What’s it like to spend your junior year abroad at Vaskivuroen lukio, a high school located near Helsinki? That’s what I wanted to know when I talked with with Blossom, a student from the small town of Vernon, Texas. She’s here through an organization called Youth for Understanding and is living with a host family in the city of Espoo. We got together over pastries at a cafe, and I asked her about her experiences over the past eight months.
I knew that I didn’t want to go somewhere that everyone else went. I wanted to be different and not go to Germany or Spain, and I also wanted to go somewhere where I would feel safe and where there was a good education system. So I was thinking one day, and I thought, “Oh, Finland!”
What did you expect before you came?
I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew about saunas, and I knew it was going to be cold here. I knew that the education system was going to be good, but I didn’t realize how different it actually was, with a whole different culture.
What stands out as being most different about school here?
The whole independence thing. They emphasize that everyone is on the same level. You can talk to teachers like you would a normal person. There’s none of that hierarchy, and they’re called by their first names. It’s not like you’re going to get detention after school for using your cell phone or anything.
If you could take away the language factor, how difficult would you say classes are here compared to your school at home?
I’d say classes here are harder because of the way the system works. They go over things quickly, but people get with it. They emphasize that you are responsible for your own education. This is high school and you are preparing for college, so it’s up to you to make it. And because everyone knows that, they work hard. And students choose their courses by themselves. They can go to their guidance counselor, but they choose what they want to take. There are obligatory classes, but then you pick the rest. Everyone has a homeroom, and you have a group meeting every Tuesday.
What about the amount of homework you’re given?
[Note: Her classes are almost all in Finnish. When we talked previously in her math class, she said that homework takes her longer than it would otherwise because she has to do a good deal of translating. She seems to have picked up quite a bit of Finnish though, and she’s adept at using Google Translate when needed.]
It gets to be a lot sometimes. But the thing about it is that the teachers never ask to see it. You circle on a paper [that’s passed around the room] and you mark if you’ve done it. They always say that if you mark that you did it, but you didn’t, then they will know on the test. So you can get away with not doing it, but you can’t really.
Do students go to teachers for help outside of class if they don’t understand something?
Yeah. That happens. Finnish kids are like, “I want to get this. I want to understand it.” And the teachers are accessible through the Wilma program [online system]. You can just send a message to your teacher.
I know that students have matriculation exams at the end of high school. Do you notice students stressing out about them?
Yeah. People do stress out about it. They work so hard and go over everything that they’ve learned.
Are students overly stressed out in general?
They’re more relaxed. There are some people who do a lot of things, and there are music lines and dance lines [course concentrations], and those kids are practicing all the time. But mostly people just get stressed when they really don’t understand something in the class or when they are studying for a test, especially during finals week.
Are there every any discipline problems in class?
Not really. People do talk in class and use their phones, but nobody is ever doing anything super bad.
What cultural differences have you noticed here?
People are quieter here. The bus is really quiet. My family is a little bit louder than most Finns, but they’re quiet compared to my family at home.
You know how people at home say, “Hi, how are you?” and everyone just says okay or fine. In Finland they really tell you a lot. I remember when I asked my friend how she was, and she told me about all of these things that were happening in her life. But I appreciate that.
The culture here seems less about having things and showing off. Are there things that teenagers have as status symbols?
They do, and it’s with American things. If I go to Starbucks, it’s always full, and there is always a line of 13-year-old girls. They love Victoria’s Secret and Nike, stuff like that. Many people have iPhones here.
How do students get to school? Do any have cars? I know they can’t drive until they’re 18.
Some have these motorcycle cars [cars with tiny engines that can be driven at a younger age] or they have mopeds. I haven’t heard of anyone getting a ride to school from their parents. It just doesn’t happen. Everyone walks or rides a bike or rides the bus. School is pretty far from where I live, it’s about an hour and 15 minutes by bus and train.
You seem to be enjoying your time here. Other than missing your friends and family, are there any things you don’t like about being here?
I miss the ease of conversation, like how it’s perfectly normal to go out and talk to people. Yesterday I was with my friends and there was an American lady who saw my [school sports] jacket and said, “Are you from the states, are you from Texas?” And my friends said, “We would never do that. If we were abroad and heard someone speaking Finnish, we would never talk to them.”
You played sports in Texas. Have you played any sports since being in Finland?
I only took sports class, but I haven’t played sports on any teams. In Finland if you play sports, since it’s not part of school, people are usually really good.
Do students do other activities?
A lot of people to go the gym. Many also have jobs. It’s part of the independence thing.