Helsinki Summer School Experience

During August 2011 Desiree Daniels attended the Helsinki Summer School; here is her report:

Leading up to the school:    

I am completing my MPhil in Management Coaching, and while a student at SU I was eligible to apply for the exchange programme.  I thought this would be a great opportunity to extend my experience as a student as this may be my last chance to qualify.  After considering various exchange programmes offered by SU, I opted to do the course on Inter-organisational Relations offered at the Helsinki Summer School (HSS) as this was a keen interest of mine.  The partnership arrangement is that fees and accommodation costs are covered.  In addition to this, I was very fortunate to qualify for a travel bursary.  So the only expenses I had was my food and entertainment.  This sounded too good to be true as without this scholarship I would not have been able to pursue this route.

In April, when I was accepted at HSS and my travel bursary was approved, I immediately started making arrangements as this opportunity would also afford me the chance to pursue another dream I had which was do join a friend to do the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  So I made the necessary bookings and arranged my Schengen visa.  As I was going to spend a few more days on Finland than Spain, I had to apply to the Finnish Embassy for my visa and since not many South African’s go to Finland, the application process was quick and easy – no long queues.

Before I left, I had to complete my first assignment and to do so I had to order a text book which took about 14 days arrive.  I was very pleased that I had allowed sufficient time for this.  So with my assignment sent off, and my MPhil research report in 2nd draft, I was all set to leave on 20 July 2011.

An Experience of a Life Time:

Now doing the camino was an experience of a life time.  I followed the French Way, and walked 285 km over 11 days to Santiago de Compostela.  I had lots of time to think and experience different things – beauty, silence, my shadow, perseverance, aching muscles, no worries, new ideas about life, the wonder of feeling rejuvenated after a few hours of rest, and then ready to get up and go the next day.  I met all kinds of people, stayed in a variety of places, saw different scenery, ate interesting food – all on a budget of around R200 per day.

Of course one of the concerns I had about Finland was the language.  However, while I did not meet any Finns on the camino, I met a few Swedes and Germans who had been to Finland and who assured me that the Finnish speak English very well.  I also learnt a bit about the country from speaking to various people.  So going to Spain beforehand was useful in that it also helped me to orientate myself to going to bed when the sun is still shining, cars driving on the right hand side of the road, using good public transport, lots of walking and giving way to cyclists as we had to share the paths on the camino with numerous cyclists.  After spending the last few days in a bustling Madrid, I left for Helsinki which also helped to shorten my journey and lessen the jetlag.  By now I was ready to get my brain working again and I was excited about having a completely different experience in Helsinki.

In Helsinki:

On arrival in Helsinki, I took a taxi to Pihlajamaki (fondly referred to ‘pijama’ like ‘pyjamas’) where I was to stay.  There I was welcomed by a HSS representative and taken to my apartment.  I had a spacious apartment with a bathroom and kitchenette, so I was self-contained.  I was advised that if I needed food I would have to rush to get to the local supermarket just down the road before closing time.  Fortunately I took a sleeping bag with me as there was no linen.  I was one of the fortunate one to have a pillow and crockery and cutlery in my apartment – enough to share with fellow students who had none.

Helsinki is a land of contrasts – green gold (forests) and water and Nokia – that is very expensive.  Helsinki appears to be quite laid back since there are not many people around except of course at the train stations.  Certainly no traffic jams to contend with.  For at least the 1st week, I found myself walking in the cycling lane on many occasions.  And they really speak English very well as a 3rd language or higher.
The Finns live a healthy lifestyle with lots of walking, cycling and suana.  Their diets include lots of brown rice, rye bread and little or no salt.  Recycling is very prominent.  Being a student qualifies you for many special deals.  I met a few Finns who were busy with their 2nd Masters degrees – each taking around seven years since they work part-time.

