Northern neighbors offer academic exchange

October 21, 2015
The wintertime view over Rovaniemi, Finland, location of University of Lapland, the EU's northernmost university. (Photo by Ilkka Ruuska)

The wintertime view over Rovaniemi, Finland, location of University of Lapland, the EU’s northernmost university and on of 59 affiliated institutions in the University of the Arctic exchange network. (Photo by Ilkka Ruuska)

Kaj Lynöe, from northern Sweden, and Tuukka Törmänen, from northern Finland, are both recent arrivals in Anchorage thanks, fittingly, to north2north.

The educational exchange program through the University of the Arctic connects 70 participating universities (including UAA) across eight Arctic nations, allowing for easier exchange of students and—consequently—ideas.

But this isn’t your typical study abroad program, where the entire international experience—school, housing, meals—are bundled together. Rather, it’s an academic exchange, frequently a solo journey to another country for a semester or more. north2north appeals to self-starters and demands independence, but rewards savvy students searching for complete immersion in another country.

Kaj (left), a biology student at Sweden's Umeå University, and Tuukka, studying education at University of Lapland, are both at UAA this semester through the north2north exchange program. Want to learn more? Invite them on your next northbound road trip! (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Kaj (left), a biology student at Sweden’s Umeå University, and Tuukka, studying education at Finland’s University of Lapland, are both at UAA this semester through the north2north exchange program. Want to learn more? Invite them on your next northbound road trip! (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Take, for example, the day Kaj and Tuukka first met. Kaj arrived in mid-August, and Tuukka landed a few days later. They hadn’t even connected online before they moved into the residence halls.

“I remember when we were first introduced. I think you had probably just arrived and we just met on the street randomly,” recalled Kaj. Tuukka was outside the residence halls and asked Kaj, assuming he was a local, if there were any nearby grocery stores. After only a few days, Kaj was already prepared to assist. “Then you gave me a map and directions where to go,” Tuukka added.

That sort of problem-solving and constant adaptation awaits any UAA student who takes advantage of the school’s north2north partners, but a quick conversation with these two fellows from our Northern neighbors will convince you the exchange is well worth it.

Scandinavian small talk

The trip to Anchorage was a big step for both Kaj and Tuukka, who each attend universities in their hometowns in Europe. Kaj grew up in Umeå, a quickly growing university town where students make up a sizable slice of the population. At 63 degrees north, Kaj lives on the same latitude as St. Lawrence Island and Tok here in Alaska.

Tuukka grew up even further north. Hailing from Rovaniemi—equivalent to Shishmaref or Circle—he studies education at University of Lapland, the most northern university in the European Union.

504px-University_of_Lapland.svg“I remember I was so scared before I came here. Like, what am I doing?!” Tuukka recalled. He’d never traveled solo for this long of a stretch, and the jump into the unknown was a bit intimidating. UMU_LOGO“Now I think, Why didn’t I do this earlier?” he laughed. “It has really opened up my worldview … It’s the experience that really makes you see the world in a different view.”

The largest adaptation has been in the smallest things. Kaj noted that the cultures of Alaska and Sweden are somewhat similar, but there are subtle differences in nearly everything. “I think you really have to keep your eyes and ears open,” he said.

Both agreed that the outward friendliness here has been a surprise.

“The first time someone asked me how am I doing, I thought, Ok do you really want to know? Because I don’t know you,” Tuukka joked, acknowledging that he still forgets to ask people how they’re doing in return.

Kaj agreed. “You would probably think we’re rude or something, we don’t do so much small talk.” In Sweden, if you started a conversation with someone in the checkout line, the response wouldn’t be so warm. “People would be like, Who are you? What are you doing?!” he laughed. “Americans are more easygoing.”

That change has its definite benefits. “You make friends like that,” Tuukka said, snapping his fingers.

But though Americans may be more easygoing, Scandinavians are still just as friendly. “People shouldn’t be afraid to go to Finland or Sweden because even if we seem a little bit tricky, we’re really nice people,” Kaj added.

Oceanography, ESL, yoga, etc.

For now, both students are making the most of their time in Alaska.

Kaj’s professors back home couldn’t be happier that he’s spending two semesters studying biology in Alaska (and not because they want to get rid of him). “One of my professors back home tipped me,” he recalled. Previous students from Umeå University had an excellent time at UAA, and his professor specifically recommended he head to Anchorage.

This semester, he’s enrolled in oceanography and a travel-based ecology class that has taken him to Portage and Cooper Landing. On top of that, he’s soaking in the sights with several outdoor leadership courses like backpacking and rock climbing. “Those have been great opportunities,” he said of the chance to explore Alaska through the university.

Tuukka’s motivations are a tad different. An education major back in Lapland, he’s opting to hone his English skills with his one semester at UAA. That means English as a Second Language courses, plus a few fun additions (including beginner’s yoga). He’s been here eight weeks and can already sense his English improving.

Students in both Sweden and Finland learn English from a young age, but it’s a unique situation to have every class in English. “I’m trying to take notes in class in English as well,” Kaj said. As the lone Swede in the north2north exchange, he’s forced to operate in a foreign language. “Even if I’m not writing a really big report, I’m always—every week—writing small paragraphs and small updates. It’s really helpful,” he said.

Midnight in Rovaniemi, which sits six miles south of the Arctic Circle (Photo by Ilkka Ruuska)

Midnight in Rovaniemi, which sits six miles south of the Arctic Circle. (Photo by Ilkka Ruuska)

“Force yourself out of your comfort zone”

north2north is intentionally challenging, but it’s a valuable outlet for students interested in a broader Northern education. The cross-cultural exchange program benefits any student looking to make a career in Alaska, whether that’s in environmental studies or interior design, civil engineering or indigenous studies. With the Arctic more and more in focus—think Obama’s recent visit—the opportunity to study geopolitics, renewable energy, hospitality, tourism or petroleum across the North is extremely valuable.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Kaj noted, citing that every moment abroad has been educational. “Going somewhere else, you’re always going to meet people and you’re always going to learn things,” he added. “Force yourself out your comfort zone. Even if it’s not academic knowledge, you’re going to learn a lot about your self.”

Although Tuukka was initially hesitant about the big move, those fears are now behind him. “When you’re out, you realize it isn’t bad.”

Want to learn more about north2north? Contact the Office of International & Intercultural Affairs to get started, or dig around University of the Arctic’s list of partners to see where and what you can study.

But really, there’s no better resource than these two guys. Coming to Anchorage, they’ve both actually taken a step closer to the equator and are eager to push back North. Need a travel companion on the long drive to Fairbanks? Tuukka and Kaj are informative, engaging and would certainly be happy to tell you all about north2north on your next trip northward.

Read about a UAA’s north2north partnerships in Norway in this Green & Gold story from December 2014.

Explore Umeå University and University of Lapland.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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