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Chandre at the Helsinki Summer School, Finland

During August Chandré Brewis attended the Helsinki Summer School where she took part in the course Sustainable Global Technologies – Living Lab. Here is her report:

Helsinki Summer School
Helsinki Summer School


Even though the Summer School only took place in August, the planning process started in mid-April already.  This included applying for the course and accommodation through Helsinki University and obtaining a travel bursary from the PGIO of Stellenbosch University.  It was convenient that the travel bursary was paid into my account electronically, making it easy to shop around for the cheapest and best suited flight months before the time.  There are no direct flights from South Africa to Finland; you will have to transit somewhere in Europe.  I decided to travel with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.  Although they advertise as direct flights from Cape Town, we stopped over in Johannesburg for other passengers to board.  I would recommend them as the flight ticket was relatively cheap and the food and service in-flight was good.

The VISA application went smoothly, but you must ensure that you have all the necessary documents beforehand.  You can find the application forms on the Embassy’s website along with details on the required documents.  These documents include travel insurance, a copy of your flight ticket, letters from both Universities stating that you are attending the Summer School and returning to Stellenbosch, proof of accommodation and funds and colour passport photos.  Remember to ask for the letter from the Helsinki University, you do not just receive it.  Keep an eye on you snail mailbox once requested as they post you the original document.  There is a Finnish Embassy in Oranjezicht, Cape Town.  No appointment is needed; just make sure of the opening times.  Furthermore, no cash is accepted – you have to pay the then €60 via EFT into their account and bring the proof of payment along on the day.  It took only two weeks before I could collect my passport again.  To be safe, I would advise applying for the VISA approximately one month before departure.

Most of the course programmes required pre-course tasks to be completed before travelling to Helsinki.  This may vary from reading material to writing an essay.  For the course I attended, I had to submit an essay and an A3 poster.  Communication from their side happens via email.  Also the Helsinki Summer School website is updated regularly and contains vital information regarding anything you would like to know before arriving.  Details about the courses, accommodation options, social programme and directions can be found on the website.

August is the last bit of summer in Helsinki.  Please pack warm clothes as well as the weather is very variable and changes almost instantly.  My umbrella was definitely the best item I remembered to pack into my suitcase!  I especially enjoyed the sun setting only around 22:00 though.

Summer School:

I attended the Sustainable Global Technologies course which was actually presented by the Aalto University in the adjacent city, Espoo.  The Aalto University was formed in 2010, merging three campuses in the Helsinki metropolitan area: Helsinki University of Technology, Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Art and Design Helsinki.  As this is such a multi-disciplinary university, it was also evident in the group of students attending the course.  Students from all over the world with different academic backgrounds and cultures made attending this course a big learning curve.

Aalto University Campus
Aalto University Campus

The intensity of the course itself was not so bad.  We were able to attend all the social activities organised by the Summer School team.  The course was very well organised and I particularly enjoyed the way in which it was presented.  Various teaching methods were used: lectures (course organisers and guests), workshops, factory or company visits, group work and individual assignments.  The group work entitled a practical project compiled into a final report and a presentation was given on the last day on the course.

We had lunch at the university cafeteria every day.  Although we received some discount, it was €4.70 per meal.  Living costs in Helsinki is quite high!  I found the food in the supermarkets reasonably priced though if you want to avoid the expensive restaurants.  Tipping is not expected, the service charge is included in the food price.

Accommodation for the students from Stellenbosch University is provided in the Pihlajamäki flats approximately 30min by bus from the city centre.  I had to commute about an hour to my campus each day, which was a bit of a negative side.  You need a regional travel card for this, but fortunately the students attending the Sustainable Global Technologies course received a sponsored card!  Each person gets a single 20m2 apartment, not necessarily fully equipped.  We had to take our own bedding for one.  You were responsible for cleaning the flat while staying there.  Still, we were fortunate to have a little privacy.  The students staying in the Pihlajamäki flats had a get together on the balcony almost every evening; this was a nice way to get to know each other.  Also, free internet in the apartment along with free laundry facilities in the apartment block next door!  Remember to take a LAN cable along to be able to connect instantly.

Pihlajamäki flats
Pihlajamäki flats

The Social programme organised by the Helsinki Summer School is definitely worth taking part in.  It was also very well organised but some of the activities were on the pricey side, so take these into account when budgeting for the trip.  I would recommend attending as many activities as possible as you meet other Summer School participants, get a taste of the Finnish culture and food and get to do some sightseeing in the Helsinki area.  A definite highlight was the Baltic Sea dinner cruise (€40) which entailed cruising though the Finnish archipelago for four hours while enjoying traditional Finnish food.  A free activity, the Finnish Oddities event, was also lots of fun.  We learnt the techniques of Nordic walking, Mölkky (game) and Finnish dancing.

Baltic Sea Dinner Cruise
Baltic Sea Dinner Cruise


It was really sad to leave Helsinki as I grew fond of the place and people.  Meeting people from around the world really opens doors for future travels.  Helsinki never really felt like home, but I felt very comfortable living there.  You get used to the systems etc. quite quickly.

The way of life is vastly different from in South Africa especially in terms of the extensive public transport systems available.  Sustainability is very high on the agenda for almost any activity happening in the Helsinki metropolitan area.  Sorting of waste is required as most of it gets recycled, composted or re-used.  Furthermore, Helsinki is a very quiet and peaceful city; you rarely see loads of people on the streets.  The Finnish are a helpful but shy bunch of people; you easily get around with using English.

I have learnt that even though the European way of life is always very efficient and technologically advanced, the systems in place there may not work in South Africa.  You have to adapt principles to the context in which you live in.  There is a lot of room for improvement in South Africa when it comes to sustainability especially, but various factors have to be considered which is not necessarily relevant to a European context.  It was a great learning experience to gain knowledge on their systems and will stretch my mind on how similar frameworks can be implemented locally.

Returning to Stellenbosch was an experience along with mixed emotions.  Obviously it is so special to see family and friends again!  Although it felt as if I have never left in a sense, still I could feel that I have been changed by the experience abroad while things here stayed the same.  I think it will take some time getting used to things around here again.  Now it is back to reality with a Master’s thesis which has to be handed in soon!

So, after an amazing experience in Finland from which I will cherish memories for the rest of my life, the automat pay station at the car park is replaced with a car guard, weighing you own fruits and vegetables is replaced with a person helping you and waiting for the bus at the bus stop, waving for the bus to stop, is replaced by me getting into my car and driving myself…on the other side of the road.