Helsinki. Exchange. 2014-2015.
From the moment I started studying in Groningen, I’ve been looking forward to this period; going on exchange. After graduating from high-school, I took a gap year and worked in Canada on a ranch for a year. The experience of something completely new and different, literally to get out of your comfort zone, changed me for the rest of my life – in a positive way I may say. It sounds like a cliché, but you will start to get to know yourself very well and make friends with people you never thought you could be friends with; it really does broaden your horizon and thoughts. So when I got the opportunity to go abroad, I decided to take this chance with both hands and started to orientate about the most difficult question: where to go?
The University offers you, as an English student, quite a lot of choices. Most of the universities you could go were situated in England, of course, but also in the United States, South Africa or Scandinavia. I was thinking about Scotland or England at first since improving my English was one of the main reasons I wanted to go abroad and of course, I study English Language and Culture, but it seemed a bit too… obvious or evident to go there. I think I was looking for a country that was some kind of special, a country that does not come up not in conversations too often. The possibility to travel around the country also played a big role in my decision. When I saw ‘Finland, Helsinki,’ and watched Google Images displaying photographs of the Northern Lights, huskies and reindeers, I knew this country would be it for me. I did not know anyone who had been there, so I could not really get a realistic picture of Finland yet. I started to orientate myself for a bit and it seemed that the University of Helsinki was highly ranked in the universities’ list and that the Fins are well known for their excellent educational systems. Some Google research also taught me that it would be dark for the largest part of the year, very cold and that Finland has one of the highest suicide numbers in Europe… Well, I guess that would make the experience only more interesting.
I wrote a motivation letter, had to fill in some forms and a learning agreement, which had to be signed, and was basically good to go. Dr. J. Jansen first sent me an email with “congratulations, you have been selected for a full year in Helsinki,” which did not exactly cover my wish to only stay there for one semester, but after some email correspondence it seemed that one semester was fine as well.
The only thing I had some problems with was the search for a room. I signed up for some association that provides houses for students, but they offered me a room only for October-November-December, instead of September and August as well. This would not be a huge problem, if it were not for the fact that it is extremely expensive and difficult to find a room here, especially in those months (even harder than in Amsterdam, which I thought to be impossible). So, this took some effort and I’ve moved three times in the first months, but it was nice to explore new neighborhoods and every room had its own charm. I’ve lived in a wooden, yellow house up in a forest (outside of Helsinki centre), in hipster area Kallio (all guys with moustaches running organic bakeries) and currently, I live in the city center, just a short walk away from the university buildings.
There was a useful introduction period in which a Finnish student takes you to explore the city. The staff of the International Student Department also tried to prepare us for our time in Helsinki by presenting us a PowerPoint about ‘students in Helsinki’. They tried to point out the differences that there might be between Finnish students and international students, such as that ‘we have this thing in Finland that it is NOT allowed to cheat or look on your phone during exams,’ like it was something completely unusual, and that “Finnish students only speak when they have something intelligent to say,” which is of course a pretty absurd statement to put on a PowerPoint. However, they also provided us international students with some good advice concerning the winter. The Finnish winters are long and most of all, very dark. When I arrived here, there was daylight from 6 am until 10.30 pm. Now, in November, the days are short and very, very grey. The sun won’t show itself until 09.30 am and leaves us at 4 pm. I thought lightly about it before I arrived, but it turns out to be quite depressing. That’s why the university gave us some useful information, like the advice to take a lot of vitamin D, put on the lights when you’re home, go to the student’s light therapy sessions etc. I also found a special alarm clock that wakes you up with ‘birds and sunlight,’ which helps me to fool my mind in the morning.
