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Legal Aliens: Exchange Students’ Experiences in Helsinki

Every semester hundreds of “legal aliens”, as Sting sang, come to Helsinki to try a different life for a semester or two. Is Finland really like another planet? What can be surprising for foreigners here, and do stereotypes really work? Her Campus talked to five exchange students in order to look at everyday life from a different perspective. We asked exchange students to answer three questions: why they chose Helsinki, what surprised them here the most and what they’d recommend for new exchange students to do here.

Marta: “The nature is exuberant and at the same time peaceful, which is interesting for my studies”

Marta Girbau Miralles, 21, studies Environmental Sciences and Geology at Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain. She is an exchange student at the University of Helsinki for one semester.

“I chose Helsinki for many reasons. First, I wanted to experience a new culture different from what I’m used to. Also, Finnish people have a good level of English and that is the language I wish to practice. The nature here is so exuberant and at the same time peaceful… this is very interesting for me since it’s related to my field of study. Moreover, as Helsinki is the capital it has everything I’m looking for: you can feel the contrast between urban and cultural landscapes, but at the same time they are in harmony.

Something that surprised me was respecting the teachers. Also, in my home university we spend a lot of time in the university doing extracurricular activities or just hanging out.

I think the winter will also surprise me, so I try to be prepared for that.

One thing I didn’t like is that there are many drunken people on the streets any time of the day. Regarding Finnish society in general, I realized some do’s and don’ts: always take your shoes out at home, don’t interrupt when people are talking, silence is very much respected, avoid physical contact when you talk, always be punctual even if it’s a party…

Obviously the first thing you should do is to go to a real sauna, where you can talk in a confident way with strangers. I love walking around the city centre and I recommend to see the market place at the harbour and buy some fresh berries or mushrooms. Going to Suomenlinna and Nuuksio National Park is a must-do. The amusement park Linnanmäki is very nice even if only to walk around. If you stay tuned, some special days the entrance is free to many museums, zoo…

There are many things you can do in Helsinki, but still it’s a small city so it’s very interesting to visit other places like Tallinn, Lapland, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, etc. If you are very active, I would recommend becoming a member of ESN to be part of many events like parties, excursions, and so on.”

Daniel: “Close student-teacher relationships was new for me”

Daniel Willrich, 21, studies English literature, Russian language and economics at Justus-Liebig-University, Germany. He is an exchange student at the University of Helsinki for one semester.  

“I chose Helsinki because the university accepted me as a free mover. The partner universities of my home university were either in countries I didn’t like to visit (because they are neighbouring countries of Germany) or they were reserved for other students, e.g. Kazan Federal University was reserved for Russian major students.

I think a very surprising thing for me was that Helsinki is not as cold as I expected it to be (maybe not yet). What was also interesting was that the studies are much more individual and relaxed compared to Germany. There is not a clear plan to follow perfectly, but rather students can choose more freely the subjects and seminars they are interested in and it is also very easy to attend seminars from other faculties. Additionally of course close student-teacher relationships was new for me, as in Germany you address professors with their last name and even with their title. In everyday life the prices for beer are of course most different if you come from Germany.

My advice to all exchange students is to take part in some ESN activity: they are mostly free or at least cheaper than usual (Pub Crawl for example) and one will get to know many other (exchange) students. Also I recommend doing a tandem, where a Finnish student teaches you Finnish in exchange for you teaching them your native language. You get to know more about the Finnish culture, improve your language skills and have an insider you can ask about life here in Helsinki. Also, travel around: a trip to Tallinn is worth it, as it’s not too far and is quite cheap.”

Amelie: “I could see quite many similarities with Stockholm that I did not expect”

Amelie Williams, 23, studies Theatre-, Film- and Media Science at the University of Vienna and comes from the Netherlands. She is an exchange student at the University of Helsinki for one semester.

“I did a gap year in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2013-2014 and worked there as an Au-Pair. I enjoyed my time there immensely and hoped to come back to Northern Europe very soon. Besides the family, whom I still count as my second family, I really liked the mentality of the people in Sweden. The people are slightly more quiet, but also honest. They just let things be and try not to criticise and overthink everything too much. As some time passed by, while studying in Vienna, I thought of the possibility of going abroad. As the idea of doing an exchange started to grow, I had a look at the partner universities. My choice was either studying in the Netherlands in Utrecht or in Helsinki. As you might guess, it was Helsinki. Choosing Helsinki had two reasons. The first one was the fact that I wanted to explore another northern country and the second was that I had heard great things about Helsinki and was curious how the city might be like.

