On my first day of classes, I showed up 10 minutes early. After double checking the schedule on the door I waited around for people to show up. And I kept waiting.
It came time for class to start at the top of the hour and still, no one was around. People finally started to show up about 10 minutes after the class was scheduled to start. This happened a few more times and I really had no idea what to think. It wasn’t until my third day of classes that I found out that classes started 15 minutes after the time on the schedule and ended 15 minutes earlier.
Student life in Finland is such a different experience than it is in the United States and this is just one anecdote from my first year in Helsinki.
One of the biggest, and maybe the most obvious, differences is the lack of any university affiliated sports team. It really changes the experience of going to a university. I think that universities in Finland lack the comradery and community that comes along with games. There’s nothing quite like getting together with thousands of students every weekend to be rowdy about sports.
While sporting events may be a noticeable difference, I think a more subtle change in education here that might not be noticeable as an outsider is the Finnish approach to school. Coming from a student culture where being constantly stressed about school is the norm, there was a learning curve for me in Finland. I had to learn to relax.
I have spoken to students here in Finland who put off writing and submitting their thesis for years, and they weren’t stressed about it. They would get to it eventually. In America, if you take longer to graduate than the “normal” amount of time it is seen as a failure and something to be embarrassed about.
I think that the root of this difference comes from the support that students receive. For example, when I arrived in Finland and had just started classes I was given a grant essentially for being a new student, which was a surprise even though I applied for it. And I was shocked when I received another to fund a summer internship. In the United States, scholarships and grants are pretty difficult to come by, and to receive two right off the bat was very unexpected.
The support given to me as an international student had a huge effect on my experience here. I know that Finnish citizens receive additional support depending on their situation. I think that this takes a huge amount of pressure off of students here to be overextended in order to support themselves. In turn, this changes how students experience their time in school.
One less obvious sign of student support is the availability of affordable housing. The two main options for students include HOAS (a foundation dedicated to providing student housing in Helsinki) and different student nations, which are associations for students from different parts of Finland. Before I moved to Helsinki I applied for housing with HOAS and was anxiously awaiting an apartment assignment. There were thousands of students waiting in the queue ahead of me, so I was worried that I wouldn’t receive a housing assignment. But I did end up with an apartment and I learned that had I not received one and was unable to secure housing through a private lease or sublease that the city of Helsinki would step in.
If it weren’t for the different housing options available, living costs would be astronomical and likely unaffordable for a student. Daily living costs in Helsinki are quite expensive. A single person apartment in the center of the city can easily cost 1,200 euros a month or more, a transportation card without a student discount would be about double the price, and buying a coffee every day will eventually add up. However, there are ways to cut down on living expenses. For example, there are multiple options for things such as groceries, clothing, and furniture depending on your budget. There are two IKEAs just a short bus ride away from the center, there are recycling stores with furniture, kitchen things, bikes, clothes, etc. Often, these places will also offer a student discount.
If you’re wondering how you will get your furniture, clothes, and groceries home don’t worry, getting to all of these places is very easy. Public transportation in Helsinki could not be better, and it helps that the city is not very big which means that getting around town never takes very long. Almost every bus and tram is on time every single time. You will rarely be waiting in the cold any longer than you really need to. There are apps such as Google Maps and Commuter that will help you get from point A to point B, plus there is Reittiopas (Finnish for route planner), run by Helsinki Regional Transport Authority itself.
On top of making daily life affordable for students, there aren’t any textbooks required for courses and pedaled at an astronomical price. When I came to Finland I had to ask multiple people just to make sure that it was true. I was not looking at a price tag of a few hundred dollars for books and online codes on top of tuition every semester. Teachers almost always provide the reading in the form of PDFs or other links. There are also many books available through the university library, such as work books for language courses and academic texts.
One of the few things that aren’t discounted for students in Helsinki is a night out. Nightlife in Helsinki is something that needs to be planned in advance. It’s expensive. Drinks and alcohol, in general, are very expensive throughout Finland. An alternative to going out to bars is going to parties hosted by student organizations. These parties generally have drinks sold at very low prices. And if you end up staying out late enough to see the sun rise again there will still be a bus to take you home.
If you’re not interested in going out and partaking in Helsinki nightlife, my best piece of advice is to find a student organization that meets your interests. You can join the scouts, learn Karate, take part in the photography club, there’s a club for just about anything. The best thing I did was join the organization for international students in my faculty. These organizations are a great way to meet people who aren’t in your classes and they provide an opportunity to branch out during your time in Finland.
Speaking of student organizations, a surprise to me was that here in Finland the Student Union is an actual union. While this may seem like common sense, at my old university the Student Union was simply a building and not an organization of any kind. Here, the Student Union organizes events and has student representatives who have some influence in what students here receive.
In a nutshell, this is my life as a student in Helsinki. There are discounts galore, support for students, organizations, and a vibrant nightlife. It’s never hard to get from one event to the next, and there’s never a shortage of things to do.
About the author
A native Floridian herself, Emilee is already one year removed from the Sunshine State on her way to earning a Master’s in Media and Global Communications at the University of Helsinki. She also happens to be busy doing an internship at Emended, energising our digital content with her unique perspective. For August, Emilee is hosting a three-post blog series on her experiences of being an international student in Finland. Follow Emilee on Twitter