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It’s nearly The End of Erasmus – what study abroad has really been like

A nice and relaxing spring is something I always dream of. You know, like wearing a dress for the first time and running around the emerald green fields with an ice cream on one hand and a book (or smartphone if you prefer) in another, or bathing in the energizing spring sunshine with my girls while gazing out into the sea, uncontrollable laughter and bad jokes filling the air.

IMG_20170115_140740I actually almost achieved that today, with the exception of the book being lecture notes for causal mapping and fields having turned into the grey concrete corridors. But who cares about the little details, as I did get to enjoy of the best thing the soon-ending uni life has to offer – and that is being surrounded by truly a remarkable group of friends.

Right now I’m meant to be writing an essay, a thesis plan, doing exam prep and well, continue with the graduate job hunt that feels never ending. Numerical and verbal reasoning tests are slowly and surely driving me crazy. But anyway, instead, I found myself smiling and gazing into the distance and looking back on the little amazing things that have happened this spring.

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Weekend getaway in Bath, England

From a trip to Tenerife to a weekend in beautiful Bath, from countless hours and sleepless nights spent on uni assignments to consultancy meetings and voluntary lectures, and running around between the LRC and sports sessions, I do feel I have done quite a bit these last few months. And this is what I learned from the experience.

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Firstly, living on campus has really been something special, much better than I had expected. If you need help, there is always someone around – and this is true for anything from borrowing a sewing needle at 2am to make a costume amidst a creative burst, lending clothes prior to important presentations or making dinner for flatmates too busy to do it themselves. And if you run out of milk or sugar, well, the flatmates got you covered.

I’ve grown to love the knocks on the window and being greeted with a friendly smile as the girls want to come in to chill in the kitchen for no reason. Or to dance zumba and sing karaoke. Or the times when we had a pre-party and did Christmas decorations for windows and had random people walking past ask if we could teach them too. And we did.

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Getting ready to row

Secondly, doing sports does keep you sane. You’d think having only 8h of lectures a week is easy, but with all reading and assignments and the fear of all final year students aka group work that can determine the difference between 2.1 and 1st class degree, it just all gets really tough mentally. Especially if you are like me and sign up for additional lectures and workshops, and apply for graduate jobs and work casual hours simultaneously. And try have a social life. And cook healthy food. Been a crazy spring, even had to say goodbye to Netflix!

Overall however, joining karate, rowing and recently kung fu groups have definitely improved my quality of life. They’ve not only introduced me to amazing people, but also allowed me to just zone out for a bit. If you go to uni, do sign up for sports clubs! You won’t regret it.

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    These gorgeous girls ❤

Thirdly, always say yes when you are invited somewhere. That’s how the best stories are made. From spontaneous trips abroad to party buses and spending 5h waiting for a train that never came at Kings Cross at New Years morning, the little experiences together create something spectacular.

I laugh when I think of Tenerife, and our spontaneous midnight swim in the sea. Or sumo wrestling with a flatmate, and the day we played pool and all of a sudden decided to book flights to Edinburgh with people we just met. And the road trip to Scotland with the guys, or the laughter-filled evenings and house parties and surprise birthday dinners. The countless ugly snaps and running around the campus with a mini water gun. I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Tenerife, Jan 2017

So what have I learned? 

Not to give up, and keep on smiling even when homesick, tired and demotivated. Smile, take a silly snap, jump around and skip along the road, and after a while you start feeling better again. And if even still you feel sad, hug a friend real tightly and let them assure you it will all be okay.

Never to say no if invited somewhere, unless with a really good reason. Sometimes, going to bed at 9pm is acceptable, but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. Would miss out on too much.

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Finding a new purpose to Christmas lights

 

To appreciate little things. It’s surprising how good it feels when a random person offers to help, the bus driver compliments the colour of your scarf, or just walking into the kitchen and having flatmates that are genuinely interested in how your day is going.  There are also many things I miss from Finland – from central heating to cheap uni lunches and something as silly as finding fresh yeast and cardamom from the supermarket. It’s a different lifestyle and culture here, but different does not mean it’s better or worse in any way. I love living here, and I love it back home.

It is really interesting to see what the next steps will be. What comes after graduation.

 

 

 

 

 

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A second family? – living in a host-family for a year

I remember standing in Auckland airport, waiting to board my third and final flight to New Plymouth. 2009, the exchange year was about to begin. I was happy, but really nervous because I didn’t know who would there to pick me up from the airport, with whom was I going to stay the year to follow.

I was the last Finn to get a host family from New Zealand that year, had almost given up on hope that I could travel with the other AFS students. A couple of nights before the visa application was due, I got a phone call from an elderly man late at night. He sounded kind, really lovely but with an accent so odd I missed half the stuff he said. The main point was that he was to be my host-dad. I did now sleep that night, couldn’t even hold still. It still brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.

