Immersed in Nature in Finland
By Liu Xuanyi, 23J19
Some of our RV teachers studied overseas in university, whether in Australia, the US or the UK. In contrast, Ms Candida Ho from the English Department took the road less travelled and made the unconventional choice of studying in Finland. Recently, I sat down with her and had a conversation about her experience studying abroad there.
Ms Ho went to Vaasa University in the northern area of Finland. In fact, it was so far North that she could see the Northern lights from her dormitory, something I was rather amazed by.
Credit: Visit Finland
Imagine looking out of your window and seeing this :o
Her course of study was a Master of Social Science in Intercultural Studies and Communication. The course, a Master’s by research, was open to foreign students as it was conducted in English. As part of her research, she interned in the US at a non-governmental organisation (NGO) for 6 months.
“For my research, I came up with my own problem statement – it’s a bit like a PW (Project Work) project of sorts. My master’s thesis was based on this particular company.”
“I was a Human Resource intern for an NGO called International Justice Mission. They work to stop global human trafficking in India, the Philippines, et cetera.”
“I wanted to do research on how cross-cultural engagement takes place because a lot of these people, they are white Americans and they work in the destination country. So I studied how they relate to their co-workers, cross-culturally.”
Locations where the International Justice Mission currently operate
Credit: International Justice Mission
I was quite curious about why she chose to study in Finland over other more conventional study-abroad destinations like the UK or the US. To that, she shared that she “never really liked going to the US or UK”, as she “like[s] obscure, exotic locations” and finds the education in the UK or US to be “overly commercialised”.
In stark contrast to the exorbitant tuition fees of US and UK universities, university education in Finland is free for all, a major consideration for Ms Ho when she chose to study there. She also noted the role of free education as a pull factor that draws people from less developed countries.
“Over there, education is free if you’re a foreigner. That’s why you see a lot of people from less developed countries in Scandinavia because it is accessible and affordable for them. You see a lot of people from China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, from many parts of Africa. I believe that the US and UK are also very diverse but I think the people in the US and UK are actually wealthier than those who went to Scandinavia if you ask me, because of the accessibility of the education there.”
Another major consideration behind her decision to study in Finland was her positive experience in another Scandinavian country, Sweden, as an undergraduate student on an exchange programme.
“So when I was in Sweden for university, I went to Lund University. In fact, when I wanted to go for my master's, I wanted to go back to that university. But, I wasn’t able to enter the course because of the nature of my degree and the incompatibility with the master's that I wanted. My degree was a Bachelor of Arts but my Master’s is in Social Science.”
Safety was another factor she considered. “I wanted to go to a location that is safe [and] interesting. Actually, Scandinavia is not as interesting as central Europe and the US but it is very safe.” She also cited the egalitarian nature of Scandinavian countries.
“I am drawn to its principles of egalitarianism, its strong female leaders, gender equality, and low poverty rates.” Striking a comparison to the US, she mentioned that it “may be so exciting because it’s the home of Hollywood, but there’s gun violence, there’s racism, [and] misogyny. Not to say that Finland and Sweden don’t have that, but they are famous for other things.”
She remarked, “Actually, [Finland and Sweden] are not very famous at all. They’re like the underdogs of the world. They manage to stay neutral in many global conflicts.”
Immersed in nature
Apart from admiring their egalitarian ideals, Ms Ho also appreciates the beauty of nature there. When asked about the perks of living there, she answered that it was the “immersion and appreciation of nature” since the “landscape [...] is very different from Singapore”.
The most salient difference, in comparison to sunny Singapore where it is summer year-round, would be the snow. In Finland, “when it snows, everything is blanketed in white.”
Not just that, there is a big difference in population density as well, which makes for a lot more forests and open areas to be immersed in nature. “Some of my activities there would be walking on the lake or on the sea, skiing, and a lot of hiking, which I loved.”
“I wouldn't be able to find this kind of almost total immersion in nature and solitude [here] that I have there. So I guess that’s what I appreciated.”
“Rambling in the forest in a Finnish winter”
At the same time, Ms Ho acknowledged the downsides of living in a sparsely populated country.
“[Finland] is a country with a lot of solitude. The country has very high alcoholic rates because of the solitude and harsh weather.” She admitted, “It does get lonely sometimes.” However, on a more positive note, she shared that “because there’s not much to do, people normally talk more. They go to each other’s houses and they have meals together.”
Living like a local
Other than being immersed in Finnish nature, she had many authentic Finnish experiences.
For one, she experienced Finland’s sauna culture. She described the Finnish saunas, which are a way of life for Finns, but as someone who has never experienced it, it sounds really intense. “[The sauna] is like 50-60 degrees. Usually, people stay in there for 20 minutes. The practice is to go out into the frozen lake where someone has carved a hole and you’re supposed to go ice swimming which is actually a relief after coming out from the sauna. But of course, after a while, it gets cold so you go back to the sauna. So the whole cycle repeats a few times.”
When it comes to quintessential Finnish things, apart from the classic saunas, she also experienced what sounds like the epitome of cottagecore dreams.
“I’ve been to summer cottages in the woods. Every Finn I know has two houses, one which is their real house and the other which is their summer cottage. So they’ll go boating, fishing, trekking, lazing about in the woods, and a lot of berry-picking in the forest. Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries.” Perhaps, after hearing this, you’ll want to go frolicking in nature in Finland too, for I sure feel like it now!
Summer cottage in Finland
Credit: Featuring Finland
Comparing city life and life in Finland, Ms Ho expressed that the pace of life is much slower in the latter. “We don’t really have as many commercial activities like you’re used to here. Over there that’s not the norm.” In place of those activities, she shared “I read a lot, I walked a lot, I exercised a lot, went to the forest a lot.”
On that note, I hope you’ve been inspired by this to slow down and appreciate the nature around us, as well as value interpersonal connections. While we may not have sprawling forests, we do have green spaces where we can be in touch with nature. After all, we are called the Garden City for a reason!
Maybe, after hearing about Ms Ho’s experiences in Finland, you too will consider visiting the country, whether for education or relaxation.