When I first moved to Finland to start my Master’s degree I had set an incredibly tight budget for myself: 300 Euros a month. I moved here with the savings I had made working minimum wage in the US. I didn’t know how long it would be until I would find a job, so I planned accordingly. My bike would be my sole form of transportation. After food and rent there would not be much left for anything else.
There are always activities to do free of charge. Occasionally events are put on by the city, and there are days museums charge no entry fee. You seldom have to go far to see the abundant nature Finland has to offer. Within the city limits I’ve seen foxes, hedgehogs, deer and plenty of rabbits.
Inevitably your peers will want to go out to the city centre for a night, or just out to eat. You’ll find that the clubs that offer “free” entrance will charge you a coat check for the coat you don’t have. Restaurants, and even fast food tend to be very expensive. Most night life in general has some cost attached. Eventually, what happens when you’re invited? You simply don’t join. This consequently leaves an unintentional social gap.
I am not the only who comes to Finland with such a tight budget, you’ll find many with less. To get a student residence permit you must show a certain amount of money available to ensure your stay. The problem is, if you spend this money during your stay, you might not have enough to renew your permit next year. Students from within the EU do not require a residence permit, and therefore need not show any proof of finances. As diverse as the EU is, this means that some students will likely struggle more than others during their studies. Although Finnish students enjoy some great benefits, for whatever reason, it’s not unheard of for someone to slip out of the system for a good month or two if not more.
In the past I had always been very involved with my community. In Kentucky I used to help distribute computer equipment to impoverished families, as well as volunteer at a home for girls coming from difficult family situations. In Chile I was also very active; I often assisted my community radio and television stations with any technical help they might need, as well as helping out the local community center with their IT network. I even dressed up in full Santa gear in the middle of summer to distribute toys throughout rural towns.
Although in a different way, I would still be just as involved with the community around me here in Finland. Within my first six months here I found out that just about every student residence has a substantial amount of funds allocated for student activities. I don’t know how accurate this figure is, but at the time I had heard that around 80% of these funds were left unused. This for me was unbelievable. There is money available for the benefit of us students, yet not much interest in its use.
I inquired and eventually became part of my student residence committee. Shortly after, becoming president. What I found was that our council was not much different than many others: over a dozen members meeting twice monthly to plan a semi-annual party. An event that later would only take us minutes to choose a date, and a night to plan and execute.
First, unnecessary meetings were eliminated. We then strived to create an environment that encouraged residents to approach us with their own projects that could be quickly approved. The idea was that even if a project did not work out, it would encouraged residents to cooperate and participate within their community. We went from the few semi-annual events to weekly and bi-weekly events. These changes began to make the residence council part of the community rather than a separate entity.
The nature of events changed as well. This would no longer be about the one off crazy party with buses of tourist showing up to join. We focused on events and activities that would help bring the community together.
Who knew you could find so much talent and commitment among our hundreds of residents? We had a group of students give weekly introductory and advanced Finnish language courses. Dance instructors from South America taught us traditional dances. A student gave weekly stretching lessons at our small gym. Yet another would help others identify safe mushrooms and berries in the forest. With the immense diversity we had available, every week a different group would host an international dinner. Movie nights, sledding, water balloon fights, sports tournaments, ice skating, BBQs, go-karting. It was hard to keep track of how much was going on.
Among our talented group we had a pair of professional fire dancers studying here. With the right permissions, and access to the correct equipment, many of our parties ended with a spectacular show.
After managing resources and time for the efforts of our many residents, my own time went to help plan some of the larger group trips we would take. Did you know Fazer gives free factory tours that end with free chocolate? Just tell them you have a group and they’ll give you a time. The Nuuksio national forest is accessible via public transportation and in certain areas it is free to camp. Though the most fun we had was on our trips to Tallinn and Stockholm. All free of charge, often with our group of a 100+ student. During the low season, cruise lines give away cabin tickets in hopes you’ll spend on board.
Is that it?
What about the money? The truth is most of our activities cost the council little to nothing. We would receive around 5000€ annually, which came down to about 10€ per resident. Divided among all our residents, that would not even be enough to go out to a movie. Instead, the money would go towards gear that could provide a longer term benefit. Gym equipment, camping gear, pool tables, game consoles, TVs, etc. At the end of every year every cent was spent towards our residents. Anything less would have been negligent.
The resources are there. In Finland a lot of effort is put to help ensure students get a quality student life alongside their quality education. I would hope that more students get involved, using what has been made available to them.