How it all began
I would like to start this off by looking back about one year from when I am writing down these words: It is June 2017, I am finished with all my graduation exams, I am looking forward to finally getting my graduation diploma and there are no classes left to attend nor any homework left to do. I have all the free time in the world, I am travelling and meeting friends, to make it short: life is nice. But besides all that, there is something else on my mind that gets me the most excited: in about two months’ time, mid-august 2017, I will be headed into quite an adventure. For one year, 12 months, 365 days or however you want to put it I will be living abroad; about 1.600km apart in “the country of thousand lakes” as we like to call it in German. One year later I know at least one thing: A thousand lakes is an unheard-of understatement when talking about Finland.
But how did I end up in this situation? Why is one year younger me looking forward to sheer coldness, depressing darkness and more grammatical cases than even Chuck Norris could ever manage? Well, it went down like this: already about 9 months before my graduation I knew that directly going to university was not an option for me. On the other hand, I also did not want to spend a year doing nothing, so I began looking for different options. My online research led me to the homepage of ICJA, ICYE’s committee in Germany. It did not take long before I fell for the idea of joining one of ICYE’s 12 month volunteering programs. I could easily identify with their values and goals and it seemed like the perfect way to take a break from school while still learning new things and gaining valuable experiences.
“It did not take long before I fell for the idea of joining one of ICYE’s 12 month volunteering programs. I could easily identify with their values and goals and it seemed like the perfect way to take a break from school while still learning new things and gaining valuable experiences.”
No sooner said than done I found myself filling in the online application which made me face an important decision: where exactly was I going to become a volunteer? Decision making is an exhausting process anyways and it does not necessarily become easier, if basically the whole world would be up for grabs. However, I’d be lying if I said that it was a particularly hard case for me. I knew pretty quickly that I did not want to melt in the brutal heat of Australia, India or the Philippines, which are among the most common destinations for young Germans to go to for volunteering. No, I was a lot more fascinated by the perspective of quiet lakes, lonesome forests and the realest of winters that the north has to offer. In addition, being a hopeless freak for languages, I got interested in the challenge that is trying to learn Finnish immediately.
Luckily, things ended up working out perfectly for me: not only did I get a place as a volunteer, I also got it for Finland. Jumping back forward in time just a little more than a year to June 2018, I can now say that I am still very happy with how things developed. Instead of two months until my departure to Finland, now it is only two months more until my return to Germany. I have a lot of tales and thoughts to tell from the past ten months and I would like to share them here. I hope you will enjoy reading about my experiences, whether you are yourself pondering to become a volunteer or just interested for some other reason. So, let’s jump right into it!
What has my work here been like?
Since I am writing this while being at my working place, I guess it makes sense to dive right into describing my project. Practically, it has already ended recently, since the last day of May was also the last day of school for the students that I had been with for the time of my volunteering period. At the moment, I am taking part in the school’s vacation program. It consists of a lot of being outside, doing sports and all kind of other fun things like karaoke. That makes it a very nice way for me to spend my last working days for this place.
“Basically, the goal is that the students get to have a say in the planning of their future rather than only being directed by others.”
The name of the school that I have been volunteering at is Keskuspuiston ammattopisto. It is a vocational school for people with disabilities. Its aim is to prepare the students for independent living and help them to find a transition to work life. For that purpose, the lessons on one hand contain tasks like cooking, cleaning or math to the students’ abilities. On the other hand lessons like itsetuntemus (knowing yourself) are supposed to help the students get to know their feelings and make them able to express how they are feeling or what their opinion on something is. In addition, the school organizes short internships at working places like supermarkets or fast food restaurants to give the students the possibility of experiencing different kinds of work areas. Basically, the goal is that the students get to have a say in the planning of their future rather than only being directed by others. Finally, the program also holds quite a lot of physical education or excursions to similar institutions or places like youth houses.
