Starting from the same point as the previous chapter, it is easy to understand why Finnish education system can be considered one of the best in the world, even for international comers. Still, I would consider the system to be rather too complying. From my experience, the periods did not work so well and 3 lectures (from 1 to 3h) or so per class are not enough. From someone that comes from a country where lectures are developed throughout a whole semester, to be given a deeper knowledge on the matter, over such a short time seemed too dry. I was left with the feeling of learning a little bit of everything and a little bit of nothing. A general discussion among my international peers was how we had too much free time and too less content-based lectures, a feeling of not learning enough or as much as back home. Do not take me wrong, the schedule-balance and the relief during these periods was very comforting and, if you are a researcher this is the study place for you. But I was not fond of the opinion-based papers (like the learning diaries), its informality and the approach to run over a topic because there was no time left to deepen it, as it was left to our own charge. Needless to say, this is a matter of adaptation and personal preference.
Taking on the economical matter, as said before, when moving here one needs to keep in mind the living costs. There are always ways to go around the high prices, but alcohol is the most challenging as its purchase-sale is run by the state and highly taxed to discourage alcohol consumption.
From my year living here, I was lucky enough to have never experienced any type of attack. Finland is a very safe country in general but, there are some silent problems that they never tell you about the country before coming here. That would be that in Finland there is still racism and xenophobia. Although it will not come across as obvious, immigrants and foreigners are left in the margins, and the less Finnish you speak the harder it is to get proper service and support in the country. More to that, Finland has big utter problems with alcohol and substance abuse. Most violent crimes happen while drunk, and the victim is also often intoxicated. There are some violent crimes, even racial crimes, but I think it is not as common or at least not as openly spoken.
As an immigrant or just a foreigner, one place where you can feel this mistreatment is in the tricky public health care system. Finland is known for having one of the best health care systems. The private health care is known here for its quality, nonetheless, the public health care leaves a lot to desire. As I came to learn in my experience and discussions among both internationals and residents here, either you have the private health care insurance (often paid by the employer in Finland), which is expensive as you have pay upfront but provides you an immediate and attentive care, or you rely on the public health care which is free but offers an average-quality service and with long waiting times. To add up, it is important to take note that it is, in most times, better to try to book an appointment rather than trying the emergency point.
One solution to the problem is already said then: go to private health care. Another solution would be, along with the HYY membership fee (Helsingin yliopiston ylioppilaskunta), to pay for the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS – fee mandatory for local students). This system is not collected as part of the Student Union’s membership fee. Instead, all students entitled to use the services are responsible for making the payment for each academic term themselves in Kela’s e-service and it has an extra cost of €35,80 per academic term. For more information on this matter, you can also find the HYY website, under the guide on ‘Health and Wellbeing’.
Another characteristic that cannot go unheeded is the dark winter in Finland. The sun starts rising late and setting as early as 3PM in Helsinki. However, in some parts of Finland, for this period, it does not even rise at all, affecting one’s mental health leading to depressive states, adding that to the cold weather already conditioned.
But do not take it too seriously. Winter in Finland can also be a happy time and there are many suggestions to keep it like that. For me and most international students it was one of the happiest times. For this, one easy solution, highly recommended, especially to those not used to the Nordic weather would be to take vitamin D supplements to help improve/protect your mood and your immune system. More to that, it is always good to keep a positive attitude and a routine. Helsinki, for instance, is full of indoor sports spaces, whether for playing tennis, football, or swimming, among others. The possibilities are unlimited. Besides, I was taught by a Finnish friend how you can, at least within the city, move around the whole time through inside spaces, you just have to discover the tunnels and ways through the metro and its tunnel connections. Still, I would always recommend trying to go outside and enjoy the beautiful white snow that covers the city, while you have it. Go grab a hot chocolate by the fire, at café Regatta. Enjoy!
