My summer in Finland

Jonathan Trinh, a student at Skyline High School in Oakland, writes us from Europe -Katy

Of all countries in the world to spend two months I chose Finland, the small (about the size of Montana), northern European country home to Santa Claus and reindeer.

“Why?” is the question that I’m most frequently bombarded with here. Reasons range from getting away from the city life and going on some sort of vacation on the other side of the planet. But the main reason for me to become an exchange student was to learn about how another, and probably the most different, peoples lived and actually experience that lifestyle for myself personally.

I have so many memories and time has seemed to elapse overnight. It’s been the fastest two months of my life — and sometimes the longest days, too, since the sun doesn’t set until very late during the summer. And after being away from my old home for so long, Finland has become some kind of a new home. Already I believe I’m accustomed the cultural nuances that stratify being American and Finnish.

I’ve toured historic locations and castles and Finland’s largest power plant; I’ve been to the famous amusement park in Helsinki; I’ve ran alongside a magestic river in Turku and the pristine countryside; I’ve taken part in the national favorite past-time, suana; I’ve endured life on the mosquito-infested lakeside at the summer cottage; I’ve been to (too many) pesapällo, the Finn’s version of baseball, games.

I live (soon to be “had lived”) in Kankaanpää, a small rural town of approximately thirteen thousand inhabitants – that’s a huge change from Oakland – in the southwest region of the country. I’ve been here for over six weeks with my host family and my stay will conclude shortly as I and the thirteen other scholarship recipients rejoin for our depature orientation in Helsinki. 

In comparison to Oakland, many things here are a lot more homogenous. Initially I wasn’t acquainted with being surrounded by so many trees and blondes, flat – you have no idea – land, as well as the quaint, traquil, laid-back ambiance. Not many people speak English due to their reluctance around a native speaker, and if they did their ability was usually limited. Finns are generally shy and introverted, but the passiveness is really a part of their character. I was forewarned not to take their quiet and lack of emotion attitudes as rude, because it could definitely appear as such to anyone from America.

Despite being a people so polar to us, we do share large problems that I believe bind the world’s population. Firstly, global warming has had adverse effects on the environment. According to my host family, many small lakes have dried up leaving holes of dirt in the ground and winter’s haven’t been as cold (but it’s still significantly colder than what we’re accustomed to). Climate patterns seem to be random too. One day it will be bright and warm; another day it will be raining harder than what Oakland has ever seen.

The next issue is energy. Gasoline prices are ridiculous here, as the enviro-friendly nation has made traveling by car less of a main venue of getting around. If you convert liters and euros to gallons and dollars, then it would cost you $8 USD for a gallon of gas…

And then there’s underage drinking and smoking. With so many prominent media and cultural influences that convey the behaviors as commonplace and without negative connotations, teens are very likely to partake in the destructive cycle, which leads to many vehicle accidents.

You can read more here about specific topics and the many opportunities that Youth for Understanding, the exchange program, has provided me with, which include meeting the Finnish ambassador to the United States and the extreme nature of what is the summer cottage.

Jonathan Trinh

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com Sharon

    Thanks for the interesting report, Jonathan. It sounds like a great experience.

    A few months ago, reports about the educational system in Finland, and its successes, were all the rage in our popular media. I guess the publicity was supposed to serve as some sort of inspiration to Americans — as if we’d actually consider shifting our values and implementing something like what the Finnish do here.

    Since you were there, did you get any personal insights about their public school system?

  • Jonathan

    I did, actually. The Finnish school system is quite different. But first I’d like to point out that private schools scarecely exist because of the way the school system is implemented.

    Public schools are govt. funded of course. The meals are free, but the students are requried to purchase their own school textbooks, either at the school itself or at a bookstore. Schooling begins at the age of 7 years old, and continues until they are (generally) 19 y.o.

    Like us, they have three stages: elementary, middle, and high school. They have different terms for the school stages except for high school.

    Class sizes are small in the smaller towns. And you remain with your class throughout elementary and middle school, so you get to know the same people very well.

    They have a huge variety of classes that have access to webcams, internet, etc.

    Students begin learning English in third grade, swedish and finnish are taught from the beginning of schooling because they are the national languages, and later in middle and high school you have the options from spanish, french, german, italian, etc. Everyone knows how to speak around 3 languages, but to what extent varies.

    They also use a different grading system, using numbers instead of letters on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest).

    They choose 6 classes and keep them for half of the school year. They may decide to change courses or keep the same, or a combination, as they desire. But they must have the essential balance. For instance, under History, one could take European studies or history of whatever (I’m not certain on all of their options). And after six weeks, there are examinations covering the topics taught and self taught (the learning is considerable and students must use textbooks at home to cover subjects that had no time to be covered in the school time).

    There are no school clubs nor sport teams nor physical education.

    College and universities are also paid by the govt. I’ve heard that the process to get into a top university is grueling, filled with exams. But most students tend to take a year off between high school and higher education; and that may be longer if they decided to do their conscription service then.

    I’ll stop there because I think that’s a lot already. But if you have specific questions I might be able to answer. Hope that helps and answers your question.

  • Jonathan

    I visited the Finnish Ministry of Education today and would like to clear some info formerly stated previously in my last comment.

    There is not three stages of education (elementary, middle, and high). It’s actually called comprehensive edu. (ages 6-15), high school OR vocational school, and then college OR polytechnical school.

    Finnish males have mandatory conscription, usualy at age 19 or 20. Thus, it is a concern and problem for higher educational institutions when students must leave for 6 months to a year while enrolled. However, their placement in the school is retained for their return.

    There lacks elite colleges and poor colleges. Education is quite equal throughout all schools.