Exploring the Finnish summer with a friend
Personally, I have mostly been working with two groups of students, one consisting of ten students, the other of six. My tasks as a volunteer included helping in lessons for example with math exercises, motivating and helping them during PE lessons and just generally talking to them and trying to get to know them. To break it down, the role of volunteer is rather a social one instead of being an actual teacher. That is something that I wish I had prepared myself better for before I started working here. In the beginning it was quite a challenge for me, since I had to figure out my position and also overcome the language barrier, since almost all of the students did not speak English. With time, as my Finnish progressed pretty quickly and I started figuring out how I had to behave in certain situations, it got a lot better and I began to feel a lot more confident in the social aspect of my role as a volunteer. I also spoke with the head secretary of our host organization and together we found ways to incorporate my skills better into the project, for example I began to assist in language classes outside of those two groups. That is certainly I something I would strongly advice: if you are not completely satisfied with something as a volunteer, communicate it!
What was my living situation like?
Next to my work as a volunteer, Keskuspuisto also provided me with my accommodation. I have been living in one of the dormitory buildings for the students. In those dorm rooms, they can practice living on their own and having to organize their own household. It also works as some kind of boarding school for some of them. As a volunteer for Keskuspuisto, I was also allowed to live in one of those dorm rooms. It was a really nice flat, I have to say. I had my own bathroom, living room with beds, kitchen and even a small balcony that was perfect for warm and bright summer nights. I really enjoyed staying on my own instead of in a host family like most other volunteers. I had never lived alone before and therefore got the chance to practice that. It was nice to figure out a rhythm for cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping etc.; that is definitely something I learned for life.
“I had never lived alone before and therefore got the chance to practice that. It was nice to figure out a rhythm for cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping etc.; that is definitely something I learned for life.”
Also the location where the dormitory is situated came in really handy for me. Keskuspuisto has different offices and school areas all around Helsinki and its surroundings. I worked in the one in Espoo, a town directly in the west of Helsinki, but living in one of the places in Helsinki. From there it takes about 25 minutes to get to the center which made exploring Finland’s capital quite accessible for me.
I used that possibility a lot to go and wander around Helsinki. For that reason, I have gotten to know the city quite well and after having experienced all the seasons here, I can say that I have overall enjoyed living in this city. I have often been asked, by foreigners as well as Finns, what I like or do not like about Helsinki. This is how after ten months I am answering people:
I like the city, since it offers a lot of parks, nature venues and possibilities to be outside, whether just hanging out with friends or doing some sports. It is one of the greenest bigger cities that I have been to which I really appreciate. I also enjoy the city’s atmosphere. Helsinki is not a place of busy, rushing, hectic people. It has something very calm and relaxed about it, it invites you to walk around and maybe sit down somewhere instead of forcing you to run from place to place. Of course, other people might tell different stories about the city and it is as fascinating as funny how strongly those can diverge. I have heard from some people that the city is a bit too quiet for their taste, that there is too little buzz from full cafés or people on the streets. On the other hand – and this relates mostly to Finns who are not living in Helsinki or its surroundings – people have called out the city for its grey skies, muddy winters and its anonymity between all the people of different origins who are only focusing on themselves. Now this is kind of a typical image that people from more rural areas have of their capital city that can bee seen all over the world. And yes, it is not only pretty and peaceful: construction sides, pale apartment blocks and filthy bars sometimes disrupt the cityscape. However, in the case of Helsinki I definitely do not agree with those people. What prevails for me is that I like the city for its diversity, open-mindedness, friendliness and all the beautiful new spots that I keep on discovering all the time.
What will remain from this?
