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Finding Authenticity Abroad

June 12, 2019

Graduation date: December 2018
Major: English
Minor: Political Science
Language studied: Finnish
Learning abroad experience: Finland and Sweden, summer 2018

What inspired you to travel to Finland?

I had no idea how deeply I would fall in love with Finnish culture when I first entered my classroom in Folwell, and it was sometime during my second year that I realized how significant Finnish had become in my life. I decided to visit Finland out of a desire to become more familiar with the subtleties of Finnish language and culture. I did not engage in an organized instruction or program for my trip; I just went.

What was your learning abroad experience like?

I spent time in Helsinki, Turku, Seinajoki, Rovaniemi, and I also visited Stockholm in Sweden. I visited museums, spoke Finnish with everyone I could find, tried local food, and met a number of my Finnish family members for the first time. My Finnish relatives and acquaintances generously shared their homes, their lives, and their time with me. I gained invaluable insight into Finland’s history, politics, traditions, geography, and everyday life, but that isn’t all. My time abroad offered me a new perspective from which I could view America and the Midwest. Although I absolutely learned multitudes about Finnish culture, I ultimately learned even more about America and myself.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time abroad?

Near the end of my visit, I stayed with one of my distant Finnish cousins in her suburban Helsinki home. I met her for the first time earlier in my visit, so we did not know each other very well when she offered to let me stay with her. She could not have been more generous or warm-hearted toward me during my stay and went above and beyond the expectations of a hostess. Staying with my cousin turned out to be one of the highlights of my entire trip; I would not trade the time I spent with her for anything. We visited Porvoo, watched movies, and chatted about everything from boyfriends to cultural differences. I have never felt more comfortable with someone I knew so little, and I have never felt more at home in a home that is not my own. While we were eating dinner on our last evening together, she looked down and told me she didn’t want me to leave. When she said that, I think my heart could have burst from the depth of gratitude and affection I felt for my new Finnish friend.

That moment with my cousin perfectly illustrates a pattern that wove itself throughout my visit. The warmth and generosity that flowed from my Finnish relatives and acquaintances exceeded any expectations I had before I arrived. Every person I met resonated with a genuineness of a kind I have not experienced elsewhere. I went to Finland expecting to be amazed by the sights and experiences, but my most lasting impression is of the Finnish people. I hope someday I can show them the same generosity and kindness they showed me.

How has studying another language and culture changed how you approach your education, career trajectory, or life in general?

Studying another language and culture completely changed my perspective on the world and my own experiences. As an English major, I am acutely aware of the fact that language shapes the way we see the world around us. All the words we use have meaning, meanings that are both overt and explicit as well as subtle and implicitly understood. American culture has loaded the words within the English language with a great deal of meanings that I implicitly recognize without needing to acknowledge all the time.

Studying Finnish broadened my understanding of how language shapes our perceptions and our selves (two words here, as in the self). Learning Finnish challenged me to reconsider everything I understood about language and perspective from an English standpoint. Though this likely happens with the process of learning any language, Finnish offers a unique opportunity in this sense. Learning a language whose structure contrasts so starkly from English encouraged me to consider the world from a new perspective. The structural differences forced me to stop fixating on individual words and syntactical rules and begin focusing on the overall meaning and messages. After being trained to notice slight patterns and irregularities in English prose through my major, this was a very difficult challenge for me.

That being said, learning Finnish was the most rewarding challenge I have ever undertaken. I stepped out of my comfort zone every time I stepped into the Finnish classroom, and the discomfort of learning a difficult language taught me a lot about myself and my personal goals. For example, I learned how deeply I appreciate learning and helping other people learn. My Finnish instructors, Dan Karvonen and Aija Eig, showed up to class with more enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to their profession than any I have seen. Their dedication to their students inspired me to commit myself to my learning; I wanted to learn not simply for a grade, but because they wanted me to learn. Learning Finnish taught me how to love learning again, and my love of learning will follow me out of the Finnish classroom.

