I’m jumping the gun a little bit, as the final newsletter isn’t sent out until tomorrow…
But I was recently interviewed by a fellow member of USD’s Honors Program about my time abroad in Helsinki. She did a great write up (which you can read here), but for obvious reasons she couldn’t fit it all of my responses into the article. Since there is a good portion of my answers that didn’t make the final cut, I thought that I’d post the full answers here.
I hope that my answers give a bit of a greater insight into my experience here! And if you’re a student considering studying in Helsinki, I hope this gives you a deeper look into what you might expect when studying in Finland…or gives you the final push into studying here!
Where in Finland are you studying, and what are you studying?
I’m in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Helsinki is more or less the cultural hub of Finland, so it’s been really nice to be right in the city. The majority of my courses have been economics courses, but I’m also taking a logistics course this semester.
How long is the program, i.e. one semester, two…?
The program is just for the fall semester.
How did you settle upon studying in Finland?
That’s a funny question for a lot of reasons, and one that I’ve thought about a lot since I’ve been in Finland.
When I was initially going through my options of where to study abroad, I wanted to choose a country where I knew I could have a fairly unique experience. I really wanted to immerse myself into a culture that I knew nothing about, and Finland certainly fit that bill. When I initially inquired about studying in Finland, I was told that “maybe one” student from USD would attend Aalto University every year, so that piqued my interest in a lot of ways – and hey, now I’m that “maybe one.” The exchange with Aalto offered classes for my major, which was not necessarily a huge factor in my decision, but one that certainly did not go unnoticed. Finland is one of the safest and happiest countries in the world, which my parents really liked to hear. But really, I just wanted something different than the usual study abroad experience. I didn’t want to choose somewhere too comfortable.
And to be totally honest, I went into this entire experience a bit blind. One of the funniest things about my semester in Finland is that I don’t really have any good reason for being here other than the fact that I chose to come here. I didn’t know much of anything about Finland when I applied. I was not particularly drawn to Finnish culture in any way — mostly because I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea what living in Finland would actually be like, other than that it would be cold during the winter. I didn’t speak to any USD students who had previously studied in Finland, and no USD students are here with me now, so I didn’t really have any major discussions with people beforehand. And I didn’t really do much research or planning before I arrived in Finland. I had no expectations for my semester abroad because I literally did not know what to expect. And I think that’s precisely why my experience in Finland has been as amazing as it has been. From the moment I arrived in Finland, I was handed a blank slate. And that’s what’s really allowed me to tailor my experience to what I’ve wanted it to be. When you know nothing about the culture you’re living in, when you know no people in the country, and when – for the most part — you don’t really know what you’re doing, you have no choice but to learn, to meet people, and to just figure things out. Nothing is familiar, and everything is new. You have nowhere to go but up. And after having spent time here, I don’t think there could have been a place that would have suited me more perfectly. I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
How did you go about setting up your program? Did you have to work out an exchange?
Everything was basically laid out for me. USD has a pre-existing exchange agreement with Aalto University’s School of Economics, so I just had to fill out USD’s internal application and then apply to Aalto as an exchange student. I didn’t have to put any effort into actually organizing the program as it was all done for me. Getting housing abroad was as easy as filling out an online application, so that was also a huge burden lifted off of my shoulders. The administrative parts of actually going through with the exchange on my end have been pretty easy. The most tedious part was probably getting my residence permit, but that was just filling out paperwork and attending a meeting at the Finnish consulate in LA.
Did you have to be competent in Finnish before arriving? Are your classes in English or Finnish?
I knew absolutely no Finnish before I left, and I still know basically no Finnish even after living here for a few months. Finnish is actually one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. It doesn’t have any really close relatives other than Estonian and Hungarian, so jumping into it is a bit difficult. Whereas Swedish has Germanic roots (and is comparatively understandable from an English speaker’s point of view), there’s no real familiar reference point in Finnish for people who speak English. However, there’s a real sense of acknowledgement by Finns that they need to learn another language (or, more accurately, other languages) than Finnish. It’s no coincidence that there are five million Finns and five million Finnish speakers. The entire country is essentially fluent in Finnish and English, with older generations often fluent in Swedish as well (Finland is officially a bilingual country). There’s been basically no language barrier for me since I’ve been here, which has been a real blessing.
All prospective exchange students also have to have a certain level of English proficiency in order to apply to Aalto, as all of the classes that exchange students take are taught in English. From my experience, basically all exchange students are fluent or very highly proficient in English. It’s so cool, for instance, people from Germany, Singapore, Norway, and Japan having a conversation in English. So again, language hasn’t been an issue at all, really. If you can fit it into your schedule, you can take a course in Finnish, but it’s not mandatory.
What has been the best aspect of studying in Finland?
That’s a tough one. It’s a bit like asking me to boil down my experience here into a few sentences, but I’ll give it a try.
By studying in Finland, I think you automatically open yourself up to a much different cultural experience than if you choose a more traditional European country, like Spain or France. Scandinavian culture is just so different from “European” culture – it’s less of a subsection of European culture and more of a separate category all together. I think there’s a sort of cultural understanding between the Scandinavian countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) that the other European countries can’t ever have, and that leads to a pretty distinct separation between the two collective “European” and “Scandinavian” cultures. Scandinavian priorities – beautiful and simplistic design, environmental consciousness, reverence of nature, technological advancement, social progressiveness, and ever-increasing efficiency – are exemplified in almost every facet of life. They are just ahead of the curve – ahead of everyone! And it’s amazing to actually see how that system operates and how different it is from the United States. On the one hand, I love immersing myself into Finnish culture, constantly learning. On the other hand, I’m always comparing what I’m learning to what I already know. And that’s quite amazing, I think. To actually live here allows you to have an understanding of a part of the world that most people simply don’t understand, and that’s pretty cool.