I had been in touch with the other South African students who were coming to Helsinki beforehand so we agreed to meet up – it was really nice finding out a bit about them before the welcome ceremony.  The registration went smoothly and we were all invited to attend the welcome ceremony which was quite emotional event as over 400 students from over 60 countries stood up when the name of their country was called out.  After the cocktail party where we had a great opportunity to meet fellow students, we were all set to start our official study programme, at different campuses throughout Helsinki, the next day.

arrived at the Hanken School of Economics early and keen to start.  We were 12 students attending the Introduction to Inter-organisational Relations course.  The three German MBA students were doing the course as their foreign elective.  Then we also had another German, two Russians, a Spaniard working in Rwanda, a guy from Turkey, one from Italy and one from Japan, and someone from the Caribbean.  Our ages ranged from 20 to over 50.  The course was certainly interesting and I was exposed to a new vocabulary and many new insights after applying the theory to our case studies.  I found that it was the older students who were a lot more engaging around the course content probably due to our work and life experience.  However, the younger people in the class had some interesting views but they were not very participative.  My experience of the course itself was that it was very basic and the quality was average compared to what I believe we would have offered back home – but it all really depends on the lecturer.  We had no exams but we had many assignments to complete while there for two and a half weeks.

The Social Programme that formed part of the HSS was absolutely stunning.  We were exposed to a variety of interesting activities to introduce us to Helsinki and life in Finland.  We went on a city tour, a wild life excursion to a lake where we canoed, picked berries and used the sauna.  We played Molkky – a tournament which my team won.  We did Nordic walking, Finnish dancing and went on a Baltic dinner cruise, amongst other things.  Many of the activities offered food as an incentive which was well received.  Since it got dark late at night, there was also enough time to do other things such as visit museums, markets, clubs, restaurants, etc.    I even joined a few students from my class and went by ferry to Tallin in Estonia – what a beautiful old town – no wonder it was awarded the title of The Culture Capital of Europe for 2011.
We met up with a Finnish student currently studying at Stellenbosch university as well as students who would be commencing their studies here next year.  It was interesting to hear their views since they were very excited about studying in S.A.  I also visited a Finnish family for dinner one night so I was quite spoilt while really getting closer to their way of life.

Back home:

Before I knew it, my time was up and I had to pack up to return home.  By now I was ready to dump my sleeping bag and get back home to my daughter.  It took me about a day and a bit to catch up with what was happening back home.  I also had to quickly get back into work mode and to focus on my research report as the next deadline was looming.
I am always amazed at how swiftly one can get back into things, especially old habits.  As life would have it, I was very blessed to arrive home in time to spend a few hours with a close family member before she passed away.
So, my Helsinki trip was a wonderful opportunity to gain new insights, meet new people, experience many different cultures, learn a new vocabulary, see places, learn more about theoretical perspectives pertaining to inter-organisational relations, get to know myself and broaden my horizons.  It also allowed me to be rejuvenated and come back to look at my research through new lenses.  Thank you Stellenbosch University for making this happen for me!!!
And the cycle of life continues!

Some tips which may be useful to future students
•    It is advisable to arrive a few days before the start of the programme to familiarise yourself with the place, maps and public transport system since you either have to walk, use the public transport or cycle as many, many people do.
•    When booking your flights, make sure you know what else you plan to do either before or after the trip since an opportunity like this does not come easily, and to change certain cheap tickets afterwards is pricey.  While I chose to fit in a holiday and do sight-seeing before the HSS, many other students added on a few days, and even weeks, afterwards to do sight-seeing and catch up with friends.  If you can, then at least stay for the weekend since they tend to have many festivals at this time of year.
•    The transport system in Helsinki is highly efficient and service orientated.  If you purchase a transport ticket make sure you know how best you can use it to get the full value out of it, e.g. you can use it on all buses, trams and trains, as well as on the ferry to the sea fortress – very worthwhile visiting.
•    Before rushing to shops on arrival to purchase a LAN cable etc. check what is available in the room, e.g. I found a LAN cable.
•    Engage fully in the academic programme in order to gain maximum value from it.
•    Also attend as many social programme activities as this trip is a lot more than just studying.