. Their family and relatives rally together to raise the money needed to send them off to college, and they pursue their dream careers.
The residents of Minusinsk, a town of 70,000, know the importance of the USE. When asked, they are grateful to the academic system that makes it possible for residents of towns like theirs to be competitive with the children of larger cities. “Before this,” said Anna, a school Director who asked to remain anonymous, “There was a lot of corruption. Students could pay someone to write applications for them. Parents would give money to admissions directors. It was impossible for the children of Minusinsk to be competitive in any way.”
Nonetheless, the process of getting into college remains difficult. Below, we outline the stories of two young women who had radically different journeys:
Meet Sasha. Sasha grew up in the small town of Minusinsk. Her parents adopted five children and, as the eldest, she played a significant role in helping raise them. When not in school or helping with her siblings, she would help her father with the family furniture business: taking orders, scheduling deliveries, and managing inventory. During the summers, she helped her mother lead church summer camps, planning activities, cooking, and engaging with up to forty children. School was important, and she received As and Bs, but the family budget never allowed her to pay for additional USE tutoring. When Sasha received her scores, she realized her dream of managing her own business was gone—the only program where she qualified for a full-ride spot was a local academic program that would certify her to be a math teacher. Despite spending her life wanting to get away from teaching and being a “parent”, she found herself in a career where she did just that.
Meet Angela. Angela grew up in the same community as Sasha, the third daughter in a family of four. During the summers, she would help her mother tend to the garden, helping with upwards of seventy tomato plants, up to an acre of potatoes, and many more other vegetables the family would rely on throughout the year. During the winter, she helped her brothers shovel coal to make sure their house stayed warm. Despite this busy schedule, she had a dream—of becoming a dentist and moving to a big city, where she could travel, visit museums, and be part of a different kind of hustle and bustle. Angela worked nonstop to earn enough to pay for USE tutoring—across school, work, and her family obligations, she regularly slept for only five hours a night, but it was worth it. One summer day in 2014, Angela woke up to the news that her scores were in the top 98% percentile. Her hard work had paid off and she was going to attend the prestigious Moscow School of Dentistry, completely free of charge.
During the 2021-2022 academic school year, GEN ran a Pilot Program to provide subsidized USE tutoring for ten high-need, high-potential students in the 11th grade who depended on their USE scores to lift themselves out of poverty and into their dream careers. This project was a direct embodiment of GEN's mission to sponsor talented ambitious women and girls to get a quality education and pursue their dream professions.
This academic year, we are excited to continue this program! The Tutoring Program will be one of three academic initiatives undertaken by GEN during the 2022-2023 academic year and will follow a similar approach to the pilot program.
1. Name changed for anonymity.