Interview with Franka de Haan
Name: Franka de Haan
Host country and university: Finland; Helsinki Yliopisto
What was your motivation for doing your semester abroad?
Ever since starting IRIO it is the part I looked most forward to. Being able to develop yourself in another country felt like a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. It is nice to break your habits for a little while and see if it is hard to ‘start over’ all by yourself. Furthermore it seems like the perfect opportunity to devote time to traveling and exploring while still earning credits. I honestly did not really care where I would go, as long as it would be far away enough from Groningen.
What was your motivation for applying for this country and university?
In all honesty, Finland was not my first choice, it was my third. I did not put a ton of research into the country (as I honestly expected I would go to either my first or my second choice) but just signed up thinking “It’s somewhere I have never been, it would not be too hard to adjust to the living and the education and the nature seems really cool.” So yeah, not a lot of motivation, but in the end I am so thrilled I ended up there and not in Canada or Spain. I feel like the country suited me better than I had expected beforehand.
Did you have any expectations before leaving?
I went in with zero expectations. I prepared what I had to prepare but let the rest come over me, which was actually a really nice way of being surprised by the city, the culture and the people.
Did you find the application procedure difficult?
Maybe not so much difficult as stressful. I think information about this semester was given to us rather late, and the requirements and the amount of form filling – especially for going outside of the EU – were super overwhelming for me at first. We did not get any information for how hard it is to get in somewhere and we were left to ourselves to figure everything out. It was quite intimidating for me, but worth it in the end.
What were the requirements for doing your semester abroad in that country and university?
I don’t remember Helsinki having a lot of requirements actually. The only thing is that they have a contract with the RuG for history and not IRIO so I guess you could name interest in history a requirement. (But then again I ended up doing only one history course and many courses that were more IRIO-ish).
Where there any initiatives of supporting Erasmus/international students in the host university throughout your stay?
Yes! We all got a little tutoring group led by some actual Fins to show us around the city and the student organisations. I also joined ESN Helsinki in the first week which I think was a really good decision. The cool thing about Finland is that Fins are so confused that any foreigner would be interested in them and therefore they invite you to every party! I really didn’t expect it would be so easy to ‘integrate’ with actual Finnish students end doing things like walking in a Students March on Independence Day or joining traditional dinner parties called Sitsits.
Studies: What did/do you think of the university?
The location? The buildings?
Well Helsinki is clearly a city where both the Western and the Russian influences can be seen. Most university buildings were honestly quite ugly; very Eastern European, grey brown-ish, square, and simple. But that’s honestly all I can complain about. The insides are quite modern, the library is super nice, all buildings of the Faculty of Arts are in the middle of the city and the classrooms were just fine.
The study programme?
This is where it got a bit weird for me. I was registered at the University of Helsinki as a History student at the Faculty of Arts. This posed some problems. Although the courses vary over the years, there are usually not a lot of English-taught history courses. You only pick your courses when you have arrived in Helsinki, so even though I found some appropriate courses on the website, I could not follow all of them because some were cancelled and others appeared to be at the same time. In fact, I only managed to follow one English history course (Intellectual History of Political Economy). Apart from that one I followed 3 other courses from the Faculty of Arts (Comparative Politics of Post-Soviet Eurasia, Religion and Peace Mediation – master course- , Intercultural Approaches to Transnational Security -master course) and two of the Faculty of Social Sciences (Global Media and Politics, Comparative Politics) . All of them had a study load of 5ECTS. This period of choosing courses was a little frustrating to me because I wanted to do more courses from the faculty of social sciences, but the University of Helsinki did not allow me. I was a little disappointed by the lack of help from the University of Helsinki in this regard. However, if you speak Swedish and/or go in with an open mind you should be fine. Thankfully the exchange coordinators in Groningen did help me quite a lot with these struggles, and in the end I was quite content with the courses and passed all of them.
The teachers were very lovely. A very great diversity (I had a professor from Ukraine, from Zimbabwe, from Spain, Italy etc.) and a good mix between male an female teachers. All were super capable, approachable, helpful and kind! I feel like it was quite similar to teachers from Groningen in the sense that there was not a lot of hierarchy and everyone is quite down to earth.
Did you like the way of teaching and studying?
It did take a while to get used to, but in the end I wish Groningen could be more like it. There is not a huge gap between the master and the bachelor courses and it was easy to follow both of them. Even though all courses had the same amount of ECTS, the workload was very different. Some had a class only once a week, others twice a week. Some of them took place the entire semester whereas others only about 7 weeks. There is quite a lot of academic freedom: most classes do not have an attendance requirement and you are able to take classes and then drop them again when you do not like them. There are usually not a lot of people in one classroom, even when it is a lecture. There is not a lot of actual studying, but a lot more discussion, sharing of experiences and essay-writing. This was so different to me as in IRIO you have to study quite a lot for a course. The semesters are relatively short, which can be quite nice if you want to go traveling or just get back home early for Christmas.
