Willem, Outbound to Finland

This is my first journal entry on my exchange. I’ve currently been in Finland for about 6 months and the journey so far has been incredible, to say the least. I’ve changed so much as a person, even if it’s not noticeable to everyone around me. So here is a summary and stream of my thoughts about my exchange so far.

For me, getting on a flight to another country wasn’t that big of a deal. The real challenge for me was saying bye to my family for a year. Personally, I had no trouble being independent as I was 17 when leaving and had just graduated from high school. I then boarded the plane and got ready for a journey of a lifetime.

Once I arrived I was greeted by a bunch of other exchange students who would later become my best friends and many other Rotary officials. We got on our separate buses and headed to our week-long language camp in a city called Karkku. There, I was introduced to important basics of the Finnish languages and I was given insight on Finnish culture. It was such an amazing experience and I’ll remember it forever. Some of my favorite parts were my first Sauna, visiting Tampere, and hanging out with my best exchange friends.

After Karkku, I had to say bye to my exchange friends and I met my first host family. A few days after the camp I was a bit sad, but I was just learning to adapt to my new situation. I had settled in with my new host parents and they taught me how to use the Finnish transit system. I was shown around my town in Vantaa and I learned how to get to my school, Ressun Lukio.

My first day of school was very interesting. For the time being our school was under renovation so my first experience in Finnish lukio (high school) was at a temporary building. I arrived at school with the other exchange student Lolie, who is from Spain. For the first few weeks, Lolie and I stayed together as we had the same schedule and didn’t have many friends at Ressu. After that period of time, I made a lot of friends and got invited to hang out. To be honest it was very lonely at first because most Finns are very shy and many kids already had established friend groups. Finnish school is also a lot cleaner and more organized than in the United States. The people at school are also very mature and take school seriously.

About half a year has passed since I left for exchange and I have had many ups and downs. I’ve had to say goodbye to some of my best friends in Australia and I’ve learned many life lessons. I feel like I truly live here now as I’m able to travel the city by myself with ease, I have great friends here, and I have made amazing bonds with my host family. Sometimes I’ll be on the bus and I’ll think to myself about how this is my new home and about how far I’ve come. I’ve become much more independent and have increased my ability to rely on myself. I went up to Lapland with my host family and my little host brother actually taught me how to Ski. I also vividly remember the first time I saw snow coming home from school in Helsinki. I had just gone shopping with some friends after school and snowflakes just started floating down. Being raised in Florida, it was a pretty magical thing to see. One piece of advice I’d like to give is that you can make your exchange truly yours by being able to adapt to what you’re given. My exchange has been in the city center so I’ve had to adapt to city life, while some of my exchange friends are way up in the North and have had to adapt to what they were given. It’s all about perspective and being able to adapt.

Learning Finnish has been quite difficult. I take university courses every Tuesday and Thursday, and I take a Finnish class on Mondays at my school. I practice with my school and local friends as well as with my family when possible. Even so, it is still very hard to speak and communicate my thoughts to others. I find myself learning and understanding more every day, but it is hard to stay motivated. I can hold basic conversations and can mostly understand my friends when they speak, but it is hard as spoken Finnish is drastically different from written Finnish. I would say my goal is not to be perfect at Finnish but to be able to have better conversations and understand most topics that people say to me. Learning Finnish fluently in one year abroad is not very realistic and I would have to devote too much of my time to do so. But, I do want to be able to understand day to day things and I believe I am on the right track to doing so.

All in all, these past 6 months in Finland have been amazing. I hope to continue to adapt to the culture and I am so excited about my future travels in Finland. It has gone by so fast, so it is important to make every moment count and savor what you can. Don’t be afraid to do something out of your comfort zone and always say YES to new opportunities. This exchange has changed me so much for the better and I want to thank Rotary for this amazing experience. Kiitoksia!

Click HERE to read more about Willem and all his blogs