Section 1. Being a student at a Finnish University
Imran Shamsul, Aalto University
Key question: What is it like to be a student at a Finnish university?
Background information about being a student at a Finnish University
Studying at a Finnish university may differ from your prior experience of learning and education. The Finnish approach requires students to independently manage their time and study effort, while also asking them to apply their newly gained knowledge and understanding.
This deeply independent academic tradition stems from the Finnish Universities Act (link to document can be found in the ‘Further reading’ section below). The Act outlines key operational rules and guidelines for universities and mandates the existence of student unions. According to Finnish law, universities and student unions work together to prepare students for “an active, informed, and critical citizenship.” The student union “consists of the students of a university and is self-governing” and “liaises with and on behalf of its members” with various members and actors within the university and society.
This means that while you study in Finland, you are expected to stand up for yourself and participate actively in the community. To support this, your representative body – the student union – is there to assist your journey through university. Therefore, as a student, you are offered a safe way to argue and speak for things you believe in and positively influence your own experience and that of others while studying – the term ‘advocacy’ is commonly used to refer to this process. Your student union is required to support its members by making their voices heard to the university and government on issues concerning student life.
In addition to the student union, a range of student associations are available based on your pedagogical, school, or study programme. The key areas in which study associations support their members include introducing new students to their study area, providing a range of social and professionally relevant experiences and opportunities, and advocating for their student members directly to the school, department, and/or programme of study.
The studying and learning experience at a Finnish university
Let us discuss what it is like to be a student at a Finnish university! As an international student, you will enjoy the opportunity to meet many people from diverse backgrounds and areas of the world. Working with people from diverse backgrounds might be a challenging but enlightening experience. It will offer you the opportunity to learn more about yourself and your own assumptions, as not all things that are normal for you are normal for others. In a multinational classroom, you will be able to share and learn about your own journeys, stories, and heritages. This is an opportunity to broaden your awareness and perspectives about yourself and the world around you!
Your field of study will determine the kind of ‘everyday’ classes you attend and the assignments you complete as well as the way you are assessed and tested. Your mode of work will also vary. For instance, you may work with your peers in groups or individually. Assignments are designed to display your ability to think independently, critically, and, at times, creatively. You will be rewarded for the effort that you put in, as you are the leader of your own education and effort. If you are an international student from outside the European Union or European Economic Area, you may experience some pressure to perform at academically elevated levels to maintain your student visa or any scholarship you might receive. As a student – international, regional, or domestic – you will not always be at your best, and this is ok! In Finland, there is an emphasis on balancing your study commitments with your overall well-being. This means you can usually discuss your workload with your teachers and negotiate extensions or exemptions.
During class, you are invited to be actively engaged and present. You will be offered the opportunity to ask questions or share feedback about the subject during class. If there is a class discussion, you are expected to speak up and share what you understand or ask questions on the subject matter. Questions are encouraged – as they help you learn or clarify something that does not make sense to you. However, asking questions can be intimidating! You may think, “what if I’m wrong?” or “what if that’s a stupid question?” In a Finnish classroom, being wrong and asking questions is an opportunity to learn and understand how to grow. A university environment is a safe space to learn through your own mistakes and failures.
Student life in Finland is diverse and vibrant!
How much you enjoy your time at university may depend on how comfortable you are exploring different and unique experiences, which can shape your time as a student in Finland. Please be mindful that there is no ‘best’ way to live student life – rather, all experiences can support your growth as a student and as a person.
The social life of a student in Finland can be extremely vibrant! In addition to study associations, there is a good range of associations within the student union offering different hobby clubs and activities, from sports, the arts, and music to different minority groups. During the orientation week and throughout the start of the semester, there are opportunities to explore and get to know these associations through events like Aalto Day One Party and orientation events organised by the student union and student associations.
As a student, you are also encouraged to look beyond your time at the university towards life after graduation. For instance, there are opportunities to meet and experience different companies and organizations through the career development platforms at the university and excursions organized by your study association. This also continues after you have graduated, as there is an Alumni network that you will become part of, where you can find a mentoring programme.
You will enjoy many opportunities to explore familiar or new experiences, meet people, attend events, and celebrate annual events such as Vappu (Finnish for May Day). Please remember to take things at your own pace and spend as much time as you need exploring. There is no right or wrong way or time to start, but since you are travelling all this way to Finland, you might as well experience what student life here has to offer!
Do remember to look after yourself! Being away from home can be a challenge. You may experience a range of emotions, from sadness, loneliness, and homesickness to joy, freedom, and excitement – sometimes, even a combination of all the above! It is important to recognise that what you are feeling is normal and to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed. Students have access to mental health support through various programmes and experts at their university. For example, at Aalto University, there are study psychologists and university chaplains who are there to listen to you and support your mental health and well-being during your studies. Consulting them is considered normal and encouraged by both peers and university staff.
Link to an English translation of Finland’s Universities Act –https://www.finlex.fi/en/laki/kaannokset/2009/en20090558.pdf
A brief introduction to May Day – ‘FINLAND SHOWS CARNIVAL COLOURS ON MAY DAY’ https://finland.fi/life-society/finland-shows-carnival-colours-on-may-day/
Last modified: Wednesday, 29 March 2023, 1:57 PM