WTF: Why to Finland?

By Thilo Thelitz

You’ve seen Finland on the list of exchange spots and you’re wondering what it offers to you as an English student? Here’s the perspective of someone who spent a year there (spoiler: it was awesome)!

The spot I ended up choosing was Tampere, because their university allows a two- semester stay as opposed to the one semester in Helsinki. The longer I’d stay, the better I could learn Finnish, or so I thought at the time. More on my mild success with the language later.

Tampere is one of the biggest cities in Finland, and some have told me that it’s probably the “most Finnish,” since the next-biggest contestants have stronger international influences. Turku is very close to Sweden geographically and culturally, and the Helsinki area has both a larger Swedish, Russian, and international influence than Tampere (at least that’s what I’ve been told).

Tall chimneys like the one here in Koskipuisto are a part of Tampere’s landscape.

It’s a beautiful city in my opinion, with an industrial identity that expresses itself in lots of red-brick buildings and tall chimneys. Because of this, Tampere’s nickname is “Manse,” in reference to Manchester. Unfortunately, this similarity is not enough to fulfill the Lehrdiplom requirements of stays abroad for English teachers.

I got a great student room in a building called “Pinja,” an old hotel in the city center that functions as student accommodation from August to May and as a hotel in the summer. If you come here, sell your soul to get a room in this place: it has the most comfortable beds, big cozy private rooms, floor-heated private bathrooms and your campus is a 15-minute walk away.

Other locations can make sense if you want to be closer to nature or don’t want to share a kitchen with 20 people (although it is pretty spacious). Only exchange students live in Pinja, and it’s a really great place to meet other people.

On that note, if you come here, I’d recommend you arrive before welcome week, because that’s when you’ll get your bearings, that’s when all the other disoriented exchange students arrive, and that’s when you get a free ticket to the local amusement park for free if you’re in a TOAS building (like Pinja). Highly recommended!

A view of Särkänniemi amusement park from the tower in the middle (it also offers great views of the city!)

If you arrive in summer, there’s a good chance you’ll see parks filled with students in their patch-covered overalls (it’s a thing here). I really love the Student culture here, especially in summer, you’ll see lots of people hanging out, playing games and drinking outside.

If you want to be part of that, I can’t recommend joining ESN FINT enough. It’s the local Erasmus Student Network chapter, which provide locals and exchange students with great events, info, help and the opportunity to get to know people. If you have some way to help I’d consider volunteering and helping them organize things. I did the same and it has done much to make my life here amazing. You’ll also notice I kinda stole the joke in the title from them. Oops.

If you’re part of the FINT team, you’ll get to go to the Officer’s and Board Member’s Cottage Weekend to a cottage like this!

The university system has some differences to Zurich. Years are divided into four periods instead of two semester, though most of my courses stretched over a whole semester. How long they run is different from course to course again, which means there isn’t as much of a “death week” of exams here.

You should also know that most have a maximum number of absences (usually 2-4), and they can give you more work or fail you if you don’t come. There is a great library (Linna) which also has the best cafeteria, and there are two more cafeterias across your campus. They all always have a vegetarian option.

As in Zurich, if you want, you can book cross-faculty courses. You just need to have the majority of your courses at your home faculty (the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences, or ICT, for English students). Then, of course, you also have the opportunity to take Finnish courses. There’s a series of easier crash courses and more intensive ones called “elementary” which take place 3-4 days a week.

Even though I’m happy I did the elementary courses, I would not recommend this to everyone. At the end, you’ll have good basic knowledge about many word types, cases, tenses and such, but you’re still very far away from being able to understand conversations, newspapers, songs etc. fully (at least I can’t).

If you really want to speak Finnish well, you’ll need to find some Finns and force them to speak Finnish to you every day. Which isn’t easy, because nearly everyone here speaks English at a great level, especially at and around university.

So if you’re a language nerd and want to commit a lot of time to get basic knowledge and then go home and probably never speak it again like me, go for it. But if you don’t plan on staying in Finland for a long time after studying, then it’s not really worth it.

I don’t think Finnish is excruciatingly hard to learn, learning any language is no easy task. But I do think some things in Finnish make it harder, first an foremost that many words just sound completely different.

While the German Frucht might be easy to recognize in the English fruit or the French fruit, the Finnish hedelmä looks completely different. It doesn’t help that, from my impression at least, many words other languages borrow from English are expressed with Finnish words in Finnish. For example, what’s called online shop in English is still an Online-Shop in German, but in Finnish, it’s a verkkokauppa (literally “net shop”).

So if you’re not really excited and motivated to learn it, I’d just take a less intense crash course or let it be. Everyone speaks English, so I literally never had any problem communicating here. Well, maybe sometimes, but I was nowhere enough confident in my Finnish abilities that it would’ve helped.

Now for some of the cool things you can do here outside of university. First off, some companies offer relatively cheap student trips to places in and around Finland, like Northern Lapland, Russia or the Lofoten Islands in Norway. If you’re at all interested in seeing the Northern Lights, doing some ice fishing or hiking in the bitter cold, now’s your chance for a trip to Lapland.

Some nights, the Northern Lights almost cover the whole night sky in Kilpisjärvi.

As for Tampere and the area around it, you can go pick blueberries and mushrooms in the fall, ice hockey when it’s in season and of course there are tons of public saunas where you can heat up and jump in the lake afterwards. It’s the “Sauna Capital” of the World after all. In winter, you can jump into holes in the ice after sauna, or just go ice skating on the frozen lake. ESN FINT will probably rent out ice skates for a small price again.

When the lake is frozen, you have to cut a hole in it with an ice saw to take a bath after sauna

Otherwise there are some great museums, like Vapriikki, which is kind of a 7-in-1 museum which is free for three hours on Fridays, or the Moomin Museum, which is free one day a month, if that’s your thing. And then you have your usual bars, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, laser tag places and what have you. I can recommend trying to get tickets for some kind of Finnish music gig.

If you’re interested, you might be able to visit a Finnish high school and talk to some of the teachers there. When I was in Tampere, they made this possible through an “Erasmus in Schools” program, which the university will probably tell you about. ESN FINT also organized a high school visit while I was there.

So that’s a quick rundown of things you might want to know about Tampere as an exchange destination. In the end, I can say that my year here has been one of the best in my life and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, especially to Tampere. If you’re thinking about going there and have questions, feel free to ask me at thilo.thelitz@gmail.com! I also wrote a small blog about my exchange at thilo.fi (might take some time to load).

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