People from Helsinki probably do not want to hear this, but I could see quite many similarities with Stockholm I did not expect. Both cities are surrounded by water and have this Nordic air that I can hardly describe. Furthermore, I had heard the food isn’t that great here, which isn’t entirely true. They might not have the best cuisine on Earth, but e.g. the fish here is delicious and you can also hardly resist the Finnish cinnamon bun (korvapuusti). Other than that, I must say I had big expectations on the education system, because of its reputation, in particular the school system is highly regarded in Europe. I was a little disappointed because the Finnish universities seem very interested in having international students, but the selection of courses taught in English is too small. I cannot speak for other departments, but many of my student colleagues struggled with finding suitable courses. As I already said, this might not be representative of other departments or universities, so that should not keep you from coming to Helsinki. Thinking of the way to address your professors, there is also a big difference. Normally I would call the professor by their surname, even if necessary by their title. Here in Finland the hierarchy doesn’t have such a big meaning, it is very normal to address the professors by their first name. The relationship between students and professors is far more amicable, which is quite new to me. One last big thing that really surprised me was that people drink a lot of alcohol despite the fact that it is outrageously expensive. You would think that the prices would keep people from consuming alcohol, but it actually doesn’t.

If you have the chance to be here during the more sunny days, I would definitely recommend exploring the nature around Helsinki. There is so much to discover, like the archipelago, the national park or swimming, I bet it must be wonderful (haven’t tried it, because I came during the autumn semester). Try some wonderful Finnish berries or mushrooms, and if you are lucky enough, you can even pick them yourself in the forests. Furthermore I would certainly see some of the tourist sights like the Senate Square, the sea fortress Suomenlinna or the Russian orthodox church, but more importantly, try to go to more intimate and local places. Visit the theatres, small cafés or join some kind of a club. You might get the chance to get in contact with Finnish people, I won’t promise you’ll succeed, but this is the best you can do. Last but not least, I would actually recommend doing things you really want to do and not rush into everything, because the time is very precious. You should consciously enjoy your time!”

Lucie: “I learn more efficiently here”

Lucie Chavelet, 20, studies Applied Foreign Languages at the Catholic University of the West, France. She is an exchange student at the University of Helsinki for one semester.

“I chose Helsinki because I had always wanted to discover the Nordic countries. Helsinki is pretty central so it is easy to go to Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Latvia and Russia.

There are many shopping centres in the centre of Helsinki and this surprised me. However, nature is also present in the city and there are many lakes and cycling paths. I also think that Finnish people do more sports than French people in general. I really like all the opportunities for students in Helsinki, there are many different associations and events, as well as student discounts. Regarding studies, I think that I learn more efficiently here because there are many readings to do, essays and lecture diaries to write, therefore I have to be involved in my studies! In France we mainly have final exams and it is quite stressful, and I don’t think we remember so much afterwards…Also I miss the French outdoor markets even though Market Place is very beautiful (but expensive, haha). But in general, I really like Helsinki!

To new-coming people I would recommend to attend events organised for foreigners here, to adapt to the education system and not to miss a chance to learn a bit of Finnish, a very different language!”

Janika: “Meet new friends and make it your temporary home”

Janika Achenbach, 21, studies Finnish Language and Culture and Musicology at the University of Cologne, Germany. She is an exchange student at the University of Helsinki for one year.

“It was just natural and came in handy to do my exchange in Finland, since Finnish language is my major. So I applied for Helsinki, Turku and Oulu. But I had my eyes set on Helsinki because I fell in love with the city the first time I came here. I had wanted to live and study here for a long time already. 11 visits later I finally moved here for a year.

I think teaching is more intense which is on one hand more exhausting but on the other hand more effective. But at the same time people really look out for each other so there is an amazing surrounding and community. Teachers and other students help out each other if needed and lend a hand. Surely living in a foreign country is kind of a shock at first but we were welcomed warmly and treated really good here. No one is let down. And the food at Unicafe is great.

I would recommend to take part in the Finnish student life and Finnish culture. Sitsit (an academic dinner party), Fuksiseikkailu (Freshmen adventure), playing pesäpallo (Finnish baseball) or whatever. See Helsinki and its surroundings (or all of Finland), have fun, feel great, collect memories, go to Fazer and eat as much chocolate as you can, meet new friends and make it your temporary home. And there is great music out there, so visit concerts!”


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