Studying in a new country can be both exciting and challenging. It’s a time for new beginnings, adventures, and freedom, but it also comes with its own set of struggles. In this blog post, the positive and negative experiences of international students in the region of Eastern Finland and Joensuu is explored and described with focusing on their sense of belonging.
Belonging is a fundamental human desire and a crucial need like food, water, and safety. Being part of a larger group allows us to feel connected to something bigger and more important than ourselves. It gives us a sense of purpose and value, and makes us able to contribute to our family, community, and society. Belonging is also one of the most important factors in our happiness. Without it, we may start feeling lonely, worthless, and resentful. Which can affect our mental and physical health as well as the people around us.
Each person’s experience of studying abroad is unique and can differ greatly from the next person. To get a sense of what it’s like for international students in Joensuu, I interviewed master’s degree students in both their first and second year of study, mainly from the School of Humanities and Educational Sciences. This blog is a summary of the points mentioned by the students in a group interview which consisted of five students and four individual interviews. The interviews focused mainly on finding internships and jobs during their studies and after graduation, learning Finnish language, and finding home and a sense of belonging in this new place.
The Benefits of Studying in Eastern Finland: Nature, Safety, and University Services
The region of Eastern Finland is known for its beautiful nature with forests and lakes in a short walking distance. This closeness to nature can be an advantage for students who want to take a break from the pressure of their studies. Another advantage of studying in Joensuu is the safety of the area. The city of Joensuu is known for being a safe place which allows students to feel comfortable to move around the city without worrying about their safety. Moreover, the university is an excellent place for anyone seeking an enjoyable and stress-free study experience. The university offers a range of services that students enjoy, with the library being a particular favorite. Additionally, services like Sykettä (Sports services) are affordable, making it easier for students to engage in leisure activities. There are also various communities within the university for both Finnish and international students, along with lots of leisure activities and clubs to choose from.
However, it is important to note that not all international students have positive experiences in Joensuu and Eastern Finland. Some have reported feeling unwanted and struggling to connect with the local community. While the initial excitement of being in a new place and studying at a new university can help overcome homesickness and hardships, the novelty can fade over time, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Challenges of Learning Finnish Language at the University
Learning Finnish language can be a difficult task for most students, with many starting their language learning journey at the university. The interview with the students shows that most find it hard to continue beyond Finnish one and two due to unhelpful course structure, lack of practical results, and pressure from other courses.
While some continue to Finnish three and four, they don’t necessarily gain the expected results, which forces them to try taking the courses outside the university instead. Students believe that university Finnish courses only exists to provide credits and serve as part of the curriculum, lacking any practical learning objectives. As a result, they never get to a level where they are confident and comfortable to start a conversation and practice outside the classroom. Self-study and joining Finnish clubs or groups can be challenging due to other course deadlines and tasks. In the group interview discussion students believed that they need an extra semester to learn Finnish and the current course structure often causes them to lose motivation after just one year of study.
The Struggles of Finding Employment and Internship Opportunities
International students often find it difficult to remain positive. For some their first disappointment comes when they are unable to find an internship related to their field of study. Students sometimes don’t even know where they can start looking for internships that has been built into their curriculum and believe that they don’t receive adequate support in their search. When asked about UEF’s traineeship program most students don’t even consider it as an option because the positions are limited and the chances of getting one, regardless of qualifications, are low.
In order to support themselves during their studies or to make a connection with their new home, many students look for part-time jobs. However most have a bad experience in applying for those jobs, as they apply to many jobs but receive only a few rejections, often because they cannot speak Finnish. There are only a handful of jobs that do not require fluency in Finnish. This has led to a consensus among international students that no matter how hard they try or how much potential they have, unless they are Finnish or fluent in Finnish, none of their other qualifications and previous work experiences will be taken into consideration. If someone does manage to find an internship or a part time job, they are considered extremely lucky.
