During a normal autumn, the University of Turku hosts around 300 exchange students.
This autumn, due to the impact of Covid-19 and the uncertainty that it entails, only 131 students made the journey to study at UTU. They come from countries some of which struggle with a much worse Coronavirus situation than Finland.
The unusual autumn has not prevented the new exchange students from socialising. Most of the time, gatherings have taken place in small groups in students’ apartments. In early autumn, however, many students still organised house parties that caused disturbances in the Student Village neighbourhood.
In the Student Village, neighbours made several formal complaints to TYS regarding the exchange students’ parties. At the Varissuo exchange student accommodation, complaints were made to TYS and eventually the city too.
When residing in a country where the situation is better than in your home country, it might be tempting to break away from constraints, speculates German exchange student Anja Steger, who majors in applied linguistics.
She arrived in Finland in late August. While she has not herself participated in these infamous parties, she did visit bars earlier this autumn, when the Covid situation was better.
Using a mask was still relatively rare in Turku in August. Steger found that surprising. The bars were open as normal, too. It all felt very different compared to Germany, where wearing masks in public transport, supermarkets and public spaces was mandatory.
It felt unusual that Finnish society stressed recommendations over compulsory rules.
”What I felt was different here is that everything is a recommendation and not a fixed rule and you are not fined if you do not adhere to the recommendations. Maybe this is part of why Finnish people are more accepting of the measures that are taken.”
The Student Union of the University of Turku (TYY) recommended a quarantine of two weeks to all exchange students arriving to Finland for the autumn semester. Not all of the incoming students took this quarantine seriously, Steger recalls.
TYY’s International Specialist Satu Nurmi says that overseeing the quarantine recommendation was difficult. Nevertheless, dangerous situations at the university were avoided because the orientation for new students was held via Zoom.
In late October there were some cases of Coronavirus among exchange students, but there has not been a spike in new cases since. Nurmi says that all in all, everything has gone well.
She wants to thank the university for its courage in admitting exchange students during a time when many Finnish universities decided to cancel their exchange programs. Some 160 exchange students are expected to come to Turku for the spring semester of 2021.
“We now have some experience with the exchange in times of Covid-19, and considering the circumstances it all went quite well. We can now more happily welcome students for the next semester.”
Anja Steger has very fond memories of her exchange despite Covid-19:
“I’ve been able to do almost all the things that I wanted, so it’s actually been a really nice time here. I travelled to a lot of places, maybe not to other countries – I’ve only been to Tallinn at the end of August while it was still possible to go there – but also within Finland. Obviously, there are so many beautiful places to discover in Finland as well.”
Making friends was surprisingly easy, Steger says. She lived in the TYS exchange student accommodation in Varissuo, which was home to approximately 120 people studying at the University of Turku, Åbo Akademi and Turku University of Applied Sciences. According to Steger, it was almost impossible not to make friends there.
Another place to socialise for Steger personally was CampusSport, which helped her to meet locals. She remembers a specific incident when a Finnish student came to chat with her after class as they had heard her speaking English, proving that the stereotype of a shy and quiet Finn is not always true.
Steger admits that she would like to get to know a few more locals. Never really getting to socialise with the locals and only befriending other exchange students might be a familiar experience for many university students during an exchange.
She praises the university for its courses with live Zoom implementations, as opposed to remote Moodle-studying without any interaction. However, she finds it a bit sad that she has not really gotten to know the campus area, only visiting a couple of times to use the library and printers.
”I think the social opportunities that I had here really outweighed the disadvantage of still having to do everything via Zoom. After all, studying is only one part of the exchange. The social life here was even better than it would have been in Germany. I think this made the whole experience really positive for me.”
Steger says that she has fallen in love with Turku and now does not want to leave. She requested an extension of her exchange period, which was approved earlier this week. After Christmas, Steger will thus return to Turku and continue her studies at UTU.
Update 16.12. 15:58: replaced "Finns" with "locals".
Starting 2021 also the students from the Universities of Applied Sciences will have access to the primary student healthcare services provided by the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS). (3/2020)