My name is Kristaps Kovaļonoks and I come from Riga, Latvia. I am currently a first-year student of the International Master’s Degree Programme (MDP) in Finnish and Other Finno-Ugric Languages at University of Turku (UTU) in Finland. In fact, this is the only international MDP provided by UTU where the main language of instruction is Finnish.
Hence, all the courses (lectures and seminars) take place with Finnish students, and thus it is challenging to maintain the status of an international student. But before we get into about what is it that I exactly study at UTU and how did I get here, let me tell you a bit more about myself first.
In a nutshell, my first contact with Finnic languages emerged during my school years. Unlike most young people in Latvia, I was learning Estonian in elementary school and Finnish in high school. After graduating from high school, I started studying Finno-Ugric Studies at University of Latvia. Back then, my major was Finnish, and minors included Estonian and Translation Studies.
Due to studying languages that are barely spoken in my home country, I knew from day one that I must study hard, be actively involved in student organizations, network with other people and always look for opportunities to experience something new by going abroad. And now, looking back at my previous experience, I can truly admit that hard work always pays off. In addition to having the privilege to gain a very valuable academic and working experience both in Estonia and Finland in the past, I have also been fortunate to meet some truly amazing people from all over the world. Below you can find a list of a few key points in my life. I have also shortly described a few of the organizations that have helped me to reach my goals and probably can also help other students interested in studying Finnish.
- After finishing my first year of studies at University of Latvia, I participated in a Finnish language and culture summer course at University of Vaasa in Finland. The summer course lasted for around three weeks and was organized by the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI). One of EDUFI main goals is to support students learning the Finnish language outside of Finland by organizing various summer courses, traineeships, contests and sometimes even offering scholarships for talented students. The summer course was a lot of fun, since we not only studied at the university, but also made a lot of trips (e.g. to some islands nearby, museums, zoo, etc.). Since this was my first time visiting Finland, I was amazed by the fact that you can study Finnish almost all over the world. For instance, I met people from Austria, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Romania, Russia, USA and many others.
- Later, I spent my fourth and fifth semesters (altogether around nine months) as an Erasmus+ exchange student at UTU. Due to the flexibility of higher education in Finland and the opportunities provided by UTU itself, I was able to study not only Finnish and Estonian, but also a bit of Baltic Sea Region Studies and Education. One can always benefit from having the opportunity to expand their knowledge in different fields! In fact, UTU has developed a whole study module about the Finnish language and culture designed solely for non-native speakers. Courses listed there include basic, intermediate and optional studies, so exchange students learning Finnish have a huge variety of courses to choose from based on their level.
- When my studies in Latvia were slowly coming to an end, in the summer after finishing my sixth semester, I participated in the Finnish in Finland traineeship which was organized by the aforementioned EDUFI. By doing so, I spent two months working at a youth center where my main duties, among many others, included working as a group leader for a group of international volunteers, animal care and gardening chores. The traineeship served as a great opportunity to improve my language skills and to learn more about the Finnish working culture, as well as to meet local and international people.
- During my last (eighth) semester at university, I was working on my Bachelor’s thesis about the Digitization of Education in Finnish Schools. And you’re right to guess that I was writing my thesis in Finnish! As I wanted to challenge myself even more, I participated in Erasmus+ traineeship while working on my thesis. This time I traveled to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where I spent two months working at a Finnish company learning about market research, project management and business support services. Again, this was a completely new and rewarding experience for me, especially when it comes to improving my language skills.
- After graduating from the University of Latvia, I immediately received a full-time job offer at one of the largest IT companies in Europe. The office was in my hometown of Riga, and luckily, the job offered to combine my passion for foreign languages, IT, project management and new technologies.
After working at the office for slightly more than a year, I made the decision to leave everything behind, pack my bags and move abroad. As one thing lead to another, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Finland. When thinking about what and where to study exactly, my mind was focused only on one thing in particular – I wanted to return to Turku. Also taking my previous experience into account, it seemed only logical to pursue a master’s degree entirely in Finnish.
After being accepted as a degree student at UTU, it felt like a dream come true. There has always been a part of me that wanted to study full-time in Finland. MDP in Finnish and Other-Finno Ugric Languages is a complex degree program consisting of 120 ECTS and, as mentioned already before, the main language of instruction is Finnish. The number of accepted students each academic year is low. Perhaps the number of applicants is not high either, but it is important to keep in mind that, before applying, students are required to have a very good knowledge of the Finnish language making it a competitive program to be accepted into.
MDP in Finnish and Other-Finno Ugric Languages consists of many different sections, including sections about Theoretical Knowledge of Finnish, Finno-Ugric Studies, Finnish Culture and Society and many other. Before starting your studies, each student is required to create his/her own individual study plan by choosing the suitable courses. Creating your own study schedule for the upcoming two years can be challenging, not to mention time consuming, but luckily changes can often be made even after the courses have already started. If needed, students can also receive help and guidance from the study advisor or the assigned student tutor. In addition, students can also choose courses in English, but completing them will require a lot of extra work since received credits will go outside of the degree programme itself. So, that means that the credits received from the courses completed in English won’t be included in the study programme’s 120 ECTS. It is also important to keep in mind that each student can study as much as he/she wants to, hence you can graduate with having 200 or even more ECTS. It’s all up to your goals and ambitions!
Although studying together with Finns and in Finnish can be challenging for all international students, it is still a very rewarding experience. International students are also warmly welcomed to take part in various events organized by some of the Finnish student organizations. For instance, during the Autumn semester, Kanta and Sugri often organized meetings and events where students were able to attend sauna, study circles, traditional sitz parties, board game evenings or a pre-Christmas party. In fact, sitz parties is something we don’t really have in Latvia. For Finns, on the other hand, sitz parties can be described as academic dinner parties involving eating, drinking and singing. Finns truly love to sing! For those of you who don’t know yet, Kanta is a student organization supporting students of the Finnish language while Sugri supports students interested in the Finno-Ugric languages.
To sum up, moving to a different country can always be stressful and not knowing the local language for most international students can be confusing at the very beginning. Nevertheless, Finland, and UTU more specifically, warmly welcomes all the international students by having friendly student tutors, experienced study advisors, helpful international coordinators and a professional teaching staff. Even student organizations are always there to help students settle in Turku and have a successful start of their studies!
Picture: orientation course programme’s both in 2015 and 2018