Hi! My name is Sarah Gunsenheimer, I am originally from Germany and currently a 3rd year BTO student. I was supposed to go to Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada for my exchange semester, however, the university cancelled the exchange for all international students last minute. This meant that I needed to act fast and come up with three new universities that I would be interested to study in before the final deadlines were over. I was lucky and got accepted for my first choice, Helsinki University in Finland. Even though Helsinki is a lot smaller than Toronto, it still gives one the feeling of big city life. The studio that I live in was organised through the university which took a lot of stress off my mind. I live in the suburbs of Helsinki, so it takes me around 45 min by bus to get into the city centre but therefore, I have a lot of nature right outside my doorstep. Sort of the best of both worlds! I applied for a shared apartment but received my own (VERY spacious) studio. At first, I wasn’t happy about it as I like having people around me and usually my room mates turn sort of into my little family, but I feel quite comfortable in my studio by now.

The application process for the university itself was pretty easy and well organised as they sent out newsletter which stated several steps one had to follow. The exchange coordination team also organised numerous events on Zoom beforehand to make sure to make the process as clear as possible, to give some valuable advice and to answer any questions. Though, I thought it was rather difficult to find out about courses that were suitable for exchange students. They had just changed to a new system which turned finding courses into an absolute mess. As the semester is divided into two periods, I only applied for my last three courses a couple of weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the first period was solely taught online. I chose the courses “Gender, society and politics”, “Introduction to migration studies” and “Nordic societies and cultures”. The first course did not have any interaction with the teacher or any other classmates as the lectures were pre-recorded. Also, her English was pretty hard to understand, and she talked so slowly that I could watch the lecture on 2x speed. So, that was a bit of a pity but I still learnt a lot. The migration course was very interesting and motivated me to think critically about the topic and the Nordic course taught me new things about the Nordic countries and cleared up misconceptions that I had before such as that Finland is actually not part of Scandinavia. Both latter courses’ examination methods were learning diaries. This was a new way of examination for me, and I really enjoyed writing down my reflections. Though, I don’t have my grades yet (let’s see if I still like it after).

Period 2 is partially on campus, so I finally get to see all the beautiful buildings that Helsinki University has to offer! Right now, I am following the courses “Race, Ethnicity, and Environment in American History”, “Social Realities in the Global South”, and “Welfare State”. The course about social realities in the global south requires us to read a novel and have group discussions about it. It is about Nigeria’s colonial past and meeting up with my group feels a little like a book club. In general, I have the impression that the Finnish education system is even more flexible than in the Netherlands. You could even choose individual dates for your exams!

Even though I wasn’t able to meet a lot of people in person through my courses, I still managed to make a lot of friends. University assigned us tutors who organised freshmen activities which helped me to get to know not only other exchange but also some Finnish students. Afterwards, I went on several trips with my friends to explore Finland’s nature and culture. I also signed up for a Baltic trip organised by the ESN which took us to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and I am going to Lapland very soon to finally see some snow and get to experience the REAL Finnish winter (I am a little scared, though, that I am going be painfully cold the whole time!).

Living expenses are not as high as I expected. Comparing it to the Netherlands going out for dinner or grocery shopping are pretty much the same. The only downside is that alcohol is roughly double the price. However, Estonia is just around the corner and a ferry ticket only costs 10 euros return which is why many people go there for a day to do their alcohol shopping! Getting a job is possible as soon as you have your Finnish identification number but difficult due to not speaking Finnish and the COVID-19 situation.

Lastly, the Fins are less reserved than I was told and as soon as they had a couple of drinks they let loose! However, some stereotypes have been confirmed. They love going to the sauna and so do I, but I don’t love jumping into the Baltic Sea after as much as they do (yet, anyway). They queue up for the bus with a 1,5 metre distance between each other already before the pandemic (great practice) and they are obsessed with ice hockey (definitely recommend to visit a game) and heavy metal.

I am really enjoying my time here and I am trying to make the most out of it. I recommend anyone to go for exchange and my biggest advice is to make use of all the opportunities you have to meet new people and explore the country, even if that takes you out of your comfort zone sometimes (or probably exactly because of it!)

Author: Sarah Gunsenheimer