How does understanding another language and culture gives you an advantage in the workplace?

The benefits of learning another language are not limited to communication and cultural understanding. Language-learning requires an incredible amount of patience, humility, perseverance, dedication, teamwork, and mental fortitude—which means that studying a language helps you develop those qualities.

When I first started studying a foreign language, I felt like I was treading water in the middle of an ocean. It was not a comfortable feeling and I do not think I am the only one who has experienced it in a language class—but it did not last forever. The more I studied and the more heartily I threw myself into the effort to keep my head above an ocean filled with Finnish verb types and postpositions, the easier the effort became. I loved the moments of epiphany when something finally made sense. Those moments motivated me to continue; they revealed how rewarding it can be to overcome an obstacle. Now I am not as quick to shy from a daunting task; I’m better equipped to handle any intellectual challenges I may face. I learned how to find strength and determination in the space between discomfort and surrender. This perseverance has already aided me in pursuing my career.

Getting outside my comfort zone taught me another crucial lesson. Before I took Finnish, I did not do well with uncertainty, unease, or conflict of any kind. I ran away from uncomfortable situations. But I couldn’t run away from Finnish; I needed my language requirement. So I checked my ego at the door of the classroom and learned how to be patient with myself. I learned how to look at my struggle as an opportunity to grow, rather than as a failure to succeed. I slowly learned how to accept areas that need improvement, which is a truly invaluable skill in any context.

I also realized that learning a language is easier when you conceptualize it as a group effort, rather than a solo endeavor. Too many students look at school as a competition. That mindset can be incredibly motivating but it can also lead to destructive attitudes and habits. At some point in my Finnish study, I released a bit of the competitiveness that has propelled me toward academic success and instead allowed myself to see my class as my team. And thank goodness I did. I could not have learned as much as I did without the unfailing support of my instructors and classmates. The ability to cooperate and collaborate on difficult projects is one that I know will translate well to a workplace.

If you received any scholarships, how did they aid your learning abroad experience?

I received the Finnish Connection Scholarship at the end of last year, which facilitated my travel abroad in a major way. It allowed me to consider the possibility of going abroad, even though I had other expenses I needed to pay. I worked two jobs last year to earn money to pay off student loans and cover living expenses, so spending money on a trip abroad was a bit of a stretch for me financially. However, receiving a scholarship from the GNSD department to go toward academic expenses freed up enough money for me to afford the cost of a trip to Finland.

The support of donors means the world to me. I am constantly reading and hearing about the exorbitant and rising costs of higher education, but at the same time I feel an overwhelming pressure to acquire a degree. The societal expectations and standards are incredibly high, and living trapped between these truths is frustrating, to say the least. Receiving the support of donors gives me hope. It allows me to consider the possibility that there are people in society who believe in my generation’s potential to make the world better. It illustrates to me that other people still have hope for the future and have faith that young people will achieve remarkable things.

What advice do you have for students who are thinking about learning abroad?

For the first two years of college, I felt pressure to study abroad. Friends and relatives asked me if I had made plans yet, then told me how important studying abroad had been to them. Everyone made it seem like it was an expectation, if not a requirement, that I study abroad. I went to study abroad fairs, researched programs, and desperately tried to feel passionate about the options I found.

It was only when I stopped pressuring myself to figure it out and resigned myself to missing out on an experience everyone told me was invaluable did I recognize what I really wanted. So I created my own program and went by myself. The trip was on my own time and on my own terms. Going across the world by myself simultaneously terrified and excited me, and that mix of emotion indicated it was the right choice for me.

I decided against selecting a formal study abroad program but there are programs out there that might work better for you. You should be confident in whatever you choose. Don’t pressure yourself into finding a program just for the sake of saying you studied abroad. It will not be valuable if the experience feels inauthentic to you. Find your authenticity and pursue it. You will be glad you did.

This story is part of a larger article. Read more at Learning Abroad Is for Everyone.

This interview was conducted by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.