Arriving to New Plymouth for the first time, 09

As I got the host family so late, there was no time to get in touch with them, to get a photo or anything. I got off the plane in New Plymouth and just stood there, hoping that someone would come.

That minute or two felt like ages. Finally one AFS volunteer waved at me, and with him was the man that had called me. Graeme, the man who has now over the years become something more of a second dad/granddad than a mere host for a year, and his granddaughter were there to pick me up. I couldn’t figure out half the stuff they were babbling on about, that kiwi accent was a bit of a challenge at first.

Front garden, 2009

I was told I’d be staying with him and his wife in Bell Block, a few kilometers away from New Plymouth (New Zealand), in a small house 5 min walk from the beach. Graeme was semi-retired and the wife was still working. The kids had moved out, but their son and the granddaughter were flatting across the road, and the youngest son would be home for the weekends. I would have to catch the school bus and the area was generally safe but I shouldn’t walk alone at night. Roger.

I met his wife, and the rest of the family that day. Heard the house rules, got familiar with the surroundings, made my room feel like home. Slept for ages to recover from the jet lag. I cannot really remember much from the first week or two… Everything was so new. And weird, like the light switches were the other way around, the meal times were different and not to mention driving on the left side. And oh dear the Internet was insanely slow and having a landline telephone was just plain strange (I didn’t know of anyone who’d have that back home).. It was all also amazingly exotic and wonderful and everyone seemed really nice and whoah the nature was gorgeous – I totally understand why some compare the start of the exchange as something resembling a honeymoon!

School started, I made some local friends my age and got used to catching the school bus daily. Slowly started to figure out the accent as well, though the text language, an essential part of the youth culture, with (m8, up2, brb etc) was still somewhat of a mystery. And I bet everyone thought I was an idiot for I didn’t get half the jokes the locals, especially my host-brother living across the road, were telling me…

Graeme took me to different AFS events, sightseeing, to meet the friends and extended family. We had lovely family dinners and I got to taste the Sunday roast lamb and the famous BBQ´s and passion fruit cheesecake. Yumm. The family had two dogs, for someone with previously only hamsters as pets that was quite cool! We also tried out lawn bowling and other strange kiwi activities and overall the everyday life became quite nice. Not amazing like what you would expect from the EF leaflets you see but nice and basic life, going to school on Monday felt just as bad as it did back home… Also, having the beach nearby was perfect, that’s the place I described at a previous post. Of course you get lonely, and start to miss home and everything familiar at times, but for me having the sea nearby helped tremendously for some reason. It’s the one place that seriously kept me sane when things weren’t going too well.

One might think it´s weird staying in a host-family with just an elderly couple, the kids having left home already. I disagree. I never got close to my host-mum unfortunately, but the siblings were wonderful even though they were a bit older than me and with Graeme we just built this strange connection with from the early stages. I never actually considered changing the family. He took me and one of his granddaughters on amazing road trips during school holidays, told me countless navy stories and made me feel like I was a part of the family. He wanted to meet all of my friends, set curfews and told me if I was to start dating, which I did, that he’d need to meet the guy asap. Basic dad-stuff aye – and I think despite being such a lovely person he really managed to scare my boyfriend when they met.

Roadtrip to Cape Reinga, 2009

Roadtrip to Cape Reinga, 2009

All in all, living in a host-family is such a major part of the exchange that I really appreciate the hard work all the AFS-volunteers go through when selecting the students and families. It’s not always a match made in heaven and strong personalities collide, at times one needs to change the families, but I’m happy of my placement. I couldn’t ask for a better experience. I learned so much that year, I grew as a person and am now much stronger thanks to all that. The great times were better than what I can describe, the bad times mixing in every now and then to make you appreciate the good little moments in life. Just the same as back home.

Now, 6 years later, I still feel happy when I think of my exchange year. So much has happened since, but that year was definitely the experience of a lifetime. I ended up going back to NZ to live there for another year and a half with my boyfriend of the time, but I kept in touch with the host-family and especially Graeme. He’s even friends with my parents, and is coming here on a holiday next summer with his wife. Can’t wait to get the chance to show him my country, all the wonders of the good-old Finland, to say thank you for everything he’s done for me. And maybe even let him scare the new boyfriend of mine… It´ll be fun.

The Best Host-Dad Ever. Another road trip, this time in 2014.

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Ten Reasons to go on an Exchange – you’ve already applied, haven’t you?

