A Whirlind Weekend Part 1: Helsinki


As I removed my boots, jacket, gloves, and hat, put on my headphones and some tunes, I collapsed into the train seat, determined not to move for the next 4.5 hours. I was exhausted, but in the best way possible. I remember talking to a friend and saying that I felt as I had lived 3 weeks in the last 5 days. So many amazing interactions, new learning, and great opportunities, all gave my introvert self quite a bit to process.

A little R&R on the train to Helsinki

Fulbright Finland Orientation Welcome

The fun began on Wednesday, several hours before dawn broke. I bundled myself up in every warm layer I had to make the 8 minute walk to the train station at 5:50am in -15°C/6°F. Despite the cold, I was thrilled to make the walk and begin the journey to Helsinki for our Fulbright Orientation to Finland. It would be here that I would connect with my fellow Fulbrighters (there are 8 of us Fulbright Teachers altogether, and also several Fulbright Scholars), and meet the Fulbright team that has been helping us along the way.

The train ride from Joensuu to Helsinki is about 4.5 hours, and it was nice to take that time to relax, do a little reading, and watch the sun come up as we rode through the countryside. Ever since I lived in Germany, I have loved riding on trains. Planes can take you to so many places, and they are a great way to travel around the world, however trains hold a special place in my heart. There is something unique and somewhat nostalgic about riding on a train, and it is quite a relaxing way to travel.

When I arrived in Helsinki, I had two tasks on my agenda: 1) find the hotel and drop my bag; and 2) find the used sporting goods shop to buy some cross country ski boots. After a quick stop at my hotel, I began the few mile walk to the sporting goods store, happy to stretch my legs. I was overwhelmed by choices of ski boots when I arrived at the used sporting goods store- we had nothing like this in Joensuu. After trying on several different pairs, I finally found a nice pair of boots so I could cross country ski when I returned home.

The rest of that day was spent connecting with old friends and meeting some new. I met my friend Maija, a Fulbright Teacher from Finland, for lunch in Helsinki. I hadn’t seen her since December, when she visited me in Colorado to see our school science fair (and also check out the beautiful Rocky Mountains). We met up with the rest of our Fulbright Finland crew throughout the rest of the day with lunch, hot drinks, and dinner on the town.

Maija and I at Saint Mary’s Glacier in Colorado

Fulbright Finland Orientation Day 1

On Thursday we really hit the ground running. Fulbright Finland warmly welcomed us to their office in Helsinki, where we met with a variety of presenters to learn about everything Finland and everything Fulbright. Tehri was sure to add in a little Finnish language and culture into her presentations, while Petteri gave us a lesson in Finnish history. Educators came to discuss the changes taking place in the Finnish education system. The Finnish educational standards recently went through some major changes to include more content integration and thematic teaching.

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On Thursday evening, we were invited to the US Embassy for  a welcome dinner, which was a great time to connect with everyone involved in the Fulbright Finland program. While riding on the bus to the US Embassy, Tehri announced that we may run into a special visitor that night. Ambassador David Balton was having a meeting at the Embassy that evening, and may have time to stop by and say hi. Ambassador Balton is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs- imagine my excitement at hearing this! My involvement with NOAA and the Teacher at Sea program, the numerous ocean-themed projects I have done with my students, in addition to my general love of the ocean, made me very excited to meet this ambassador and learn more about his work here in Finland. Ambassador Balton is currently the chair of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation between arctic areas and communities. Their work themes include environmental protection and sustainability in the Arctic areas. The chairmanship of the council changes every 2 years, and this year, Ambassador Balton will pass the torch on to Finland.

Chatting with Ambassador David Balton, current chair of the Arctic Council

Our evening ended with a nice walk through nighttime Helsinki. What a change in weather between Joensuu and Helsinki, which lies several hundred kilometers to the south. We barely needed our winter coats, and enjoyed seeing the cathedral and waterfront lit up by the city lights.

Fulbright Finland Orientation Day 2

Friday was yet another busy day for us Fulbrighters. We spent the morning enjoying Finnish pulla and coffee while visiting the University of Helsinki to learn from professors how teachers in Finland are trained.

Pulla ja kahvia

Did you know…

  • …that teaching is one of the most sought after jobs in Finland? Right next to doctors and lawyers?
  • …that teacher training programs are very competitive, with only the top 5% of students being admitted to teacher training programs?
  • …all teachers in Finland hold at least a Master’s Degree?
  • …teachers in Finland are much better paid that teachers in the US?

In addition to learning about the structure of education in Finland (more on this later, or you can read on your own from the Finland National Agency for Education), we also got a glimpse into what it takes to become a teacher in Finland.

The highlight of our day was visiting Sibelius-lukio, a high school in Helsinki that focuses on performing arts. We were able to watch the juniors while they practiced a traditional Finnish dance that will be performed in a couple weeks when the seniors leave to study for their exams. The real treat came in watching a performance of the choir, which did a phenomenal job of singing both American and Finnish songs.

We ended our final day of orientation at the library in Helsinki, which houses the American Resource Center. Here we learned about all the great resources they had to offer, in addition to getting the quickest crash course in Finnish you can imagine. Good thing I’ve been taking a little “Survival Finnish” at the University of Eastern Finland!

Although quick, we had a lot packed into our orientation here in Finland. I am looking forward to growing and learning with each of these amazing educators over the next several months. Thank you Fulbrighters, Fulbright Finland, IIE, and our Fulbright sponsors in the US.

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*Thank you to Maija Kettunen for a wonderful job photographing our orientation.


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