Sara Haapanen: "I want my children to see that it’s never too late to make a change or try something new"

Sara Haapanen is a mature student and a mother of two studying an MSc in Urban Geography at the University of Helsinki. We spoke with her about being a student whose experience does not necessarily conform to the general idea of what it’s like to be at university.

First, some background information! What did you study at university before, and what did you do during your time away from studying?

I graduated in 2000 with a BSc Hons in geography from the University of Lancaster, England. Since then I’ve tried some different things:  I’ve worked as a copywriter in Joensuu and Helsinki. I can honestly say that it wasn’t my dream profession but it paid the bills and I learnt new skills. Luckily, I managed to get a part time teaching job at an English language daycare in Espoo next and I loved it! Thankfully, I grew up in a big family, looking after younger children and I also had experience with playschool children (aged under 5 years) in the UK so it was second nature for me. I remained teaching at the English daycare for about 5 years and then left to have my own children.

I have two lovable but busy boys aged 6 and 9, who are now in school and preschool. I stayed home with them until the oldest started preschool and then went back to teaching daycare. I absolutely love being around children; teaching daycare was a great pleasure and I often enjoy the look of horror on people’s faces when I say my last class had 21 children.  At times it was incredibly sad and being a mother myself I sometimes found it very upsetting.

Why did you decide to return to university? Was there a career change involved or did you just pursue further studies in your field?

As my children were a little older I thought it would be nice to take the chance to do something for myself.  It seemed natural to pick up geography again and I was so delighted to find Helsinki had it in English. Just like every other applicant I was so nervous waiting for the news from admission services. I got an email at work and was shaking, I had to read the email twice.

How do you manage to take care of your children alongside your studies?

I won’t lie, sometimes it’s very hard but it’s about prioritising. There are usually dishes to be done and laundry to sort out, but everyone is fed, happy, and we all get our homework done in the end. During the week it’s a standard 6.30am start to get everyone fed, dressed and in the correct place on time. Thankfully because the lecture timetables are so varied I have always been able to work during the day whether that was at uni or at home.

I spend time with the children and then do anything immediately pressing after bedtime if I’m on a deadline. I try to leave weekends as study free as I can but it’s not always possible.  I can quite proudly say I’ve never handed a piece of work in late amongst the chaos. I took a course with the open university over the summer and also a book exam. By the time I started back in August, I only had one required course and my thesis left to do. I did pick up two further courses though because I’d been enjoying learning so much and it seemed crazy to waste the opportunity.

I do think it helped that I’m used to a more rigid structure of studying, and that my children are old enough to realise that sometimes I really do need an hour's peace to work. It’s still important to take some time for yourself too. I try to get to the gym a couple of times a week and love taking the boys for long nature walks.

You are not only a studying mother, but you are also pursuing your studies abroad. How has this been for you?

Generally it’s been fine; I’ve been here long enough to know the system for children. However, it has sometimes been hard having no family support. It would be nice to pack the children off to grandma for a few hours for example.

Do you get any support from the student’s union and/or the University of Helsinki? What about the government?

The biggest support has most definitely been from my lecturers in the geography department.  A lot of the staff are also parents and are very understanding if I’ve had to miss an odd lecture due to child illness for example.  I recently took a course that required a lot of G.I.S (geographical information systems) which is my weak point, and the lecturer was very understanding and patient with providing extra help.

I had the biggest problem this February as I’d taken an evening course that was at 4-8pm but had no childcare for one lecture. I managed to make arrangements for my eldest, but the lecturer was very understanding and allowed me to take the youngest to class. My 6 year old sat through Development Economics very nicely and even answered some questions. I wouldn’t have done it under normal circumstances but I felt it was very nice for him to be able to see where mummy goes to school.

I’ve seen a few other children around the university and the odd baby in other courses, so I think the whole university ethos is very understanding and welcoming. It’s not an easy situation as a parent, and I was very prepared to leave the class if necessary because it was also important to me not to upset the learning process for the other students.

The government only offer the standard benefits but financially it’s a massive help to receive the study grant which I wouldn’t get in the UK. Luckily daycare is well funded and accessible in Finland which helps a lot.

In terms of accommodation, HOAS offer family apartments too.

Are there any childcare facilities offered by the university? Do you think they work well?

The student union offer childcare on one campus (cutely called Little HYY) but only for very specific hours and you need to pre-book.  I would certainly have used it for one session but it was closed. The cost is very reasonable at 5€ an hour but it can quickly stretch a limited student budget if it’s a regular need.

As a mature student at the University of Helsinki, what are your experiences?

I was so nervous coming back to university! I was seriously out of study practice; I knew so much had changed, for example there was barely any G.I.S. when I did my bachelor's and I knew it was standard practise now. I was worried if I would make any friends being older than average and not really in a position to go join in the parties.

I have got to say, all my worries were unfounded.  On my first official geography day I met three lovely ladies who I’m still friends with. We took lots of courses and did group work together, and we rocked it! One of the women also had a young child and I’ve since studied with other amazing parents juggling children and studies.

Other fellow students have been lovely too and very friendly, the geography department is full of incredible people. I think that my position in life gave me a different outlook in comparison to a young student and the mix helped to make some interesting classroom discussions.

How could your experience at the University of Helsinki be improved in this regard?

The university could do with appealing more to mature students; I think we generally have good motivation and determination to study.  Discussions and group work are really enriched with different opinions and views.  It would be nice to see more age diversity in the lectures.

Once you walk through the door and literally get your feet under the table it’s a wonderful experience.

Any recommendations for mothers (or parents in general) in your situation? Or perhaps for those wishing to return to university who have not yet decided?

I think it’s good to let parents and older potential students know that it is really worth making the effort to go for it, and study. That’s one of the reasons I became an international student ambassador.

Studying isn’t about age or status. It’s about learning, discovering, friendships, trying and investing in yourself. I also want my children to see that it’s never too late to make a change or try something new. My parents always told me that it was important I got my education because then I could do whatever I wanted, no matter what it was. I want my kids to see that I worked hard and if I can do it, they can too.  

I should be graduating soon and I’m honestly disappointed because I’ve been enjoying learning again. But, I can say I had a great time, I learnt so much and I get to walk away with some solid friendships.