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Jessica Högnabba: “My Job as University Chaplain Is to Listen”

It seems to be a little known fact, but there are three University chaplains working at the University of Helsinki, offering their services in Finnish, Swedish and English. But what exactly does a University chaplain do? We met up with Jessica Högnabba, University chaplain, who explained what her job entails.


Jessica Högnabba

Academic background: theology and gender studies at Åbo Akademi University, Turku.

Current position: University chaplain for Swedish speaking students and staff at University of Helsinki


What does a University chaplain do?

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland wanted to send University chaplains to support both students and staff at universities. What we do depends on the needs of the campus and what kind of opportunities it has to offer. In general, the campus ministry participates in different kinds of events and groups that support students and staff. We are involved in tutoring and group formation among first year students especially. Some of our groups are in co-operation with the study psychologist or the church; we have groups on wellbeing and meditation, for example. Individual confidential counselling work is a central part of the job, as are crisis response and interreligious dialogue. Of course, we also work with services such as christenings, marriage ceremonies and funerals.

What do you do yourself?

I have worked as chaplain for two years now, but previously I’ve done parish work in Swedish on a larger scale, and my work with students has been part-time on the side. I’ve been working as a University chaplain full-time since the beginning of 2017, so much of my job so far has been about networking. It takes time to make contacts, to just let everybody know you’re available and to negotiate how you could collaborate.

I do work with my colleagues – I have six colleagues working as chaplains in higher education across Helsinki. But at the University of Helsinki, I’m the only chaplain who works in Swedish. I also work at Hanken School of Economics. It’s a bit of a challenge, with the work being spread across all of Helsinki. Those who work in a single place can focus on being visible in that one place.

One reason this position became a full-time one is that this job is quite time consuming – it’s difficult to do “on the side”. You need to be out on the campus even if you don’t have counselling work scheduled for that day. Slowly people start noticing and knowing. The campus ministry has a contract with the university. Together we discuss how the co-operation has worked or how it could be improved.

One issue is that some administrative positions change, so even if you get to know the person in charge, in a few years’ that position could be held by someone else. It’s the same with students, whose lifestyles change overtime: at the beginning of their studies they can be more active and spend more time at the university but in a few years they might have less time. Thus networking with new people is always an important part of the job.

So University chaplains do counselling. Does one have to be religious or Christian to come visit you?

No, if you take the initiative to come, it doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs are. The topic you’d like to discuss doesn’t have to be related to Christianity or religion either. I also want to help if someone wants to talk to somebody representing a religion other than Christianity. I don’t have all the contacts, but I try to help bring people together.

What kinds of questions do people usually come with?

I think our range of topics is very wide and there’s room for all kinds of questions. For students, there’s so much going on when you’re in your 20’s. You might move to a different city and be separated from your safety net at home; you might start a family, you move to a new home and begin new studies. There are insecurities on whether this is the right thing for you or whether it’s as fun as you thought it would be. But many of the topics people come with are about relationships, with friends or romantic partners. We also get questions about studying and stress. And, of course, questions of faith and beliefs, since we do have the readiness and expertise to talk about that.

There’s been much talk about loneliness in media and how it’s a problem for many young people. According to a recent survey on the wellbeing of students conducted by The Finnish Student Health Services, more students report having mental health issues than in 2000, which could be partly because they have increased and partly because it is now easier to talk about them. This increase is also something my colleagues and I have been noticing.


And what kind of advice do you give, for example?

I try to be careful when giving advice or providing solutions. I don’t have the right answers. I’d rather say my job is to listen so that the person can find the answers themselves. Having to put your thoughts into words is part of the processing no matter whether the one listening is a chaplain or someone else. Then we can think of solutions together. And sometimes it takes courage from both of us to come to the realization that there are problems that just don’t have an answer or a solution, and that this is part of life.

But even then it’s possible to think of ways to cope. For example, reasons one might feel lonely could be because one hasn’t found the right friends yet or because one doesn’t have the mental or physical resources to make new acquaintances. Together with other University staff we try to support inclusion and grouping, and to make sure we notice if someone is left out or becomes marginalised.

You studied at Åbo Akademi University. In what ways does it differ from the University of Helsinki?

University of Helsinki is obviously much bigger. The Faculty of Theology, which I’m most familiar with, was very small. You knew the staff and you could easily just knock on a professor’s door to discuss your studies or your thesis. All the students in my year knew each other since there were only about 20 of us, and there was a stronger sense of belonging to a group. Meanwhile, here the classes are much bigger… On the other hand, there are more opportunities, and if you want to combine studies or specialise on something, it’s much easier to organize.

What has your job taught you? What challenges have you faced?

There is an image of what stereotypical students are like: it’s someone who is active in many student organisations, is very social, goes to student parties and studies on the side. Of course these kinds of students really exist, but there are so many other stories to be told, and you have to pay attention to the diversity. Some never become active in organisations because they feel they won’t fit in, some don’t even want to take part in it and prefer focusing on their studies and having their social lives elsewhere. Some lack a social life altogether, some face problems with their studies… The question is, how can we reach them – or at the very least, how can everybody get the chance to participate and join a group, and how do we notice if not everybody does.

Only a small number of people actually come knocking on our door even though we do have office hours. Those who do knock have a lower threshold for seeking guidance, but we also want to be there for the people who don’t take that first step. The fact that you contact a chaplain or a study psychologist shows that you’ve already come far, that you’ve realized you need help. When I was studying, I went to meet the University chaplain myself. Even though I studied theology and knew the person, it was quite difficult. I know it shouldn’t have felt so weird for me, with the threshold so low, but it took a lot of effort and I waited, just letting the issue grow, before taking the first step.

Finally, is there something you’d like to tell all our readers?

It’s easier said than done, but my advice is “don’t be alone”. We are capable of more if we have someone to share things with and someone fighting on our side. And I don’t mean this as “go make friends”, you can’t just tell someone to do that. But do talk to someone, whether it’s to a University chaplain or a study psychologist; discuss how you could find ways to meet people. We all have our own share of burdens and we all need help sometimes.

Photos supplied by Jessica Högnabba

Ylva Biri

Helsinki '18

Ylva is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki researching the linguistics of social media discourse. When not studying, procrastinating and overthinking, she enjoys shonen anime and trying out new foods.
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