Henrika Tirkkonen and Anna Valkonen say that living abroad gave them more courage and tolerance. (Photo: Johannes Kaarakainen)
Henrika Tirkkonen and Anna Valkonen say that living abroad gave them more courage and tolerance. (Photo: Johannes Kaarakainen)

Student exchange can change the way people eat their french fries. That along with their self image, values and long-term plans.

Every year a great number of students at the University of Jyväskylä pack their bags and travel to a strange country for one or two semesters. Some go to get to know new cultures, some to get away from their old circles. Some even go to study. But one thing is for sure: everyone comes home at least a little different than before.
”I grew up”, is what Tomi Hiltunen has to say about the effects of his exchange semester in Wales last autumn.
The future teacher states that the experience made him ”more complete as a person”.
”I don’t care so much about what others think of me anymore”, he says.
A big thing to say, but he isn’t alone. Anna Valkonen, a fifth year student of English, describes herself as a more balanced entity after spending a year in Poland.
”I’m more tolerant towards both myself and others now”, she says.
After running errands in Polish for a year with quite little knowledge of the language, small mistakes lose importance.

With a better view of how things work in other countries, it is also easier to judge one’s own culture. For many, experiences from life outside of Finland have given them more respect for their home country.
After spending last autumn in Belgium studying English, Henrika Tirkkonen got home with a new found appreciation for the Finnish education system. The reason is simple:
”It functions”.
The same goes for Hiltunen. He got first hand experience of the authoritative structures of the Welsh universities, as he was almost sent home mid-semester because of disrespectful behavior.
”One morning I found out that I had been deleted from all of my courses. I sent an email to a secretary asking, in my view in a polite manner, for the problem to be corrected as soon as possible”, he explains.
Only later did he find out that the apparently impatient undertone of his email had angered the staff to the point of wanting to send him back to Finland. After writing a bitterly difficult apology letter he got to stay in Britain but, at the same time, his appreciation for Finland reached a new level.

A relaxed exchange semestercan also have an impact on students’ studying motivation. A year in Berlin left Anni Timonen, a student of economics, with a deeper respect for spare time and a more laid-back attitude towards learning.
”I now avoid taking too many courses”, she says.
Hiltunen reports the same. In his case, the new attitude had its disadvantages.
”I took the pace of the Erasmus-studying home with me”, he explains.
Unfortunately it didn’t take him very far in Jyväskylä, and in the spring semester his studies proceeded unusually slowly.
An exchange semester can, however, have effects even the Minister of Education would rejoice. With their long-term dreams realized, Valkonen and Tirkkonen say they feel calmer than before.
”Before my exchange year, I was sure I wouldn’t return to the English department in Jyväskylä anymore”, Valkonen says.
After the exchange in Poland, however, she now says she feels quite ready to finish her master’s thesis here. Travelling can wait – well anyway for just a second. After the exchange, the world seems open and easy to access at any time.

But it isn’t just life-changing new attitudes that exchange students take with them back to their home countries. Often the things that stick with them most persistently are small, everyday preferences and habits.
For Timonen it was eating together with roommates, for Tirkkonen the Belgian food with its French fries and mayonnaise. Valkonen, on the other hand, got stuck with the Polish drinking culture.
”Every time I’m drinking something, even water in Lozzi, I just want to toast and say ’Na zdrowie’. Cheers.”

Minna Tiainen