maanantai 4. maaliskuuta 2013

A small United Nations but with more harmony

Rebecca Libermann
It is bitterly cold and dark, the language is incomprehensible, and the city unknown, the family far away – for some continents away- and some are stunned by the prices.
Finland is for many exchange students a culture shock. However, not for long. The more than 30 foreign students, which I teach from the Faculty of Culture at the Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, have apparently settled in quickly and enjoy the "exotic" of their situation.

In my course Finland close-up, which I teach this winter semester, students from 19 countries and four continents learn from me, what is up with Finland. And they get to know it first hand through many visits to some of the major Finnish institutions and in discussions with their members as well as through lectures on general aspects of Finnish culture, politics and media.

I teach the course, to which I am looking forward to every year, for almost a decade now.  For the first time, I have this year a number of Chinese students, interesting girls and boys. With them in the great mix, there are students from Norway, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, Lithuania, Namibia, Ghana, Tanzania, the Czech Republic, Austria, Great Britain, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Poland, a small United Nations, only that there is more harmony.
For me as a teacher, it is each year an exiting, slightly frightening wait to see how the dynamics in the class will work out. Because every time it is different. This year, the class is outstanding. I have super-nice, lively, intelligent and positive students who seem to enjoy their stay in Finland and the school. Not a single troublemaker, grouch, or someone who wants to get his/her credits the easy or even dishonest way. Most years are like that but not all.
Nevertheless, the teaching of such a multinational class is a challenge for me, because not only the students come from so many countries, they also study in the field of culture very different subjects at different campuses. Although the Film&TV department of Metropolia organizes the course, there are also students from the media, music, Pop&Jazz and textile design branches of the school. Some have academic background as the German students from the University of Hanover, while others come from colleges and polytechnic high schools.

And there are other things that I have to deal with as a teacher of such a colorful class like varying English skills, different learning and knowledge backgrounds, wide-ranging  worldviews and socio-economic backgrounds. Then there is the time-management, which varies very much according to the world regions they are coming from. For some, the academic quarter of an hour extends to an hour, while others come always much too early. But this year’s class had only slight slip-ups.
Some students are also somewhat worldly inexperienced and lacking in independence, have not traveled much or are for the first time away from home. Even if I email them a map and draw into it how to get from point A to B, tell them with which tram or bus and to get out at which stop, they run around headless in a complete other part of town phoning me for help not knowing where they are. However, this year, that happened so far only few times.
It is also not easy to grade the essays or projects with which the course ends. Canadian, British, Australian students, for instance, can easily throw together an English essay, but the others struggle. In some countries, the cut-and-paste culture is widely accepted and/or independent thinking frowned upon. But how do you grade something that is totally stolen from Wikipedia or some other source?
For this reason, I lately ask my students for more original projects or group projects where they can cheat less and where speech is less paramount. A year ago, I got inter a.o. a webpage design, a small Finland experience movie, a Finnish fashion guide, a musical discourse on two Finnish composers, a pleasure and learning experience for me and the students.
For me, the course is a big enrichment too because the students teach me just as much as I do teach the students. They bring their individuality and youthful curiosity to the table, let me know about the current state of affairs in their own country or shed a new, from the outside shining light on a row of aspects in Finland.
Finland is for some of them, at first, a book with seven seals, completely exotic. African students, for example, experience snow for the first time. Other students are amazed at how smoothly the traffic works or how few homeless people hanging around on the streets and how the system works and social democracy or freedom of speech or the casual intercourse between teachers or authority figures and students.
In the first weeks, the students are bombarded by so many new things that even the most talkative gets quiet as a mouse and has nothing to ask even the very friendly director of the cable factory (to his astonishment) with whom we wander through the big building. But after a few weeks, the fears, the complete ignorance are overcome and the natural curiosity sets in, so much so, that it gets hard to get them away, for example, from one of the Member of Parliament whose time is limited, but they have so many questions.
Of course, there are also critical voices, mainly from the Central European countries that do not understand why the Finns constantly praise their achievements, use words like “national” and “Finnish” so much. They do not know how young the state is and how big inferiority complex of the Finns was once. It is my job to explain them what is at the core of it.
Another criticism is the lack of contact with the country's population and Finnish fellow students. Often the exchange students keep to themselves, and are left to themselves even in the classes they share with Finnish students. Finns are maybe more shy to meet somebody new than others. On the other hand, it was also like this in my times when I was studying in Lausanne, Switzerland, for a whole summer. Also, there, the foreign students cliqued together.
With some of my course’s students of many years ago, I am still in loose contact. Others have come back for holidaying or even to work here. Most have never regretted coming here for exchange studies as they have told me, but rather bragged about their adventures and told stories of "wild" Lapland. I also had students who have tried to give their own country a shot of Finnish democracy or wanted to learn the secret from the Finnish Foreign Ministry how Finland navigates its relations with Russia. Others were exposed here for the first time to a classical music concert or a contemporary dance rehearsal.
But, of course, students everywhere usually want one thing: Fun! And that they have found here.

Rebecca Libermann
Journalist, lecturer

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