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My expat view on university education in Finland

My expat view on university education in Finland
  • August 23, 2017
  • by Emilee Jackson

At four years old, I began my 18-year education career in Florida. Throughout my education, I took many different routes to the same finish line, such as online school and dual enrollment. When the time came to get a masters degree, I knew that I was ready for something entirely different: Finnish education.

As soon as I started my classes in Finland I saw that there were very obvious differences from the system I was used to. While I was prepared for highly competitive students who were focused on perfect grades and over the top community involvement, I found a laid-back atmosphere. This came from not only my classmates but also my professors and advisors.

In the United States, I had grown accustomed to very strict zero-tolerance policies. For example, very rarely were there opportunities to retake exams or quizzes. If you failed a final exam then you failed the class and had to retake it from the beginning. However, that is not the case here and I was surprised. I was very ambitious and took an intensive Finnish language course in my first semester. My final did not go well, to say the least, but I found out that I was able to study for another month and retake it.

Another example of the rigidity of university education in the United States is the insentience from one of my former professors that her first name was “Dr.” Referring to her by her actual first name was disrespectful. This is starkly different than speaking to my professors in Finland who have doctorates. Everyone goes by their first name here and it was a huge adjustment for me to make. I had one professor state that we, even as her students, were colleagues.

Last, but certainly not least, attendance policies between universities in the United States and Finland are vastly different. While there are obviously attendance rules in place in Finland, they usually call for an extra page or two on the final assignment if you miss more than the allowed number of classes. This is a huge change from failing a course immediately because you missed one too many classes, which I have seen happen. I’ve been in classes with over 150 people where attendance was mandatory and if you did not sign in first thing when class started then you were marked absent, regardless if you showed up 15 minutes later. Of course, not every class is like that.

This casual attitude also found its way into lesson plans and final essay topics. In one of my courses at the University of Helsinki, our professor asked us what we were interested in, and changed the planned lessons to better fit our interests within the subject. However, while this was probably possible largely due to studying journalism and media opposed to science or math, I don’t think I ever experienced this in the U.S.

I have noticed that in Finland, professors and advisors are much more helpful and willing to help students through the education process in any way possible. I’m not sure where this difference stems from. It’s possible that my professors had classes that were too large, or were under pressure in other ways that made it difficult to cater to individual students. Either you completed your education the way it is laid out, or you didn’t. I have found that my professors in Finland are much more receptive to the fact that life happens and you can’t always control how it affects your education.

Before moving to Finland, I experienced many “sink or swim” situations in school. There were multiple times during my undergraduate studies where I was told to just figure something if I didn’t understand it, and if I couldn’t then I obviously was not cut out for whatever it was. Because of this, there were many times when I was forced to teach myself something or risk not knowing it.

Combatting this idea of throwing students in the deep end, there are of course people who lead new students around during an orientation period. In Florida, my orientation was only a weekend long and packed to the brim with information. We were on a well-planned timetable and did the same exact things as every other orientation group. In Helsinki, my orientation took a week and had only one or two things to do per day. The rest of the day was up to the group leaders, who are called tutors.

During my time here, I found that this experience varied the most between students. Some groups had tutors who were highly involved in finding extra activities to do and showing students around the city, and some groups had tutors who did the bare minimum. My tutors fell into the latter category. While these tutors are meant to provide firsthand information and help us feel comfortable I found my advisors and professors to be much more helpful.

All of these aspects combined made an entirely different educational experience for me. There are many positive aspects of education in the United States. Professors in higher education usually have the connections to open doors for their students that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. However, in Finland, I feel as though my education is valued in a way that learning and gaining knowledge is more important than simply obtaining the degree.

About the author

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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, energizing 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.