A student exchange. When I was fourteen the travel fever rose to the extremes and my Oxford-dream of intensive studies changed to sunbathing in Malta for a month. Don’t know if I learned much English, but it was fun anyway. A few years later it was time to step up the game and fly a bit further away from the nest – off to New Zealand and to an all-girls school for a year. School uniform, a new culture, an experience of a lifetime. That’s where it all started, a chain reaction, and soon I found myself looking for jobs abroad. Me, back then a 18-year-old naive little girl, all alone headed to the big world during the best age for some serious studying.

Not even once have I regretted.

You should definitely go on an exchange.

You grow as a person, you experience new things, you get to network. When meeting new people you absorb some of their life experience, start to see the bigger picture, maybe understand something new. You get inspired, might even get a gentle push to start following your dreams and become the entrepreneur you’ve always dreamed of. Or find the courage to follow a completely different career path, something you never thought was an option, to jump into the unknown with a smile.

Going on an exchange and working abroad encouraged me to change my career. Even ended up getting my favourite quote, my guideline in life, tattooed into my arm “vaikka juuret ovat maassa, siiville voit silti nousta” (Something along the lines of: even though the roots are in the ground, you can still rise onto your wings). Time for a new school, new stories. It’s still a year and a half before my next exchange, this time to Great Britain I hope. I smile when I think about that, Soon I’ll get to go.

Why don’t you go as well?

Where to go, and how?

University students have a lot more places to choose from than the shy sixteen year olds. The world has become a playground, jumping from an island to the next after employment opportunities or let’s say a 6 month exchange into Singapore is no longer rare. When you are wanting to go abroad, the easiest thing is to consult your school – take advantage of their partnership networks. They might even be able to help you out financially.

And if there’s a place you really want to go to but the school cannot help you with, check out Kilroy or other travel agencies who can help you out. Or be different like me (read annoying enough), plan and organize your own trip to the last detail and just ask for the principal’s approval… Getting that “Hmm okay, I guess you can do it” felt insanely good. Academically, you might fall a little behind if you go off by yourself – but experience-wise it’ll so be worth it.

When choosing the place, I’d think a little further than where to get the tastiest cocktails while chilling on a hammock. A couple of months checking out the best beaches and paradise islands sounds amazing, but challenging yourself in a prestige university or a traineeship in the fast-paced corporate world might prove more rewarding. Of course everyone has their own personality and goals, but I reckon for a fellow business student seeing the boom of Asia or the solid business hubs in Europe & the USA might offer some amazing career opportunities after graduation. Think on what will benefit you the most – there’ll be plenty of time for a beach holiday later on. Or even better, compromise, and head off to NZ – you can go surfing after work!

If you don’t go, you’ll miss out on so much.

Not everyone is adventurous, not everyone is interested in being international, so what – do what’s best for yourself. But if you have even a little flame burning inside you, a voice whispering stories of the wonders of the world and butterflies flapping their wings in your stomach every time you hear about someone else’s experiences then stop and think. What do you have to lose?

Opportunity cost, one of the first things I learned when Business School started last autumn. What do you need to let go of to get what you want, the price of your choice. If you don’t go, you won’t miss out on your life in Finland or wherever you are from. Your circle of friends will remain unchanged, the days rolling forward as always. A cup of coffee every morning, summer, autumn, winter, spring + maybe a deserved holiday? And again. The student parties and social relationships enlivening your weekdays, soon you will graduate and join the work force. Yay. You can execute your high school + university + work + retirement plan to the last detail. Travel when you are retired, having created a marvellous career, once the kids have moved out, when you have the time and money. When. If. Then. Just not yet.

But if you go now then.. Well I promise you’ll have fun. You are still young, isn’t now the best time to go, nothing is holding you down. When on an exchange you’ll meet new people, see new places. Oh and experience some setbacks and misfortunes and at times life in new culture sucks – that I promise as well. But you will grow as a person thanks to that.

The reason I encourage everyone to live in a new culture rather than just to travel there, is experiencing the normal everyday life. When you travel you’ll be enjoying a honeymoon; everything is new and beautiful like Instagram-photos, or dirty and dilapidated and shockingly exotic – depends on where you go. But you see everything from an outsider’s point of view, you taste the local cuisine, hear the music. You scratch the surface of the iceberg. But during the exchange you dive into the culture, dig a little deeper. Of course six months or even a year won’t let you experience, or understand, everything but nevertheless it’s a good start.

School will continue when you come back. The friends will not have vanished, and hey I doubt Finland has changed a lot. You’ll change, even a little. Might get a new perspective, maybe learn to appreciate your own culture in a new way, to genuinely cherish the free education. At least you’ll make friends. You’ll return happy and ready to get back to studies – overall, everything is pretty darn good over here. Or you come back, get a culture shock, want to improve everything and then filled with vigour find a way to lift Finland into a new economic boom while planning your new trip. Not bad.

And if nothing else, at least you don’t have to slouch in the snow slush for once.

I can’t wait for the snow to melt properly…