Read more about Nicole and all her blogs
Hello, everyone! I have officially been in Finland for 3 months (and I’m just now writing my first blog post)! Here’s the thing, being an exchange student is crazy. I mean it. One second it was my first week in this amazing country, and the next—a quarter of my exchange was done. So before I get into describing some of my experiences, let me just say that that it’s not in any way my own willingness that has kept me from writing here. Only passage of time at a rate that would lead one to seriously question their sanity. Since that’s done, on with the good stuff!
Let’s start with the start (that seems reasonable, right?): The first week in Finland is much different than in other RYE countries. For one, neither my host family nor host club greeted me at the airport. Now, you might be thinking ‘what? Did she have to walk home herself?’ and the answer to that question would be: no, I didn’t, in fact, I didn’t even see my house until a week after being in Finland. This is due to the RYE Finland bi-annual inbound camp (held once in the winter for Australians and Brazilians and once in the summer for everybody else). This camp is a great opportunity for all of the new exchange students to meet one another, as well as to get acquainted with Finnish culture, language, and [Rotary] rules. I could spend a whole blog writing about this, but, seeing as there are eleven other weeks to cover, I should move on.
Once camp was over, I was picked up by my host mom and driven home. This, right here, is when the real game begins. You do not know what being an exchange student is truly like until you sit in ebbing silence for two hours in a car with your new mom. Let’s be clear, this is not a bad experience. If, like myself, you have the courage to ignore awkwardness and go straight into discussing what makes your new host family tick, then, in those two hours, you will learn more than you think. In my case, we made a detour to my host grandmother’s house. She was so sweet, caring, and funny, but didn’t speak much English at all. I was forced to use what simple Finnish communication skills I had developed to tell her who I was and why I came to Finland, and to thank her for the coffee and hospitality. From this experience, I learned that success here wasn’t about being perfect, it was about actually trying (something that I haven’t learned about enough in America). Okay, so now we get to the continuing present—as in my general life here in Helsinki. My school days are absolutely incredible. I attend Ressun Lukio (whose name correctly translates to Snoopy’s School) which is known around the Southern Finnish region as being one of the best schools in the country. I cannot comment on how it stacks up against other Finnish schools (though I have a feeling they are all quite good), but from inside the walls, I can say that is has an atmosphere unlike I ever imagined a school could have. All of the students here have a hunger for knowledge that I just don’t see at my school in America, rules are virtually nonexistent, and I’m not kidding when I say that the students run everything besides the teaching.
Being a student in this capital city is very freeing. In my town in Florida, public transportation is basically non-existent and students are expected to be home if they’re not at school. Here there are buses, trams, trains, and metros running 24/7, and parents trust their kids to use them responsibly. There is a common level of respect that most parents seem to have for their kids which creates quite a difference in how Finnish students spend their free time. For example, sports are generally not in schools in Finland. Yes, there are always gym classes and sports to be played, but not in the competitive way that many kids desire. Due to this, any kid who wishes to be involved in competitive sports must find a club outside of school, which often meets on various days in the evening. The high level of transportation in the city makes it an extremely doable task to go from one side of Helsinki to the other, but time limitations might prevent one from going home before all of this. In this situation, lukio students might just hang out in the school or city with friends for an hour before practice. The same idea applies to those in band or orchestral programs, or those with other evening engagements. It’s not about being able to do whatever one wants, it’s about the trust that one is just as level headed and logically thinking as the parent is (and, if not, the experience provides them with the chance to develop).
Finally, let’s touch on some of the coolest things I’ve done since arriving. (1) I spent a weekend at a Finnish mökki (summer cottage) in the western archipelago region. During this trip, I was given the chance to explore a forest whilst picking berries (and eating them!) as well as come to have a greater understanding of the Finnish way of life (i.e. going to sauna). It’s amazing how quickly, after sitting at a dinner table joking and laughing with my extended host-family, I was able to feel at home in this foreign land. It is and will be one of my greatest memories from this year. (2) I participated in two, large-scale Rotary events—these being the EEMA conference and a Baltic Sea rowing race. I grouped these together because I am a large fan of the perennial “rule of three,” but they each deserve a full explanation. If you are not familiar, the EEMA (Europe, Eastern Mediterranean, and Africa) is an annual Rotary Youth Exchange conference, which is held in a different location each year. This year it was, obviously, held in Helsinki, and, given my position as an exchange student, I was invited to be a part of it. The whole event was not just a weekend of lectures, but also a chance to get a world-wide perspective on the RYE program. I listened to everything and thoroughly believe that my voice was heard as well. I am so thankful that this conference and my exchange aligned so perfectly. The rowing race is also an annual event, which is organized to support the preservation of the Baltic Sea herring (and its home in general). The exchange students in my district are always invited to compete as part of our own boat. Sadly, we came in last place this year, but we all had a great time (when we weren’t freezing our fingers off). (3) I visited Stockholm! Yes, this is Stockholm as in the capital of Sweden—as in not Finland, but hear me out. Before August 7th, I had never stepped foot in Europe, and, today, I hav e a completely different view of the world as a whole. My trip to this historic city was not one that I took as an American tourist, but one that I took as a Finnish tourist with my Finnish family. For hundreds of years, Finland was ruled by Sweden, and this trip gave my host family an amazing opportunity to really show me what that means—connecting the things I was learning about Sweden to the history of Finland. This to me was incredibly special.
As I close this first journal entry, I wanted to implore anyone who is considering an exchange with Rotary to continue pursuing it! Exchange is one of the hardest, but best things one will ever have the opportunity to experience. I know this year will impact the rest of my life and I wish for as many kids in Florida to have the same amazing adventure.