Talk to anyone you know who has spent time abroad and they will tell you: It is worth it. Worth the troubles and maybe months of preparation. Going to a foreign country, living in a city where you don’t know anyone and can’t speak the local language presents as a challenge that helps anyone grow. I was fortunate enough to live abroad for a year during high school, therefore I was not hesitant to embark onto another adventure.
But before I elaborate on my semester abroad in Finland, I want to introduce myself quickly: My name is Pauline Franke, I am from Germany, 24 years old and I study theology in Göttingen, a city in the center of Germany. I chose to study theology in 2015 and quickly discovered that I have a big interest in practical theology. Although I study in order to become a pastor, I can see myself working as a counselor in a hospital or hospice.
Once I decided to go to abroad, I had to choose a destination. I have not been to Finland before, but I have read about the culture, the landscape and the public educational systems. I was fascinated by the finnish ways and applied to Joensuu because it turned out to be a partner university for my home university. After a short application process in January 2019, I had to hand in some paperwork, wait for responses from the University of Eastern Finland, book my flight and wait for the day to fly abroad to come.
The beginning of the exchange semester was facilitated due to the tutor system in place. Every incoming exchange student is contacted by local UEF students who signed up to help exchange students during their stay. Especially in the first couple of days, there are a lot of administrative actions that have to take place in order to get access to the mail account, computers, library passes etc. Furthermore, the tutors help to find your way around the city, can give recommendations on restaurants, bars or supermarkets and be a person to turn to in situations where help is needed.
I was very lucky to have a tutor who was very invested in her exchange students. There were five of us and she took very good care of us. Especially for me, it was a blessing to have her as my tutor, because she studies theology as well and was able to show me around the department, introduced me to other theology students and took me to theology events. Because of her, I was able to get to know a lot of other students of my field and was able to make friends there.
The people in my department welcomed me with open arms. They invited me to their after-university events like sports or parties. They helped me get settled with courses and new systems that I had to get used to. If I would have to compare the systems in Germany and Finland, the biggest difference would be the way self studies are handled. Of course, I can only speak for exchange students, but in Finland, there is a lot less courses and lectures to attend. Most of my courses were book exams where I had to read a book independently and write an exams or essay afterwards. In Germany, we have lectures and seminars and classes to attend. Independent studies are not very common.
In my opinion, the finnish system allows more freedom and helps the personal development of the students, who can decide independently which courses to take and when to take them. They can schedule their semester in their own pace. Although this system asks for more discipline than the German systems does, it helps to develop a greater sense of what the students really want to do and gives the opportunity to work on time and self-management.
One downside of the selfstudies system that is in place is the lack of interaction with other students. I barely had courses with others, and if I did, it was only with other exchange students. I was lucky enough to get to know others through activities outside of the university context, but without that, it would have been tough to meet other students. Speaking of meeting students: There is some truth to the picture of the typical fin. A lot of finnish people like to stay to themselves, do not talk that much and do not ask many questions. But it is also true that it just takes some time for them to warm up. I have met some people during the first week and thought they did not like me, but it turned out that they would be my best friends at the end of the exchange. You just have to be patient and continuously tell yourself that there is a cultural difference between different countries. IF you respect this and do not let the different behaviour unsettle you, you will find friends for life.
After having spent four months in Finland, I can only recommend to go there for an exchange. I fell in love with the country and with the people and it would have been amazing to stay for a longer time. It might take some time to get adjusted to new systems and another mindset in the local people, but it is worth the while.