What is more, this is the season for the snow activities. In Helsinki you can also go ice skating as a variety of rings are set across the city. Many of these are free of charge. Within a time space of 20 minutes from Helsinki, you can start snowboarding, skiing or even try cross-country skiing – a Finnish favourite. If you would like bigger slopes, the North is yours to discover, and the slope options are multiple. The card you buy for the slope stations can be used all over the Nordic countries, as I was told and, in some places, you can even get a student discount from your ESN card (Erasmus Student Network).
The wintertime in Lapland is a must and it will show you the beauty of the “dark times”, as where there is dark, there is also light, and the North offers a variety of them, with the “Northern Lights”. Another remark: one cannot forget that Finland is the land of Santa Clause, so the Christmas time could not be more well fitted. Though the Helsinki Christmas market is still good, the Christmas markets in Finland were quite small and closed before Christmas, disappointing me. However, with a one hour ferry ride you can visit Tallin’s Christmas market which is open on Christmas and was named the Best Christmas Market in Europe in 2019 with festivities and stalls in the Old Town Square.
It is in the winter times mostly, but not only, that there is a common growing sense of loneliness among students in Finland. Especially in the time of COVID and these transitioning times, with Zoom sessions, 1) most classes are still lectured online and 2) no one turns their camera on.
More than that, one topic in which international students pointed out in a survey conducted by HYY (2019) among PhD students as an issue was the lack of community sense, contrasting the overall view presented before. One of the perceived sources of stress was the lack of supportive networks. Influential aspects of social inclusion at the university (e.g., information circulation, knowledge sharing, and project participation) were not always present, and participants reported a sense of loneliness in their doctoral training experience. Doctoral students experiencing stress and loneliness are more likely to face burnout and attrition (Cornér et al. 2017; Pyhältö et al. 2015). Research in Finland indicates that the percentage of doctoral students feeling outside a scholarly community is high and equal 30%. Although stressed among PhD students, it came as an overall feeling for many international students living in Finland.
“Supportive social networks, discussed by all participants, involved the academic culture, and lack of social and academic support from colleagues, supervisors, and peers. While autonomy over their studies was valued by the participants (6/11), most participants (10/11) remarked on the loneliness features here and the lack of “community as such within which you can really learn”.” (HYY 2019)
In the survey conducted by HYY (2019), working life connections were also highlighted as the most frequent issue. Finding a shift-job or a part-time job in Finland comes as quite hard, especially if you do not speak any Finnish or Swedish. It took me months to find the right places to look for it as no one could provide me with the right information.
It is true that to find internships or jobs of any kind, the university introduces “JobTeaser”. You just need to log-in into the platform with your student credentials and start applying. When it comes to finding shift-jobs the matter is different. Even so, in Finland you can find them easily and, for international visitors, in apps like “eesy” and “Treamer” (I used Treamer and I can recommend it). In both, you can find a variety of offers in terms of jobs and places.
There is a lack of communication between the student services and the students themselves and, on the same survey, the organisation came to conclude that it could be nothing but positive for the HYY to develop and provide more employment-promoting services, for example. Sad to say, the communication problems go beyond job information.
“Few people would mention that they had received information about various funding opportunities from the Student Union. Similarly, few students mentioned the university’s student counselling as their source of information on financial matters.” (HYY 2019)
This takes us to another feature, the people, and the culture.
Finnish people are educated and nice but they are shy and very closed, especially in the winter times. Finns tend to have their own groups from school, and it becomes hard to create real bonding. The cultural differences between the Finns and the Southern Europeans are many, but you should also come open-minded to their own cultural ways. One point in which I found we crashed for example, was the social approach. As for us it is natural to be outspoken, loud, opinionated, for them it is rude to be “making noise” on public transports and one of their worst fears is to be caught in a small talk on the street. They also do not have the cultural idea of joint dinners, but then again, it also depends on the person.
Not all Finns are closed, as I was lucky enough to have met some welcoming and warm residents too.
All in all, like everywhere, you just have to adapt and try. You can find all types of people in Finland. Maybe you will be lucky enough to find just the right ones and create a friendship bond.