So what do I make of this experience? One year in Finland – what will I take home with me? Besides more winter clothing than any bag in this world could carry, I mean. Well, first of all I found a country that I enjoy for its wide forests and dreamy lakes, for its friendly people, for its difficult and tongue-breaking language, for its cold winters and bright summer nights, for its absurdities and quirks. I have also been asked quite a few times, if my view on Finland has changed while living here. In regard to that I have to admit that my image of Finland before did not reach any further than “Well, Europe.” That, of course, is not untrue. It has been a pleasure though to dig a little deeper and get to know the country better than that. Yet, I would not dare to say that I have gotten to fully know this country, if that even is something that is possible for any country. There is still a lot more to discover: places that I have not been to yet, traditional food that I have not tasted yet or winter sports that I want to able to exercise at least to an extend that is above total failure. I have also found quite a lot of Finnish music that I like. I am mentioning this, since this article’s title is a tribute to a Finnish classic. There it says “Minä lähden Pohjois-Karjalaan”, in English: I am leaving to North Karelia. Karelia is a region in Finland that I am yet to visit but that I adore anyways for its great pasty. The meaning of “Minä lähden Pohjois-Eurooppaan” should not be hard to guess now. By the way, I also would like have one of those student overalls for my own at some point, because they are damn cool in my opinion. Long story short: Finland is definitely a place that I will be returning to in the future to see even more of it than I already explored and catch up with the people I have gotten to know here.
“Even though I might not work in this field in the future, I for sure can transfer a lot of skills that I have acquired here to all kinds of other working places.”
Secondly, there is a couple of things that I learned from my voluntary work at Keskuspuisto and living in one of the school’s dorm rooms. I gained a lot of independence in the past ten months and got a lot braver in showing initiative and including my own ideas. I also learned that it is important to openly speak with others about what is on your mind that might be hindering you from feeling better. I also was forced to train myself in mental flexibility and allowing myself to not have to do everything perfectly. For example, when I prepared a lesson for the students, that lesson did not always go exactly as planned. But I learned to improvise in those situations and change my plans accordingly – and it always worked, at least kind of sort of. One of the most precious learning experiences is probably the thing as a whole: working in an environment that is probably far from what I will ever be doing in my future life. I did not have a lot of experience in with working with people with disabilities before, so in ten months I learned a lot about this kind of work, the nice sides as well as the difficulties. It was interesting to talk to teachers and also hear their praise as well as worries about this kind of job. Even though I might not work in this field in the future, I for sure can transfer a lot of skills that I have acquired here to all kinds of other working places. Overall, I have gotten a glance into work life and collected valuable experiences in this work field which I am very thankful for.
Lastly, I learned a lot from interacting with the other international volunteers and also Finnish people – intercultural learning is the term here. I can think back to a lot of deep and interesting conversations that often showed me a new perspective I had never thought of before. That is why it is great to have quite an international and open-minded environment: people coming from different countries or even continents have a lot of thoughts and experiences to share, be it weird food traditions, costume festivals or political issues. In a group of people with as much various backgrounds as there our in our volunteer community, there is a lot to talk about and exchange which I really enjoyed. In relation to that, we maybe also gave the Finnish people we have interacted with some new ideas and made them look at themselves and their home country in a new way. Although keeping these kind of international relationships alive is not an easy thing to do, I hope that I can stay in touch with at least some of the international friends I have found here.
Coming to an end
I could go on for a lot of pages more writing about my volunteer experiences but I feel like this is a nice note to find an end on. I hope this was as enjoyable to read as it was for me to write. I had a great time going back in time in my head and recalling all those memories and experiences I got to collect in the past ten months. Hopefully I was able to give a profound insight into my life as an international voluntary worker in Finland and give some answers, if you reading this yourself are considering to apply for such a program. I can with all certainty say: it is worth it! I personally was able to take a lot out of my volunteering period and would without a doubt recommend becoming a volunteer.
To finish this, I would like to thank you for reading this if you have made it until here. I hope I could give you some food for thought on the way. If you are going to apply for a volunteering period yourself, I wish you all the best for your own journey! I still have two months of my own journey left, which I am really excited for.
Now there is only on thing left so for me: kiitos tästä ja moi moi!
ICYE volunteer in Finland in the season 2017–18
In the photo at the top: Our group of international volunteers
Christoph participated in Finland in the International Cultural Youth Exchange program in which the participants volunteer for 6 or 12 months. Would you be interested in ICYE volunteering? Read more about the program and apply!