Unfortunately, the university did not offer too many courses concerning English philology, but I’ve found some literature courses (such as a seminar about the Bloomsbury Group) that are very interesting. The teachers are usually quite young and practice a different approach: what do YOU want to learn? What do YOU expect to learn from this course? The teacher sits down with us the first lesson to discuss what we would like to read by voting. During the lessons, the teachers ask around what we liked about it, what we liked most and what kind of feeling the piece of literature created. This makes it in a way more interesting, since you will read literature that you (usually) voted for, but sometimes I think there is a lack in the discussion of the actual content and there is no ‘Course Handout’ or something similar handed out, which makes it a bit hard sometimes to figure out all the rules of the course.
The teachers are also not very bound to a certain schedule; they will see how far they get, which feels more relaxing. There is no 80 percent rule (at least not in the courses I follow) but if you miss more than 80 percent, you will need to add another page to your paper or you have to write a course diary or summary for next week. For some courses, attendance is not even mandatory, but there is a different and slightly bigger exam for those who cannot attend the course. I absolutely prefer this system; not that I never want to attend my courses, but it makes it more your ‘own responsibility’ with this system. If you cannot make it to class, just put some more effort in it and do some extra work. This system also enables young parents or students that have a job next to their studies to still follow a course.
The approach to discuss poetry is also slightly different in the way I experienced it. There is more attention to the actual rhyme and rhythm of the poem rather than to the context or meaning and we have to read it out loud (even in a lecture) a couple times. It is interesting to discuss poetry from a different angle and the education here is quite good, but I have to admit: I miss my teachers in Groningen. Maybe it is because I was used to that kind of teaching style or something, but I actually think we just have some great teachers in Groningen.
The Fins are quiet, very polite and think a long time before they say something. Before I came here, people told me that ‘Fins are not very social,’ which luckily turned out to be not true at all. The Fins just think a bit more before they say something, and what comes out of their mouths, sounds usually creative and funny. The Finnish language is among the hardest languages, next to Chinese, to learn and I decided to not even give it a try (I picked up some basics here and there) and just to focus on my English, which improved quite a bit in my opinion, I’m getting more and more fluent in my speech. There are not many Dutch people out here (I try to avoid the small number of engineer students from Delft who are determined to stay as Dutch as possible during their time abroad) so I basically have no choice but to speak English all the time.
Helsinki is a great city, absolutely no wonder why it is in the top three of most livable cities in the world! The city is not too big and it is pretty quiet, but still offers all the benefits of a bigger city, the public transport is very well organized and the parties are good. Yes it is expensive; especially alcohol, but they offer great discounts for students. The university encourages students to attend the fitness center for students and to eat meals in the student cafeteria’s. The meals are healthy, think about salmon pasta and salad, and this all for just 2,60 euro. The cafeterias are also a great place to meet other students; everybody eats their lunch over there.
Helsinki has some nice architecture, it is clear that the designers wanted to create buildings in which ‘inside becomes outside.’ Especially the library is beautiful and among my favorite places of the city! It is also not as crowded as the University Library in Groningen… Maybe that is because the whole city is quieter and offers lots of places and café’s for students to study. It’s nice in some way to be a student of the Arts faculty, since the arts faculties are usually situated in the oldest buildings in the city center. The best thing about Helsinki is probably in my opinion that nature is close by! If you want to go for a nice walk and be alone for a while, you can just take the tram and you’re on one of the islands of the city, where people are taking a walk through beautifully colored forests (with lots squirrels who follow you everywhere). In an hour by bus you can experience the real nature Finland has to offer. With a group of other exchange students, I undertook a couple of hikes in the area and went for some mushroom and berry picking, which is a tradition for the Fins to celebrate autumn. We also went canoeing on the Baltic Sea and rented a cabin in the woods, a great experience. The cabin was only a two-hour drive from the city and was completely isolated. We made fires, saw the Northern Lights, got lost in the forest and developed ourselves as sauna experts. I am still planning to go to Lapland, of course after I finished my final papers and exams in December, to make my stereotypical-husky-and-snow-castle-dream come true. I hope more exchange students will visit Finland one time; it sure is a beautiful country with an interesting history and it has a lot to offer.