Anni Holopainen: “It’s Important to Have Faith in Your Education and Skills”

While Finland and Sweden have close ties in many ways, moving from one country to another always comes with a bunch of challenges. This week we interviewed a former Helsinki University student, Anni Holopainen, who majored in German translation and minored in French translation, Finnish language and translation studies. After completing her Master’s degree she moved to Stockholm to live with her boyfriend who had moved there from Germany some years earlier, and she now works for the Swedish e-commerce company Klarna. In this interview Anni shares her experiences adjusting to life in Stockholm as a recent university graduate.  

How did you feel about moving to Stockholm just after graduating from Helsinki University? What hopes or concerns did you have?

On the one hand, it was really great, because my boyfriend and I had been in a long-distance relationship for a year, and it was great to finally start living together. Also, I had always felt like I might want to live abroad at some point in my life, besides my Erasmus exchange in Germany – but I never thought it would be in Sweden. On the other hand, I knew it would be harder to find work in my own field in another country, especially without the right language combo.

What things have been the biggest challenges in adjusting to life in another country? How has this changed during your time in Stockholm?

In the beginning, one of the biggest challenges was of course the Swedish language. I was fairly fluent in Finland Swedish, but it’s so different from how Swedish is spoken in Stockholm...I experienced a bit of a language shock, followed by a cultural shock. Language-wise things are easier now, because my Swedish has improved a lot, which decreases the frustration of not being understood or being left out of a conversation, for example.

Really my biggest concern in the beginning was finding work. Besides summer jobs and my job as an instructor in a children’s sports group I didn’t really have long-term work experience, because I started university straight after high school. I felt like I didn’t have a great starting point for finding work. Furthermore, in my university studies I was always hearing about how hard it was for Arts students to find work, which wasn’t very encouraging.

Another challenge was networking in general. I had met some friends of my boyfriend’s before I moved to Stockholm, and here I joined the university choir. I felt like I really needed a hobby, partly because in Stockholm it’s really hard to get to know people. I think it’s easy to make contact with people on a superficial, small talk level, but really making friends is hard, especially with locals. Many expats say they hang out with other expats a lot more than locals. I have lived here for over two and a half years now, but don’t have nearly as many friends and acquaintances as I did in Helsinki, because I have fewer networks here.

What kind of cultural differences have you encountered between Finland and Sweden?

I didn’t expect there to be as many differences as there are, so I was not really prepared for a cultural shock. One thing that’s really nice here is that you get very friendly customer-service pretty much everywhere, and public communication like advertising is very fresh and light-hearted, and even official levels are somehow less stiff and more approachable than in Finland. But one thing I find a bit hard to deal with is that you should always be in harmony with the people around you, and you should always agree and be flexible, which doesn’t necessarily result in great decisions. To be a “killjoy” is really disapproved of, and questioning things can easily be taken as a personal insult...though I’m often forgiven for doing this, because I’m a foreigner. And I’ve learned how far I can push the limit!

It can be very hard to find work in one’s own field, especially in another country. What tips would you give to a newly graduate who moves abroad? What helped you find work?

Attitude-wise, I think it’s important to have faith in your skills and believe that your education is valuable and it matters. Another thing is that you simply may need to apply to lots and lots of different places before you find anything – it’s good to be prepared for this, to not get down and unmotivated if it takes time to find work. In general, it’s also worth applying even if you don’t fill all the requirements, because often there is no “perfect candidate” anyway. Especially for an immigrant, putting effort into job applications can be very important because you don’t have the networks many locals have, so it’s less likely for you to find work through the people you know. Also, you should have a good LinkedIn profile, because so many employers check LinkedIn.

In the humanities in particular, many jobs are ones that you wouldn’t think have to do with your field when you just look at the job titles, or ones that are never publicly advertised outside the companies. Especially if you can’t seem to find anything in your field, it may be a good strategy to just try to get into some fairly big company that’s likely to have some work related to your field. This worked out quite well for me, because I started out in customer service and administrative tasks, but after getting to know the people I work with I’ve got to do so many translations and other communication related projects. After getting your foot in the door, perhaps you can move inside the company.

All photos by Sebastian Van de Hoef