14.10.2015 Kirjoittanut Status-verkkolehti
Last May (21.5.2015) I had the pleasure to interview two lovely exchange students from the university of Jena in Germany: Selina Schmid and Johannes Algermissen. Now they are back in Germany, but as it is time to welcome new students from all around the world it is also a good moment to stop and reflect – as fellow social psychology students and fellow human beings – what could we learn from their experiences here in Helsinki?
Interview made by: Minna Raivikko
Who are you and what are you doing here?
Selina Schmid: I’m Selina Schmid, an undergraduate student from university of Jena. Now I’m an Erasmus exchange student in university of Helsinki. In Jena I was studying psychology in general, here social psychology. I’ve been here for two semesters, came in August 2014.
Johannes Algermissen: I wouldn’t say I’m an undergraduate anymore, because I finished my bachelor’s. But yeah, I’ve also been studying psychology in Germany, but also philosophy and mathematics. Basically I’m doing two bachelors at the same time. I’m done already with psychology, but not with philosophy and mathematics. Thus, I needed one more year, and took courses in philosophy here in Helsinki as well.
So how come you chose this university of Helsinki as your destination?
Selina: Everyone is asking me that question and I still haven’t figured it out really. I was interested in Finland, because I’ve heard about this super-efficient education system, and the language is interesting. First I decided to do Erasmus and then the destination.
Johannes: I was thinking of going abroad, but I wouldn’t have gone anywhere (without a proper destination). We had some agreement options and one of them was in Helsinki. And for me this was one very good option, because this is a good quality university and I’m interested in Northern countries in general. And since Helsinki offers quite some courses taught in English, I opted for Helsinki.
Johannes, I’ve heard you talk Finnish many times and we were wondering here what’s the secret behind your improved skills?
Johannes: Three times a week. Yeah. And being active. Like reading some Finnish texts and asking people what does this or that mean.
What about you Selina? We just met, but did you have any challenges in learning Finnish?
Selina: I think there are some challenges to learning Finnish as a foreigner, as you don’t have an external motivation or a pressure from the community. I was in a country where people spoke only Spanish, and it was definitely easier to pick up the language as we couldn’t change to English. But of course this is also a privilege for us as we have a common language with local people, but we needed a strong inner motivation and a will to learn.
I’ve heard from some exchange students that it can be a bit difficult to keep in touch with local students, what do you think?
Selina: Well I think it’s a motivational thing, but I think it’s definitely more difficult than hanging around with other international students. First of all there is this language barrier, and even though many Finns I’ve met speak perfect English, still you feel somehow uncomfortable making them speak English to you. And of course this university context is not the easiest place, it never happened to me that I got a friend from a lecture. But of course I think as exchange students it is our job to make the effort ourselves and try to meet Finnish students.
Minna: I can understand this, I’m sure when you come to a lecture room it’s not the easiest task to start a conversation with a stranger. Especially when people often sit quietly even those 15 minutes before the lecture starts. So it’s not that easy to start a conversation with the person next to you even if you were Finn.
Johannes: Yeah, I totally agree, it seems to be a norm here to sit quietly at lectures, also before and after the lecture. I think there is a difference between Finland and Germany in this issue. Here it never happened that someone would start a conversation with me during a lecture. But we also have had some good opportunities to meet and hang around with local students. For example when I participated in this ”Hesarin Appro” and this Table Game night and other fun stuff.
Selina: You have to also have courage. Sometimes it even feels a bit rude to approach Finns, I always think that they don’t want to talk to me because it’s not a norm here to start a small talk with a stranger. As an exchange student you don’t want to violate the cultural norms or anything.
Johannes: For us it was the primary option to come here, but there are some students who wanted to go somewhere else in the first place. Perhaps they are not so motivated to learn the language etc. and that makes it harder to be here. So you need a lot of motivation to integrate into a new culture.
Have you learned something new about your own university life and culture here?
Selina: I’ve found about the hierarchy in German universities, for example between professors and students. In Helsinki you call the professor with their first names, which you are not supposed to do in Germany. Also I’ve found how stressed out we really are in German universities. Here people are more easy-going with their studies, like in Germany people might think that they have to finish their studies in three years and if that’s not going to happen, then their world is going to fall apart or something. Here many students think that if they take an exam and they fail, they are like ”no problem”, just gonna take the course again.
Johannes: I agree, we don’t have this entrance exam thing, a lot depends on your A-levels and even when you study in university, your master’s degree is not guaranteed. We are also busier in the end of the semester because we may have like eight exams. We have these timetables and people who start at the same time take the same courses at the same time. Maybe that’s why it’s a bigger thing to fail a course because then you need to do it next year again with a new group.
Selina: Yes, I think this whole system here is really nice since you can choose your courses, because we can’t. Sometimes we have some choices but often none. Everybody just takes the predetermined courses. So you kind of have a big freedom here.
Johannes: Yeah, and you have more essays. Studying psychology in Jena we usually only had many exams, here we often have to write essays during courses and I think it can be really efficient.
In Jena you probably have a good team spirit as you study with pretty much the same people through your whole studies?
Selina: Yes, we take all the courses and exams together and it is possible to study with each other.
Minna: Nice! So you also get that experience of shared learning while studying with each other, here it can be more complicated when everyone has their own schedule and they may take the courses at a totally different time.
Johannes: I think it’s also big relief that many signs and courses here are in English as well, I feel like it’s a very open and international atmosphere here. There is always these pros and cons in everything.
Do you see any differences between student cultures in German and Finnish university life – for example what students do during their free time?
Selina: For me this was a great experience to see what it is to have a real student culture. You have all these traditions, like “sitsit” and those overalls. We don’t really have these things, we have some parties but it’s just like someone decides to organize a party.
Johannes: I feel like here university is offering many possibilities for students to spend their free time, like these different clubs and Unisport. In Germany we have some clubs, but not in this scale.
Selina: We have some student organizations, like political organizations and so on. But not so many university organizations.
Did you get a chance here to use your social psychological knowledge in practice, you have been in quite a multicultural environment…?
Selina: Well I think sometimes you realize from your surroundings that you have learned a theory. Like this intergroup behaviour, intergroup processes and also sometimes stereotyping.
Johannes: I took this Karmela Liebkind´s course “Relationships between minorities and majorities”, and this course tells you also something about Finland and Finnish history.
What kind of stereotypes did you hear before coming here?
Selina: I’m trying to avoid stereotyping, but let’s say I saw some patterns. Before coming here I heard about silent people and drinking behaviour. As we talked earlier, it seems to be a bit more silent culture than many others.
Minna: Yes I can understand that. Sometimes I’m wondering if we really are silent and shy, or is it only that norm that we are used to fulfill. Also in some occasions it feels awkward to sit silently next to another person for example in Unicafe, but then again it feels strange to start a conversation, because it’s against the norm. Could it be possibly that the other person has exactly the same thoughts? Breaking the norm is not always so easy.
Johannes: Yeah? It might explain what happened to me once. I don’t usually come earlier to lectures, but then it happened that I came a bit too early. Sitting there were two Finnish students, myself and another exchange student. These Finnish students started talking with us but they didn’t talk to each others, just to us foreigners!
Minna: Perhaps some people feel more comfortable talking to a foreign person, because they are kind of allowed to do that without breaking those silent norms.
Recently, Johannes and Selina told me that they miss life in Helsinki a lot
and greet all social psychology students!