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Philsophy on Erasmus Exchange to Helsinki, Michaelmas Term of 2004-2005
I went into my second year of university at Lancaster with the itch to see more of the word than the Sugarhouse and Lonsdale small lecture theatre. Don't get me wrong, I really like Lancaster , have many friends here and enjoy taking part in various 'extra curricular' activities - in societies, the occasional university ambassador stint, even extra classes here and there. Nevertheless, I can sympathise when people feel the need to stretch their legs to distances a little further than Preston at the weekend. Vernon Pratt had told me that the philosophy department has an Erasmus link with The University of Helsinki and I jumped at the chance to study abroad. I applied to Helsinki and was accepted in early 2004.
Finland is very 'well off' as countries go, and the cost of living is marginally more expensive than in the UK, but your Erasmus grant should cover this. It is largely a 'Western' society, but with a very interesting historical background, and with certain cultural differences that make it worth staying in for longer than a weekend!
It is worth mentioning at this point that Lancaster 's philosophy department is linked with Helsinki 's aesthetics department . Where our aesthetics studies are covered under our philosophy department, in Helsinki they are two separate departments. I applied for philosophy courses in Helsinki , and received a reply saying I may not be accepted as I had applied to a department that Lancaster did not have a link with. This did not cause any further issues, as I was accepted, and spent four month from September to December 2004 in Helsinki .
I can and will recommend Helsinki to anyone who asks me about it! I had an amazing 4 months, had proper filmic goodbyes at the airport, and now I've got friends scattered across Europe , and the world.
You needn't worry about language problems, as particularly in Helsinki English is as widely spoken as Swedish, the second official language of Finland . It is however, always a good idea to learn some of the language so you don't have to spend all your time asking passers by (who will no doubt speak English better than you do) for help. I've learnt some Finnish ('different not difficult') and Swedish; I've been taught by academics from Palestine, the USA, Finland and Sweden; I've learnt about culture - national, international, continental. - I've made some amazing friends, I've become well adept at the concept of being Hardcore in a Sauna, and I've even met Santa Claus!
Most exchange universities have an ESN, the Erasmus Student Network. Helsinki 's ESN is a number of resident students who organise various trips and events to get some culture and fun into the experience as well as work. To name just a few, we went to Russia for a week, staying in Moscow for 4 days and St. Petersburg for 3; there was a trip to the Fazer factory (BIG Finnish chocolate and confectionary company) and trips to breweries (both of the above involving 'sampling'), trips to Lapland to jump in lakes, do some winter sports, dog-sledding; trips to ice hockey matches including the final between Finland and Sweden; ice skating sessions; Christmas events. and this was all just in one term!
Helsinki has a housing service for students, including its exchange students, and though spread right across the city, there are several 'student areas' where groups of exchange students live. I lived in a new suburb called Viikki (they're into their double letters. Our road was called Maakaari), a twenty-five minute bus-and-metro journey from the centre; while others lived in Pasila, a five minute train journey from the centre; or Kamppi, right in the centre. all of this housing is owned and run by HOAS, the housing service (see useful web addresses).
All of the buildings have access to a sauna, which is definitely one of the best aspects of Finland! Sauna is a Finnish word and invention, and this will be made known to you shortly after your arrival! On one occasion I took a trip to Lapland with some housemates, and in our cottage (as in all cottages in Lapland - this is the whole point) we had a sauna. We got ourselves properly piping-hot and then emerged, steaming, into the outside temperature of -8C! It's all part of the experience! (had we been situated next to a lake, we would have jumped in it, as is the tradition and indeed the necessity, but unfortunately we were in the middle of a forest, nowhere near a lake, with wild berries and mushrooms ripe for the picking and reindeer galloping past every other minute. it's a hard life!)
I could talk forever about how many brilliant things we did, and people we met, and places we visited, and experiences we had, but honestly the only thing to do, is to do it yourself. It will be your own experience and if you go ready for anything then you will almost certainly come back with a brilliant time behind you, whether you go for a single term, or longer.
There are a few things, which you should check out first:
The credit system in Helsinki is much different from Lancaster 's. According to Lancaster , I needed to accumulate 32 ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) credits; but in order to get this many in Helsinki , I would have had to do almost twice as much work as I would normally have to do in a term in Lancaster . This was thankfully rectified and I made up a much more realistic workload. Also, in Helsinki they encourage their students to take 'faculty exams' which take the form of reading a number of books from cover to cover, letting your tutor know which books you've read, what language you would like the exam question in and in which exam session you'll be sitting, and then taking the exam - no contact time, only study from these specified books. This is not as difficult as it at first seems, but you need to be aware that these are the exams generally taken to accumulate credits, while only a few taught modules are necessary. You can then begin reading at the beginning of your time and not be left (as I was!) with an exam the day before your last in the city! I tell you this now, as in the orientation course for exchange students, although useful, they did not make the existence of these exams explicit and I was left to discover them 'the hard way'.
The other thing worth considering is your money situation. Erasmus students get a grant from the UK government, and those in Scandinavia and Finland are given slightly more than in the rest of Europe , as living costs are higher up there! Rent, and many other payments in Finland are made directly from one bank to another so if you're not staying for long and don't wish to open a Finnish bank account (as was my case) you will have to pay extra to either a) transfer money from a UK bank, or b) to pay in cash. It may work out easier and cheaper just to open an account in Finland and keep it for the time you're there, but I do not know the details of opening and closing accounts. My strategy was to pay my housemate my rent, and then he would transfer it from his account (he had opened one as he is staying there for the whole year). This of course did mean that I trusted my housemate with €301.00 a month so you do need to be lucky enough to live with someone you can trust as well as I did after such a short space of time.
Any small hitch that you face, on the whole, is a part of the experience. Small problems such as I have mentioned are nothing compared to the amazing time you will have while you're away - providing you go there ready to get your fingers dirty and do some serious name-remembering, journey-making, drink-testing, sauna-partying, fun-having and, of course, grade-getting! It's quite an achievement to wear the 'student' and 'traveller' hats at the same time, and when you come home (which, of course, is always nice) you'll feel a sense of satisfaction far larger than any you'll get from going to Toast and not being chucked out for throwing up on the pretty leather couches.
Go to Helsinki! Here are some sites with English translations! Start exploring!
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