19 October, 2015
I recently had quite a long talk with a student who has been staying in contact with me since she was invited to an interview with a Master’s program from the University of Jyväskylä. She was accepted into the program and now studying in Jyväskylä. Even though she is now very happy with the move to Finland to pursue higher education, she is quite overwhelmed and struggling with her studies. So, I shared with her my similar experiences and how I handled the situations when I first started my studies at the university.
Even though I had 3 years of working experiences in English-speaking environments (even in the field of my Master’s study) prior to my studies in Jyväskylä, I had a really tough time familiarizing myself with the study in Finland at first. There were quite a few reasons for it. First, because I completed my Bachelor’s Degree totally in Vietnamese, I had no experiences whatsoever in dealing with reading materials written in advanced academic English. And to think that I managed to get an overall 7.5 IELTS with the reading score of 8.0, I was shocked myself about my weak capacity in comprehending the materials.
Secondly, in Vietnam, being a student is quite a passive role, which also gave me a hard time in managing my own study when I first started in Finland. So, in the beginning of a semester in most of Vietnamese universities, we would just go to a certain place at school to copy the timetable including information about courses, time and classroom. At the end of a course or a semester, there would also be a timetable for final exams and so on. Everything is laid out for us, aside from learning our tails off, we do not have to worry about anything else. However, it is a completely different story in Finland where students’ independence is expected. You would have to manage your own study. You would need to find out which courses are compulsory and when they are offered so you won’t miss the registration; otherwise, you’d have to wait a year for those courses to be offered again. You would need to figure out how to use several virtual portals to register courses and gain access to the materials, etc. You would have to learn to manage your time so that you can gain a certain number of credits each semester so that you could graduate on time. Millions of little things like that. Even though you can find help pretty much any time you need, you are still expected to do everything on your own. Help here means support and guidance; no one is going to hold your hands through your troubles.
Thirdly, living in Finland is definitely different, even from its neighboring European countries, let alone any other Asian countries. It is worlds apart. That’s for sure. I consider myself as someone that is quite adaptable. I still experienced culture shocks and physical exhaustion due to the daily transportation (which was my fault for being out of shape!). Plus, Fall was short and Winter came early that year. I also took on a part-time job just one month after my arrival. With all the changes and pressure, I found myself exhausted at the end of every single day.
So, I understand very well what the said student has been going through.
Anyhow, if you find yourself in a similar situation, I genuinely hope you won’t, but if any of you do, you might find my following experiences useful somehow.
In any situations at all, it is obviously important to identify and understand the problems and obstacles that you have. If you can’t seem to focus at school, find out why. If you can’t manage to finish any assignments on time, look for a reason. If you find yourself exhausted at the end of the day with nothing accomplished, do go find an answer for that. For example, when I could not comprehend the reading materials, I first thought it was because of the academic English that I was unfamiliar with. But the strange thing was that even though I understood every single word in a sentence, I still did not seem to understand what it meant. I spent sometime reflecting on it and I found out that it might not have been the language but my background knowledge on the subject. You know that in an article, the authors often cite or quote from some other scholars to prove their points without explaining much. So, it becomes a vicious circle: in order to understand the points they’re trying to make, I need to understand the citations. But I can’t because I have not read the citations. And sometimes, when the citation is not really the original idea but borrowed from another source that is unknown to me because I do not have the basic knowledge of the field’s literature.
But the good thing is: I have identified the roots of my problems. That’s very important.
Coming up with solutions
After figuring out the real reasons for your problems, don’t just sit there and whine about it, you need to find a way to fix it. You just have to find a way to fix it. For example, after finding out that I had a serious hole in my background knowledge, I had to find a way to fill it up. I paid extra attention in lessons that provided essential basic theories of my field. I started to notice which scholars or concepts that were often cited in the materials so that I could find the literature to read and understand them. This way, the next time that I saw the references again, I would immediately know what they referred to.
Starting a new semester might be quite overwhelming with lots of things to take care of: registering for courses (especially stressful if their schedules overlapped each other!), assignments to finish, deadlines to meet; if you have to do your assignments in groups, it’ll take a lot more time. What an irony, right? So, when I found myself in a mess and I had no idea what to do next, I made a to-do list with deadlines on it to keep track of what to do and when I should finish it so I could arrange my priorities. Keeping it in my head and seeing it on a paper did give me different perspectives. So, you might want to try it out to see how it fits your personality. At some point, there was a whole wall in my room filled with lists like this so I would be always reminded of what to do. When there’s too much to handle, it’s very easy for me to lose track.