As an international student, moving to a new place means having no connections or networks. If the city you move into has a tight and close-knit community, there is often no chance to find a place for oneself. Many students find it disheartening that they only get a chance if they completely adapt to Finnish culture and become fluent in Finnish, which may not even be possible. However, work is central to many aspects of an individual’s life. Being able to work enhances an individual’s sense of usefulness and belonging and is a fundamental feature of social integration. Work is also very important in constructing a personal and social identity and in making money. The work a person does has a direct link to their mental and physical well-being. Depriving people of such an important aspect in their lives can cause low self-esteem and a lack of self-worth that is provided by contributing to society. When someone is unable to find work, they feel like an outsider and may experience a range of negative emotions that affect their life and the lives of those around them.
From the experiences of those interviewed it seems that the city of Joensuu has failed to provide adequate support for international students. Many students strongly believe that the university and the city only want them to come to the region, graduate as soon as possible, and leave the country. Even if someone manages to find a part-time or a summer job, they cannot build a life around it and they cannot even be sure that they will have the same job next summer. Finding an internship is also not a solution to this situation, as it often does not lead to full-time employment, and one is left in the same position as before.
International students who come to this region to study and work have realistic expectations and they are willing to do any job that helps them live their life. However, most of them find it challenging to find a job in their own field, while getting rejected for part time minimum wage jobs. They are often targeted for jobs with unfair payments without even having a contract to defend themselves and since they have no other choice, they continue to do so.
Students constantly witness people who have lived in the area for a few years leave to make a better life for themselves in southern Finland or even outside of the country. They are pessimistic about finding any sort of job in the area and see no point in living here because they have nothing going on for them. Moreover, important information is usually in Finnish and meant for Finnish people only, which does not help their situation.
International students who have worked in part-time or summer jobs have positive experience with Finnish customers, who are willing to communicate with them in any way possible. They also realize that the customers are often being used as an excuse not to hire internationals. In reality, it is the employers who are reluctant to hire a non-Finnish speaker.
Difficulties of Forming Close Friendships with Finnish People
International students find it difficult to form close friendship with Finnish people. They also find international events inadequate, as all interactions are limited to those events, and no lasting connections are formed. Only one mutual Finnish friend was reported in the group interview. Regardless of circumstances, international students take the initiative to bring people together in multicultural cafes. However, they find it hard to maintain throughout the whole semester without any help or funding.
Some students volunteer in different organizations and places. One student volunteered on a farm in Kuopio during the summer and befriended the farmer. She had the chance to immerse herself in his world. Some have volunteered for Red Cross and enjoyed the activities, but the information and discussions are carried out in Finnish, so they find it hard to stay connected. One student has a Finnish-Russian Friend who has helped her immensely in understanding how things are done in Finland. It was a big help for her to have her friend’s guidance.
Most of the connections between internationals and Finns are formed outside the university. In the university, most of their social interaction is limited to international circles. However, the problem with international circles is that they are outsiders as well. To feel that at least some part of them belongs here, they need to have some sort of connection to the Finnish people. Even if by some miracle, they find a job here but don’t have the feeling that they belong among the people, they won’t be satisfied. Some might even find it impossible to break out of the international bubble.
TalentHub Joensuu is currently working on a project aimed at facilitating the integration of international students in higher education by connecting them with employers in the region and providing mutually beneficial services. The students were intrigued by this initiative and found it promising but stressed that a successful project for international students requires involving the international students in decision making processes and closely communicating with them to understand their issues and investigate the root causes of their problems.
Various factors contribute to sense of belonging among international students, such as connecting with Finnish people and developing close friendships, doing fulfilling work that contributes to the society they live in, and eventually understanding the language of the community and being able to communicate with it. However, as these interviews shows, there are serious obstacles to achieving these senses of purpose and belonging in Eastern Finland, especially for international master’s degree students.
Employment is not just about work, but also about feeling like you belong to a workplace, doing meaningful work, and being able to support yourself and your family while not feeling socially excluded. It is crucial to have a system that recognizes people’s previous experiences and does not throw away their education and work history. Only then can a better understanding of the integration process in Eastern Finland be achieved, which will benefit both international students and Finnish people living in the region. It is important to have a diverse and international community and city but having an inclusive one is even more important. It is only then that one truly feels like they have found their new home.
UEF Trainee at the Center for Continuous Learning