Santa Claus, Moomin, lakes, saunas, birch trees and xylitol. What do all of these things have in common? They are all from Finland. From August 2014 to August 2015, I studied at the University of Tampere as an exchange student. Everyone, including my parents, criticized my choice, but it was a wise decision. After spending just one year there, I have come to think of Finland as my second home.
Studying at the University of Tampere
Tampere is the third biggest city in Finland, with a population of 220,000. It has two big lakes that surround the city center and many small lakes surrounded by beautiful nature. The University of Tampere (UTA) is located next to the train station at the city center. In total, there are nine faculties on the campus and it has a wide range of fields. Since the city accommodates two other universities, it has a vibrant atmosphere fashioned by students from cultures all over the world.
I encountered no extreme difficulties living and studying in Finland. Although the official languages are Finnish and Swedish, I had no problem with everyday school life, banking, and shopping. The university offered numerous English mediated classes, but I still found a basic level of Finnish obtained from the course Finnish Elementary Course to be beneficial during my stay. Compared to Sookmyung, at UTA, there are only two semesters (Fall and Spring) but each semester has two periods (1st and 2nd). Classes are typically taught during one period, but the class duration and schedule are completely at the discretion of the professor. For instance, my Marketing Communication class was only 20 hours lecture over a 6-week period and my EU Public Finance course was a 12-hour a day course over 3 days. This allows students to create their own flexible timetable. One of my friends managed to arrange her schedule so that she only had classes for one or two week, which enabled her to travel the rest of the time. Also, as an exchange student, I could register for courses other than being restricted to courses related to major, so I enrolled in courses in the social sciences and education.
Life in Finland
Finland itself is not ethnically and culturally diverse, but in Tampere as an exchange student, I was able to meet people from a variety of backgrounds. With the majority of students being from European nations on exchange programs, I felt the campus atmosphere to be free and open. Also, many Asian students take these free education courses.
The best way to learn about cultural diversity is to attend parties. I hosted three parties along with other Koreans– two parties to celebrate Korean holidays, namely the Midautumn Festival and Lunar New Year, and a third one on my birthday. Planning and preparing food was a challenge because I didn’t have any previous experience cooking for others. However, by introducing others to Korean cuisine, I felt more connected to my family back home. I recently received a message from a U.S. friend saying that he’d brought Kimchi from an Asian market after returning home.
The best thing about Finland is its nature. Everywhere one goes, people encounter nature as about 65% of the land is unspoiled. There are clean lakes and forests that people can visit easily, even from the city center. In summer, people go to the forest to pick berries. Finns believe it is everyone’s right to walk and pick berries freely. They eat the berries or preserve them so that they can enjoy them in the winter months. Traditionally, they make lingonberry sauce and other sauces that they serve with reindeer meat. For some Koreans, it may not sound appetizing, but it is really amazing. Next, all year round, Finns enjoy going to saunas. It is common for people to even have a sauna in their home. I recommend going to a public sauna next to a lake. There, it is possible to meet local Finns and cool down in the refreshing water. In winter, people crack huge holes in the frozen lake so that they can swim in the lake. Right after jumping into the water, I felt like needles were pricking me, but after about 15 seconds, I started to feel refreshed and healthier.
I would have to describe the weather as being extreme. Summer is pleasantly warm with long with sunshine until midnight, and a white night is visible around Juhannus, or midsummer. When I arrived in Finland in early August, there were 16 hours of day light, so I had to sleep wearing an eye patch. At that time of the year, Finns can be seen out on picnics, swimming, and tanning. Brisk energy can be felt all over. However, winter is completely different. The days are short, with only 6 hours of sunshine a day. In November of 2014, there was no sunlight due to the thick clouds in the sky and the gloomy atmosphere that filled the area due to the heavy rain at the time. I was somewhat depressed before the snow came, but that short day wasn’t always bad. Winter is the aurora season. Although Tampere is below the Arctic Circle, sometimes it is possible to catch a faint glimpse of the northern lights. One day last March, there was a magnetic storm and that made it possible to view the northern lights. I watched the majestic green lights flowing on the skyline above the frozen lake and even watched the beautiful aurora. It was a very mysterious phenomenon.
Tips for Those Considering an Exchange Program
Before making the decision to travel to a certain country, consider your focus and find the nation that will fulfill your needs. For me, I wanted to meet people from different background, especially western nations, to travel a lot, and to have a unique experience. If you are aiming to improve your English, English speaking countries are better; however, those nations require high TOEFL or GPA scores. Then, I recommend to look other nations like Finland because people there can speak English quite well despite the fact that English is not the nation’s official language. Next, be prepared to introduce Korea. You will meet people from around the globe. Most of the people you will meet will want to learn about your ethnicity and culture. Don’t expect people outside of Korea to know much about Koreans or Korea. Sometimes people may also ask you serious questions on the relationship between North and South Korea and even your personal opinion on the issue. Hence, I wish to say, be a culturally accepting person.