Getting used to a new country and culture doesn’t come that easily for most people, but for some, it seems almost effortless.

”It was a pleasure mostly. Day by day learning something new and getting acclimatized”, Oleksiy ”Alex” Kovalenko, Ukrainian master’s student at international business described his time in Finland in the beginning.

While he has traveled a lot and worked abroad, this is the first time he is living long-term outside of his home country. He hit the ground running and has been involved in various activities during his time here.

With his interest in art and music, he’s found ways to connect with the local people for example by assembling the Jyväskylä Students’ Art Festival  with students from other departments but also from JAMK University of Applied Sciences.

The most difficult thing was finding something more to do in the local community

”It was always challenging and interesting for me to try different things at the same time and I think I learned a lot from being able to do different activities,” he said.

It seems a common thread among foreign students who are well adjusted. They all take the initiative and find ways to be productive.

For Armenian Vahan Alaverdyan, master’s student in educational leadership, adjusting  wasn’t too difficult either. Coming from a working background he felt a positive change of routine.

”Suddenly you don’t have to wake up early and stress about everything,” he said.

While he had his difficulties adjusting to the weather and food, the most difficult thing was finding something more to do in the local community.

It is obviously much easier to find a connection with people who are more alike culturally

That is one of the reasons he came up with Student Expertise Association which aims to provide students with opportunities to engage in the local community through volunteering.

”It would be really nice to have opportunities for students so that they could actualize themselves. That’s the biggest challenge I’ve seen within these two years,” he explained.

But for many others adjusting isn’t as simple and there can be many obstacles along the way.

The language barrier is something everyone is familiar with but there is also a broader issue of students getting stuck in social bubbles.

It is obviously much easier to find a connection with people who speak the same language and are more alike culturally.

It’s a person’s responsibility to find what you are good at and be active

While Kovalenko doesn’t see it as an obstacle for him personally, he acknowledges that it might hinder a lot of people from adjusting.

”My recipe is to try to find a place where you can meet Finnish people and where you can combine for example something that you’re good at, something you’re interested in. Try to find a connection where possible,” he said.

While Alaverdyan sees that the language barrier can have an effect, he thinks that the bigger problem still lies in the students having a lot of potential and maybe useful skills outside of their field of study that goes untapped.

But they both agree that in the end, it’s more about the individual being proactive and finding opportunities.

”I think the university gives  diverse choices of what people can do here and the freedom of doing what you like. In my mind, it’s a person’s responsibility to find what you are good at and be active and curious about the people and places around you,” Kovalenko said.

”Be creative and look for opportunities,” Alaverdyan added.

He feels that there are many opportunities for him in Finland.

Even if Kovalenko and Alaverdyan are both adjusting well. and it’s easy to tell that they both really like the country,  their long-term plans are still open.

Alaverdyan feels like at some point he would like to give back to his home country Armenia but he isn’t sure when.

”I would like to invest myself in Armenia because it has a lot of potential and it needs people like me to go back. But if I have an opportunity in Finland like developing the Student Expertise Association or some other things, I would take that opportunity and move forward.”

Kovalenko feels that there are many opportunities for him in Finland.

”I would definitely like to get more experience in Finland working or pursuing  my career as an entrepreneur or maybe studying more. I think it’s a great place to start doing something on your own.”

Foreign students get stuck in social bubbles

Emilia Tolvanen, Coordinator for Admission of International Master’s Degree Students at The University of Jyväskylä, is very familiar with the problems students might face while living in Finland.

According to her, most people like it here and are doing fine but there are some problems. Not being able to go outside the circle of other foreign students is common.

”The situation is basically the same anywhere in the world, not just Finland. You have so much in common with your group and some people might feel that it’s safer to be around people who are in the same boat,” she explained.

Students can manage with English quite easily in Jyväskylä, and therefore it may be hard for them to find the motivation to study Finnish. However, in order to integrate into the Finnish society and possibly find a job here after graduation, knowing Finnish is strongly recommended.

Group photo at the end of Students’ Art Festival organized by Oleksiy Kovalenko and other international students. Photo: Vahan Alaverdyan

Tolvanen has seen that being far away from home and without your safety net can make small things seem much worse than they are.

Adjusting to a new culture can be a challenge for anyone but especially for those coming from vastly different countries. As the  cost of living in Finland is relatively high, financial difficulties are also a factor.

However the university’s many efforts to help have been successful like the friendship family program where a foreign student is paired with a suitable Finnish family and they can spend time together in ways they find comfortable.

Also, cooperation with local businesses to take advantage of students language and professional skills have been well-received.

”But more could be done,” she said regarding the potential of the students and how to make use of it. But she also thinks that the situation is already pretty good.

”There are a lot of opportunities to get to know Finns and the Finnish way of life, you just have to take them.”