Laura and her first aurora experience

A Colombian in Finnish Wonderland –The story of how Laura became a tutor for international students–

4 February 2020, by Mária Kubincová

Laura Moreno from Colombia first wanted to pursue a PhD, but later decided to apply for several Master’s Degree programmes instead. She came to Finland in 2018 after she got accepted into the then entirely new programme called Master’s Degree Programme Human Neuroscience, which is an intersection between psychology, medicine, biology and even pharmacology. In her second year of studies Laura decided to become a tutor and help the next generation of students acclimate to the new environment. Find out what was the reason behind her decision and why is the role of a tutor so important.

It was almost 2 years ago, when Laura received the news that she was accepted to the University of Turku together with receiving a scholarship. Having some general knowledge about Finland (it is a country with one of the best education systems and the purest air in the world), she thought to herself “Why not?” and decided to give it a try. Her landing in Helsinki became an unforgettable moment. This was her first contact with Europe, which became a gateway to other countries with thrilling cities, where she found herself mesmerized by the architectural styles and the façades of the buildings.

“I felt like I was in a movie because the houses looked like they came straight out of one. First, I was in Helsinki, where as a huge fan of architecture I had an introduction to the Neoclassical style. When I came to Turku, I visited Naantali with all the beautiful and colourful façades and then the Moomin Village. It felt like a dream. Everything was so nice, and everyone so lively. The summer spirit was everywhere.”

Laura also had her first experience with summer, as Colombia is a tropical country and only has one season with changing weather conditions. Having four seasons was new to her and she was eager to see snow in winter for the first time in her life. Even the transition from summer to autumn was new to her. Laura likes that Finland and other Nordic countries have very strong traditions, for example The Night of Ancient Bonfires, where bonfires are lit along the coastline of the Baltic sea. She also appreciates the level of automatization and the fact you can move around Turku using an application on your phone or receive various services using your bank account. This, however, did come with some drawbacks in the beginning, as students who are not European might run into difficulties, if their banks cannot process various payments to Finland, but there is always a way to manage.

Other than that, the rest of the experience has been amazing for her. Just the fact that students have discounts, an amazing place to live, where one can ensure a comfortable living, surrounded by other international people and the general level of safety were enough, Laura stated. For a noisy Latin American person, as she described herself, the silence that loomed around made her hear her own breath and think she must be doing something wrong. Now she can appreciate the very same silence. As well as the fact, that Turku is very well organised, with comfortable traffic allowing students to use a bike, go by bus (or even a waterbus!) and the closeness to the countryside and the nature. Being able to see animals like foxes, hares, squirrels roam around Student Village and see people jogging, having picnic in public places really pleases her.

Becoming the tutor she would have liked to have

At the beginning of her studies, Laura was appointed a tutor, but the person was not from her programme. The tutor was taking care of students from three different programmes and she had a lot of people to deal with, but Laura stresses she was very nice and they are still in contact. As the programme was new, there was no information available at that time, so they had to collaborate with the programme coordinator, who helped to set up everything. While Laura’s tutor helped her a lot with general things, she would have liked to have a tutor who knew the programme in greater detail. This is how the idea of becoming a tutor was born. She wanted to be the person she would have loved to have – a person to tell about all the nice places to eat at, shop at, all the things you should (or should not) do and share experiences.

Laura loves planning events for her tutees

“If you are an international student – away from your friends and family – it feels good to be warmly welcomed. It would be nice if someone was able to spend time with you, to introduce you to your own classmates and show you why Turku is so amazing.”

For Laura, being a tutor has been a very nice experience as she really likes meeting people and trying to get them together. She believes, it is something that helps students, because the wider one’s network is the better support one gets, in case of any struggle. This is not always easy, as students often have to go on with their studies and might tend to avoid socialising. They might feel like free time is just idling, so some might find it hard to treasure free-time activities. Laura often planned events, where sometimes 3-4 students showed up. Nevertheless, they managed to have a great time together. Socialising can take on other forms as well; it can be time spent together reviewing students’ interests to find their line of research. Some of Laura’s tutees managed to find an internship thanks to these informal get-togethers, which felt very rewarding to her. They also tried to involve other tutors, as well as tutors from Åbo Akademi, who they are friends with, to expand the social circle of their tutees even more. Laura emphasizes the importance of having an active social life, even of it is just sharing a coffee break with a colleague, to find out you come up with a very interesting question you can solve together.

“Work is, of course, important and it is nice to be focused on one goal and feel proud about one’s own achievements, but life is also about going out, seeing places, eating, speaking with people, sharing experiences, taking pictures, enjoying the sunlight or looking at the stars. That’s all a part of life! I’m not saying you don’t have to work, but I think you need to have some time to relax. It’s important to be able to clear our mind, so we can look at problems in new ways. If we can’t shift our perspective, a problem can become a block, something in the middle of our way, which we are unable to move. We might end up thinking about this block all the time, but not being able to do anything about it. We need to find new inputs instead of staying overwhelmed by this emotional and cognitive load.”

While Laura found the whole process of training tutors well organized, she thinks there are still areas for possible improvement in the future, for example training tutors to be also able to support students, who might find themselves feeling overwhelmed – especially during the first weeks. Students might be concerned about the workload of their courses, so having someone, who they ca talk to, who could help them relax, manage their anxieties during exams and do something together, especially if students feel like they do not want to go as far as to seek a psychologist’s help, could be very beneficial. It is important to have a healthy social group to get help with normal struggles, like feeling overwhelmed with having three exams in one week. Tutors can encourage students, or at least comfort them. They can help enhance students’ social network, ‘everyday life skills’ as Laura puts it, and be a person they can rely on.

Enjoying the sunny days in Turku

The perks of being a tutor

Laura thinks becoming a tutor is a great way to meet people and have lots of fun – especially during summertime, when you have so many options and the hardest part is deciding where to have a picnic. Being a tutor is not that time consuming, the busiest times were the orientation days – for both tutors and students, altogether 2 weeks. But she still did not have to skip any class, nor change anything in her working schedule. Being a tutor have her the rewarding sensation of helping someone; she believes it helps you feel better about yourself – you feel able and useful to society. It also helps with developing more empathy, as well as leadership and organizational skills.

“You only gain and win skills by being a tutor, you are not losing anything. And it’s not a big investment of time.”

Laura concluded, that everyone has a very different experience living in Turku, and in Finland in general, and the different culture and customs may give a hard time to some people, while others might be having a wonderful time. People from places like Colombia, who are very sociable and touchy, might feel shocked in the beginning by the difference of Finnish culture. But there are no better or worse cultures, nor is it about denying your culture or denying the other culture; it is about recognising the difference, and then building bridges on the base of that difference. And when you get to know people, you will stop seeing them as aliens. You can make an effort to understand their customs, to ask why it happens in certain ways and not other. You grow not only in knowledge but also as a person.

Are you a degree student at the University of Turku? Are you interested in becoming a tutor? Apply by 29 January 2020! Read more and find the electronic application form here: (login required).