I always recorded my class schedules and classrooms in the academic calendar notebooks that are handed out every year in the student union’s office so that I had all the information in one place in case I wanted to look it up or arrange a meeting. If you don’t have this notebook, just get yourself one from the book store or something.
Some enjoy group assignments. Some find it dreadful. I’m not a big fan of group works but I don’t protest it either. I see merits in working in groups but I also enjoy doing things myself.
If you do think that your group is somehow falling behind and might not make the deadline, send everyone emails asking for regular meetings. In the emails, explain to everyone in your group what you think (or they think, always present opportunities for all members to express their opinions) should be achieved in this group meeting so they can prepare themselves. Have it agreed upon one more time before starting the meeting so at least everyone knows what’s happening. Have someone record the meetings’ results and forward them to all the members afterward. If no one is willing to do it, please just do it yourself. Believe me; it’ll help things run along if you really care about the quality of your final products and your grades. The teachers should not be bothered if someone in your group or your whole group is lazy and does not do their parts. It happens from time to time. What the teachers see is the results you hand in. If you can do something to improve the situation, do it. Don’t entertain yourself with the thought that someone else might do it. If you can take charge, do it. It’ll also train you to be a leader later on in your job.
At the end of the day, we’re all human; we’ll be drained, much faster in winter too. That’s why it is also very important that you take care of yourself and eat right. Sugar helps boost energy, which is a common knowledge. I know that many students always have something sweet with them just in case they feel hungry or tired: bananas, chocolate, sweets … you name it. I rarely did that (except for when I had to stay in the library for an extended time to work on assignments) because when I’m tired or hungry, I cannot really eat sweets, I always crave for savory food. So, I just had to make sure that I had a really big lunch and dinner. I often got up late in the morning so I rarely had breakfast, which was a pretty bad thing. But I preferred sleeping to eating, can’t help it!
I tried to make sure that I always had juice, milk or fruits at home, especially during winter because they’d give me essential vitamins. I had meat almost every day with a reasonable amount of vegetables (mostly lettuce and cucumber). If I could, I would choose to have lunch at the school’s cafeteria, it’s cheap and very healthy. Click here to find out more about dining options for students in Jyväskylä.
Some of my friends worked out every day to maintain a healthy and strong body too. If you enjoy a good work-out after class, that’s a good idea considering the gym is totally free for students to use.
Try to have a good sleep when you can. Sometimes, 8 hours a day is not an available option, I know that well. But do remember that your body needs the rest.
It can be tiring during winter because of the cold and all the layers of clothes you have to put on and off all the time. This is one part that I didn't enjoy during winter. But it is important to keep yourself warm no matter what. Try to keep your feet dry and warm at all time. This will give you comfort during lessons or while you have to work on any paper.
Layering clothes might seem exhausting but it's a great trick to keep your body at an appropriate temperature both indoor and outdoor. The central heating system in Finland is really good so even if it's -20 degree outside, you can just wear a T-shirt inside and it'll still be okay. So, you don't want to be stuck in a giant and thick coat, sweating during the lessons. If you're dressed in layers, you can just take them out until you feel comfy.
It's dark during winter. There's no denying it. Try to keep a positive attitude. Don't let it get into your head. I found myself sleep more during winter but not depressed. I always sleep a lot anyway. It was not unusual for me. Many might find the darkness depressing but it didn't really affect my emotion that much. I guessed I was just too busy keeping up with school works that I didn't really have the energy to notice the depression.
This really depends on the individual. But in case you eel depressed, my advice would be not to stay home and talk to your family. That will kill you! If you're interested in learning winter sport, this is a great opportunity to start. If you don't, find activities that you can join. There are always activities happening around the campus. Subscribe to all the mailing lists here and you'll get updates regularly.
Well, that’s all I have for this entry. I hope it’s useful for you somehow. If you have other questions or you just want someone to talk to through tough times, you can send me a message on my Facebook page..
Anyway, be hopeful because winter in Finland could just take your breath away with its beauty.
Best of luck for all the newcomers in their first winter in Finland!
Photo courtesy: Sandi Hipke