As it turns out, Finland happens to be the most underrated, amazing country I have had the pleasure of calling home. And that’s just what Finland will one day become for you too, if you happen to choose to do your exchange there: home. Finland is a place few have ventured, or much less even acknowledged as a place where humans do actually inhabit. However, I promise the seemingly high risk of this exchange pays off tenfold in the unforgettable experiences that you will have for life.
There are tough realities of life in Finland that do need to be covered. Darkness definitely tends to be a problem during the winter months. For example, arriving in January, the sun would rise around 10am and set again around 16:30 (4:30pm for us. Hint: Finns, and majority of Europeans it seems, work off 24-hour time, so get used to that). The darkness does mess with your body clock quite a bit, but one thing made this darkness all worth it: the Northern Lights. You may be lucky enough to catch this mind blowing, bucket list essential in the city of Helsinki itself with the help of a huge solar flare occurrence (very irregular), but an unforgettable trip up offered by Aalto University into the Arctic Circle late January is your best shot at catching the Lights. You can even choose to drive a sled dog team (by yourself) in search of the Lights when up north. The obvious flip side of the dark months is the extended periods of light during the spring and summer. Leaving Finland at the end of May, the sun was setting at midnight and would rise again around 4am. During these months, the city of Helsinki and its people come alive with more than enough energy and excitement to make up for the times of darkness.
Another misinterpreted aspect of Finland is the nature of the Finns themselves. They are inherently quiet to strangers; so don’t feel out of place when most people, especially on public transport, are eerily quiet. This is standard in Finland, where small talk is seen as unnecessary and being as direct as possible is the norm. It’s honestly a fresh breath of air from our sugar coated Western culture. This results in many less ‘superficial’ friends, but truer, life long relationships formed with not only the Finns but also other exchange students.
I chose Finland because I wanted an experience like none other. Not taking away from other programs, but I wanted to see and do things that countless Adelaide students weren’t already doing at all of their Western exchange locations every semester. I wanted to be sure that I would be making friends from all stretches of life, not just English speakers that I could easily meet around Adelaide. Finland, given the change, will provide more than you could ever imagine in a six-month experience. I could go on about life in Finland forever, but I’ll close with just a few tips I wish I’d known about living and studying (a bit) there:
- Finnish universities work on a different system, where there are two or three ‘periods’ of study within each semester. Split up your subjects wisely and you could find yourself with only one subject at a time for two periods, or even a whole period free for travel!
- Partner with Finnish students in your groups for classes. They love foreigners and it’s an easy way to meet locals.
- Ask your Aalto student mentor about the 20euro/month phone plan that gives you unlimited data, making it easy to keep in touch with home.
- DO buy the student overalls; they’re a huge part of Finnish student culture and make for great student party pants.
- DO the Aalto University arranged trip to St Petersburg, Russia. It’s such an unreal, hidden gem of a place to visit, and Helsinki is the only place you can travel from by ferry and not have to obtain a visa (save that money).
- They may be expensive, but visit the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) while you’re up there. It’s costly to get up there in the first place, so may as well do it while you’re already north. The rivalry between Sweden and Finland is great entertainment, and rings a similar tone to Australia and New Zealand.
- Finns are the most trustworthy, respectful people you’ll ever meet, so there’s no need to fear thieves or trouble late at night.
- Finns love saunas, and only do them nude. Don’t be intimidated by this, just join in and learn from the best to be incredibly comfortable in your own skin.
- Buy a warm jacket once you’re over there, the Finns know how to dress for their climate best. Hint: check out the second-hand for cheap steals before splurging out on big brands.
- Learn a few Finnish phrases, but don’t expect to become anywhere near good at the language. It’s incredibly difficult, and most Finns speak perfect English anyways.
- Finally, ask Finns for tips! They may seem shy but they love meeting foreigners, and will always go beyond what is asked to help you out.