Of course, getting to understand Finland includes getting to understand Finns. I have really grown to love the Finnish people since I’ve been here. While at first they may seem extremely quiet and reserved (and I think many would say awkward), they’re extremely warm, friendly, and curious once you’ve spent some time with them. And it’s always a great moment when you see a Finnish person smiling! It’s quite hard to describe in words exactly what the Finnish people are like (I can say they’re extremely intelligent and always well-dressed), but being around them has been one of my favorite parts of my time abroad – trying to blend in with the Finns is fun and difficult at the same time, but it’s a part of the experience. Of course, without the blonde hair and long legs, I don’t look like what you would consider a stereotypical Finn!
And I think studying in Finland gives you the opportunity to travel places of the world that many other students either overlook or fail to consider to visit. When you’re here, it’s easy to go to places like: Copenhagen in Denmark; Stockholm or Malmo in Sweden; Oslo or Bergen in Norway; St. Petersburg or Moscow in Russia; Tallinn in Estonia (it’s only a 2 hour ferry ride away!); and then you can still visit all of the other European countries too, if you want! The United Kingdom is only a few hours away. And so is Central Europe. And so is the rest of Europe! But when you’re in a country like Finland, you get to easily go to places like the Finnish Lapland – a real winter wonderland (and the home of Santa, because he’s a Finn). There you can go dogsledding, try snowshoeing on fells and frozen lakes, ride in reindeer sleighs, ski down world-class slopes, and so much more. Where else are you realistically going to do that? Lapland was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I wouldn’t have even known about it if I hadn’t studied in Finland.
If I sound a bit ramble-y, please excuse me. It’s really quite hard to try and sum up my experience. I’ve described Finland like this before, and I have no problem describing it like this again: I think that Finland is a magical place. It’s kind of like the hidden gem of Europe, the “Pearl of the Baltic” as it’s sometimes called. I think Finland flies basically off of the radar of the rest of the world, which really is a shame because it doesn’t try to. I don’t think many people really know about all of the opportunities that Finland has to offer, and that’s really too bad considering how amazing of a country it is. Helsinki is a city that is as busy as you want it to be – you’re free to explore as much or as little as you want. My experience in Finland has been the experience of a lifetime, and I honestly hope that more people take advantage of the program that is offered through the exchange between Aalto University and USD. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a program that is more accommodating to exchange students than the program with Aalto.
Which other countries/major sites have you visited since arriving in Finland?
I’ve been to: Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews); Russia (St. Petersburg); Denmark (Copenhagen); Sweden (Malmo, Stockholm); Estonia (Tallinn); and the Finnish Lapland (Levi, Rovaniemi) so far. But by the time I leave for the United States, I will have also visited Switzerland (Lucerne, maybe Interlaken?); Poland (Krakow); and Norway (Oslo). I tried to focus on staying up north for the duration of my stay in Finland. Scandinavia/Northern Europe is quite a bit different than Central Europe, and I really wanted to immerse myself in Scandinavian culture rather than attempt to get a taste of European culture in general.
Does your experience in Finland tie into future career plans?
You never know! I have absolutely loved my time in Finland/Helsinki, so I certainly wouldn’t mind coming back. Finland is the most technologically advanced country in Europe, and they’re really on the cutting edge of a lot of recent trends in technology. If you’ve ever played “Angry Birds” or “Clash of Clans,” then you’ve played pretty hugely popular games developed in Finland. Rovio and Supercell (the makers of Angry Birds and Clash of Clans, respectively) have really been leaders in how people purchase and experience digital content. As a result, I think Finland is pretty invested in seeing how people consume content now and how they will in the future, especially after these companies’ successes during the recent App Store boom. There seems to be a surge in studying the changes that have accompanied this boom, and that’s a topic that I’m really interested in, so you never know.
Anything else you’d like to add/anything else that I should know?
If you (as in the newsletter readers) would like to read my blog about my travels, you can find it at callmejarjar.wordpress.com. I’ve put up lots of pictures and I try to write a lot, so if you want a glimpse of where you could possibly travel if you go up north, please check it out. Also, people can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if they have any questions about studying in Finland.
Also, one note on the Aalto Exchange Program: Aalto does a really good job of planning trips for its exchange students. My trips to St. Petersburg and the Finnish Lapland were both organized through Aalto Business School’s student union KY. I just had to get my ticket. They also offer other trips and experiences for exchange students, so you are more than welcome to take advantage of those offers. It’s really convenient so that you don’t have to organize all of the trips by yourself. Aalto does the heavy-lifting, so to speak; you just have to pay for your spot and show up. KY really takes good care of the exchange students (even going so far as to pick you up at the airport when you arrive and deliver your apartment keys to you), and I think you won’t find a program as dedicated to serving its exchange students as Aalto’s.
A big thanks to Kate for putting this all together! I wouldn’t have put a lot of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper without you contacting me to do the interview, so for that I’m very grateful.