How was the workload compared to IRIO?
The quality of education is very good, but not as challenging as my IRIO programme in Groningen. I did not write any exams; all grades were given to me as a result of class participation or essay writing. The grading system of Finland goes from 1 to 5, all of them being a pass. It is not hard to pass a course, and although the courses are not necessarily easy, hard work gets rewarded! I got three 5’s and three 3’s.
Social contact: What about the people in the university?
Did/do you meet many international students?
Yes! More outside the UNI though, especially in ESN activities.
Did you rather stay with locals or other international students?
Within the UNI mostly locals and outside of the UNI a good mix of locals and internationals
Did you get to know people outside the university?
Yes! There were a lot of lovely student activities and student travels.
Finances/Logistics: How did it go financially?
Did you aquire a fund?
Yes. An Erasmus+ of 273 a month and 90 euros from NS a month.
Did you have to experience a difference in lifestyle compared to living in Groningen?
Yes. Helsinki is expensive so less eating out and less lubbing and more low key game night in student rooms and karaoke bars.
Was it hard to find an accommodation? Was it affordable?
It is relatively hard. HOAS and UniHome offer great help in your search and I got an offer for a studio on campus for 700/month. I ended up staying at a friends house for way less!
What about spendings on food, public transports and leisure?
Food in the grocery store is okay. A little bit more expensive maybe but not a shock. Eating out is really expensive and not really a very popular thing in Helsinki. Transport was quite cheap. For 25,- a month you get unlimited rides with the bus/boat/tram/metro/train in Helsinki areas. Leisure prices are similar to the dutch one, except for anything that has alcohol involved.
Did you go out a lot? Can you give any recommendations?
I went to a lot of international parties because these are relatively cheap. Most of them are in Club Capitl, Heidi’s Bier Bar and Maximes Rooftop Bar. Apart from that we loved to go to Kallio (the cheap neighbourhood) and just spend our times in pubs and karaoke bars!
Did you practice any sports there?
I did not, although I do know there is a relatively cheap University Gym.
What was your favourite place there?
Either Café Regatta (google it!) which is super cute and cosy, the beautiful Nuuksio National Park or the lively harbour.
Where you able to do some sightseeing and/or travel within the country?
Yes! I highly recommend going to Finnish Lapland: most beautiful thing I have ever seen and so much fun to be in the snow!
What was your favourite local food there?
I think Mudcake (super yummy chocolate-y cake!) or salmon soup
Did you experience something similar to a culture shock? How and in which sense was it different to living home/in Groningen?
A little bit. People are super shy and don’t say hi to you on the streets. At first it can even come off as arrogant, but Finnish people just really value their privacy and personal space. on a positive note; this also means no catcalls by creepy guys ?. I also had to get used to how quiet it can get on the streets. If I cycled home on a Saturday night there was a fair chance that out of the centre I did not see anyone on the streets!
What was the most surprising thing about the new culture?
People don’t wait for you to get out of the metro before you can get in!!!
How was the communication?
Quite good. The level of English is super good. And even though a Fin would never approach you out of nowhere, if you asked them for help they will definitely all help you. Once a girl walked with me for nearly an hour because I could not find an address and I didn’t have a phone!
Were you able to improve your language skills?
If anything, I improved my German by having so many German friends.
With whom did you speak the language?
Literally only cashiers. “kuitti?” “ei, kiitos” “moimoi” “moi”.
What is the most funny word you learned in the new language?
I have more than one because the Finnish language is hilarious.
Juoksentelisinkohan = I wonder if I should run around aimlessly
Lohi = Salmon, Käärme = snake. Lohikäärme = dragon (???)
Hyppytyynytyydytys = bouncy cushion satisfaction
Poronkusema = the distance a reindeer can run without having to pee.
Do you have an interesting story to tell about your stay?
It is really nice to see another student culture! Finnish students wear a Haalarit (= overall) to parties to show that they are a student. The color indicates the study (history being dark blue) and they stick on tons of patches indicating their humor, political views, nationality, sports etc. super cool! They have very cool dinner parties called Sitsits that are filled with lots of inappropriate singing and alcohol, all while being dressed really fancy and eating a three course meal. Fins love Christmas parties and it is really popular to have pre-christmas parties with friends and colleagues. They call it pre-christmas. I took place in the student independence march which was also really special! Lots of torches and waving at the Finnish president. But the weirdest thing of all: Sauna parties!!!! People that meet up next to a sauna and get butt naked and drink beer and get in and out of the sauna. Very strange considering that usually Fins LOVE their space, but in Sauna’s those personal space rules apparently don’t count anymore.
Something you have learned/grown with thanks to the experience?
It has made me more self assured and independent. You become a very creative problem solver.
Is there something you want to tell students who will go to that country and university in the future?
Do as much as you can in the summer and just enjoy the warmth of the city in the winter. Oh and go to Lapland for sure. It is worth every penny!