Nina Miettinen, 22, majors in Development Geography and is right now in her fourth year of studies. She shared with us some of her experiences of living abroad and immersing oneself in another culture.
You have studied abroad twice. Can you tell us something about those experiences?
In my second year of high school I went to study in New Hampshire, USA. I wanted to go because at the time many of my friends had been studying abroad and I thought why couldn’t I go too. My parents were also very encouraging and supported me a lot. However, when I came back I found myself a bit of jealous of my friends, because they had been in very cool places like Italy and Mexico and learned a completely new language. That’s why I decided to go to Madagascar in my third year of university.
What fascinated me about Madagascar was – among many other things – that they have two official languages: French and a local language Malagasy. I saw it as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and I did learn them both. Add to that the fact that I had never been on the southern side of the equator before. I studied nine months in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. I was the only exchange student there, so I had a lot of responsibility to organize my staying and studying by myself.
How did you experience the difference between their local culture and Finnish culture?
The culture shock I underwent was softened by the people I met, because many of them were a lot like me – a bit shy but very positive. But of course there were some things that surprised me. The biggest thing was to learn again to live in a family. I wanted to live in a Malagasy family, not in student apartments, because I thought it would be the best way to get to know the culture more deeply. In Finland I had already gotten used to living in my own way, but there I had to learn to respect and understand the rules and customs of the family. Malagasy people value family lot more than Finns do. Community is very important there. Besides living in a family, I realized the importance of community in a field trip in which all the students of geography participated. We traveled with 100 students and 10 teacher by buses around Madagascar. The roads were rough and we slept sometimes in quite challenging places – at least for a Finnish student like me. But they knew how to travel and everybody was very excited and helpful to each other. It was an amazing experience!
At least for me the experience was also a bit hard, because I hadn’t gotten used to getting that much attention. For example, many of my fellow students wanted to take pictures with me and borrow my shampoo. They also expected me to share my food with them because that’s the way people do it there. But I had prepared – like it is normal in Finland – food just for me, so I was a bit confused. But soon I learned to buy enough food and it was fine.
Their concept of time was odd to me at first too. People didn’t mind delays like it is common in Finland. If the bus was three hours late they started to play guitar. Over time I learned to be more chill too.
What would you say to people who are thinking about going abroad? Do you have any wisdom to share?
I can speak for learning the local language. That helps to get deeper into the culture. Also, try not to be very touristy but rather try to get as close to the local people as you can. Actually, I am nowadays quite against tourism, if it’s not sustainable. I think that people should make longer journeys, so that they could learn local culture better. I feel sorry when I see exchange students hanging out only with other exchange students and not getting to know the local people at all. I have seen it in Finland but I think it’s a wider problem all around in European universities.
How do you see the situation of exchange students in HYY (University of Helsinki)?
In HYY we have steady structures for exchange students – in Madagascar there were none – but I think there is still a problem with integration between foreigners and Finnish students. I don’t have any definitive answers on how to bring students closer – after all, all these things are very complex.
I do see that there could be an issue of exchange students only attending the courses that are taught in English. I am not saying that there shouldn’t be those at all, but I think the integration could be better if people would learn more Finnish and see Finnish students too. But I am what I am, always advocating the deep understanding of foreign cultures and seeing the language as a key element of that!
It’s a pity that unlike in exchange study programs in high school, there is no deeper intercultural learning element in university programs. Those things aren’t self-evident and I am sure that people could get more out of their time abroad if they’d have the tools to understand cultures better.
If you want to learn more about Nina’s thoughts related to studying abroad check out these links!