CU in Helsinki: Time and Thought Revisited
If there was a common inquiry surrounding this year’s spring break study abroad tour, that was it. Friends asked. Finns asked. We even asked ourselves this question at one point or another.
On one hand, we had an answer. We went over there to study social and educational policy in the context of human development. We compared how the Finns and the Americans do things similarly and differently. This explanation answered the questions well enough on the surface.
On the other hand, though, we didn’t really have one unifying response.
Numerous times this semester, somebody has asked us why we as individuals wanted to go to Finland for spring break when we could easily be elsewhere. We all had our unique replies. For some, it was a last opportunity to go abroad. For others, it was their first chance to leave abroad. Yet others had a vested interest in the tour’s topic.
Then there was me. I’ve had a response or two circling around in my head, but nothing stands out as one unifying reason. It’s like I’m still in Berlin, staring at a chalkboard and figuring out the answer to yet another basic question with deeper implications. I have every idea and no idea all at once.
I can remember talking with Lani Malcolm in summer 2015 about going to Finland for the study abroad tour. I found myself agreeing, though not knowing why. I just thought it would be different and pretty cool – both literally and figuratively.
Then I started doing more research on the country and saw just how much is packed into such an otherwise overlooked place.
Places like Helsinki and Turku are the home of Olympians and figures of various levels of fame. The history spans to Russian and Swedish heydays in the world landscape. I got more excited the more I looked into it.
In the months leading up to the trip, a number of question marks popped up in the planning process. Can we do this now that Lani has left? How will budget cuts affect the program? Will there be enough people to go?
More accurately, why did this all have to happen in the planning for the Finland trip? Nobody in our group had been there before, and only one student was familiar with Finland to some extent because she shared a flat with a Finn in Wales. Otherwise, it was a brand new experience for everyone.
But maybe that’s what made this trip so special. From the study abroad pros to the people getting on an airplane for the first time in recent memory, every one of us had one thing in common: we had no idea what to expect from Finland other than what we learned in class.
The professors did well to teach us about the country and the culture, but learning everything firsthand was another experience all together.
Those things I read when researching for Lani came to fruition in front of me. The amalgamation of cultures was everywhere, from the urban streets of Helsinki to the stone streets of Porvoo. We saw the things we learned put into place, from the playful atmosphere of the daycare to the air of academia in the different universities.
One moment that stood out was our sit-in session at the teacher training school. The students were going through a section in English when we walked in, and we all talked to each other about different things. However, one question came up before the rest.
It was one of the countless times the group of us got this question, and we got it from everyone. Tour guides, directors of health programs, university students – the faces may have been different, but the question was still the same.
And each time, it made me think about the chalkboard that will forever haunt my dreams and existential crises.
The statement was simple enough: “Before I die, I want to…” I still have yet to figure out the answer to this question, as was chronicled in my last study abroad reaction article. After all, the answer to this question digs deeper than what I want to do with my life.
It involves what I feel is the meaning behind my life.
It sounds trite and like I’m making more of it than there should be. Truly, though, the one thing you’d want to do defines a lot of who you are and what you feel life means.
For example, my definition of the meaning of the life comes from author John Green: “other people.” But where’s the specific goal in that? Where’s the thing to do before death in there? Where could I find the answer?
Throughout my time there, I noticed one of their main emphases was the care for their people – not only as a whole, but also on an individual level. Students had as many opportunities to learn as possible. Workers had as much flexibility as possible. Parents had as much time as necessary to care for their children.
More importantly, though, I noticed just how interesting people could be.
From the family who hosted us for an afternoon to talk about Finnish life to the street performer known simply as Super Rasta, everybody had a story that made them stand out. Some people we learned more about, like Hayley, an American who came to Helsinki to study German and now studies software engineering.
Even though we didn’t learn about all of them, though, the fact that everyone has such a rich story gives me a newfound curiosity for life.
Vicky Smith mentioned in an opinion piece the concept of sondering, or realizing that the people you pass by in life have vivid and complex lives just like you. The blog Humans of New York gives readers a chance to sonder vicariously via literal snapshots in to people’s lives.
Consider Finland my study in sondering.
Which brings me back to the original question of “Why Finland” and the scenario in front of that German chalkboard where I ponder what I want to do before I die. I may not have the whole answer to the question, but I know where to start. I’ve learned so much about people, and I just want to learn more. No matter where I go, that’s what I want to do.
So I guess the answer to both questions revolve around those two words: other people.