Studying at the University of Finland under the FIRST exchange program

Spending a semester at a foreign university is a great chance to broaden your horizons, get to know another country, improve your English and gain useful knowledge. Christina, author of the blog, studied for a semester at the University of Turku in Finland, and in this article she talks about how to go as an exchange student. If you also want to study in Europe, look in the article for a link to a free consultation on higher education.


About the FIRST exchange program

I was a first-year Master’s student in political science at Tver State University (TvSU) when I learned about the bilateral student exchange program FIRST (Finnish-Russian Student Exchange Program). Using it, you can spend a semester at a Finnish university for free, studying subjects in your specialty. My university cooperated with the University of Turku and student exchanges took place every year. Having assessed my chances, I decided to try sending an application.

About submitting documents for the program

I went to the Center for Interuniversity International Cooperation at my university to find out the details. It was there that students were selected and applications were filled out; it was impossible to apply for the program on your own. The selection took place on a competitive basis, the main condition being good academic performance and any academic success.

My application was strong. I had a bachelor’s degree with honors, and I also finished the first semester of my master’s program with excellent marks. In addition, I was twice a fellow of the Oxford Foundation and once received a Potanin Fellowship. Academic achievements included published articles in scientific collections and participation in conferences.

I reflected all these successes in a CV (cover letter) in English. I also had to write a motivation letter and explain why I want to get into this program and how it will be useful to me in the future. I also needed a transcript of grades from my English grades, two recommendations from teachers, and permission from the dean of the faculty that I could leave for the whole semester.


It was also necessary to provide a certificate of English level not lower than B2, but they accepted a letter from my English teacher, where he confirmed my knowledge of the language.

The international department accepted applications until April 1 , I collected and sent the documents a month earlier, and before the summer holidays the coordinator called me and said that I had been accepted into the program for the next winter semester, and they also gave me a scholarship for the entire duration of my studies – about a month 600 € (~ 26,400 ₽ for 2013, the amount of the scholarship in euros for 2020 has not changed, this is ~ 46,600 ₽ at the current exchange rate). Whether you will be given a scholarship depends on the connections of your university and the quota allocated by the host university. I was lucky – my scholarship covered living expenses, personal expenses and some travel expenses.

About student visa

After the holidays, I started applying for a student visa. This is not an ordinary Schengen visa, but a residence permit, since I planned to study in Finland for five months, from January to May. A regular Schengen visa is suitable if the training lasts no more than three months. But you can’t work on it, and with a residence permit you can work part-time for 25 hours a week.

From the documents I needed an invitation from the university, confirmation of a scholarship and insurance for the entire period of study with coverage of 100,000 € . Original documents must be taken in person to the Finnish Embassy and not to the visa center. If there is no scholarship, you need a certificate from the bank, where the account contains at least 560 € (~ 43,700 ₽ for 2020) for each month of study.

Two weeks after submitting the documents, they called me from the embassy and informed me that I could pick up my permit. It turned out to be a plastic card with my photo and biometric data. Nothing was pasted into the passport. With this card I could move around Europe as freely as with any Schengen visa.

I was given permission for exactly the period of study – five months, from January to the end of May, as indicated in the invitation from the university. But you can safely ask for additional weeks after studying to, for example, travel.

About the University of Turku

The University of Turku is the second largest in Finland and one of the oldest. It is located in the center of Turku, it has many buildings, its own hospital, several modern libraries, scientific laboratories and even a swimming pool. Each building has student canteens and cafeterias, and university Wi-Fi operates throughout the entire territory, which you get access to along with your student ID (student number).

Training is conducted in Finnish, Swedish and English – Finns speak all three languages well. But foreign students usually study in English, although no one forbids choosing subjects in other languages.

About orientation courses and tutors

At the beginning of each semester, two-day orientation courses are held for exchange students, where they talk about life in Finland, the functioning of the university and the organization of the educational process.

In addition, each newcomer is assigned a tutor – a mentor. This is one of the local students who will guide you around the university and the city, help with opening a bank account and obtaining a student ID. It’s great because you immediately have a friend you can turn to for help and advice. The tutor is known in advance, so you can contact him before arrival. For example, I arranged to be met from the bus and helped to check in.

About housing on campus

Non-resident and international students in Turku live in the Student Village (campus) next to the university. An application for a room must be submitted along with admission documents, because there is always a queue for the hostel. But this does not affect admission to the program: if there are no places in the dormitory, you will have to rent an apartment.

Accommodation on campus cost 250 € (~ 11,000 rubles in 2013) per month. Each student has his own small room with a bathroom and a mini-fridge; a total of 10–12 people live on the floor. The kitchen is shared, and the furniture in the rooms is an Ikea bed, a wardrobe, a couple of shelves and a table with a lamp. But many manage to get hold of armchairs, ottomans and other things for comfort, which they buy at flea markets – they are held on weekends in courtyards.

In the evenings, the kitchen turns into a living room, where the entire floor relaxes. Usually exchange students live in the same building, so everyone gets to know each other quickly and a community is formed. It happens that fifty people gather in the kitchen for a party, and then the whole crowd gets on the last bus and goes to the center for the party.

One of the international dinners on our floor

In addition, some Student village buildings have saunas on the top floors – this is a typical Finnish feature; even ordinary apartments have saunas. They are free, you need to book them on the campus website using your student ID. There are no restrictions on the number of people, so there are even parties in the saunas.

About the educational process

Education at Finnish universities differs from Russian ones. You register in the Moodle system, where you select the subjects you want to study. They must be in your specialty, but no one forbids you from attending lectures from other faculties. For six months you need to take 30 credits worth of courses , which is five to six subjects based on the expectation that you will pass each with an “excellent” mark.

In theory, credits for selected courses are converted into grades so that the results of the exchange studies are counted at the home university. This was the case, for example, for students from Europe, but it didn’t work out for me: a similar system didn’t work at my university, so I had to negotiate with the teachers on how to account for missing an entire semester. I was lucky, because my studies in the master’s program were not as intense as in the bachelor’s degree, and I knew all the teachers personally. I had agreed to take essays during assessment modules at my university to get credit, but I still had to sit the exams when I returned home.

There are no fixed groups or streams; everyone has an individual schedule. While studying political science, I went to the Faculty of Social Sciences, where I attended lectures on Finnish politics and European integration. I also signed up for Greek lessons, although this was already over the required 30 credits.

Classes were held in mixed groups of local and exchange students. We studied from Monday to Thursday, from morning until evening. Friday was usually reserved for independent work, since 80% of studying is doing homework: you write essays, prepare abstracts for seminars or prepare a Learning diary (lecture notes using additional literature), and then upload your work online through the Moodle system.

One of the lectures on the subject Europe and the others was given by the Ambassador of Brazil to Finland (ambassador on the left, teacher on the right).

The semester is divided into two parts: there are subjects that take place at the beginning and end with an exam in the middle of the semester, and there are subjects that begin only in the second half. There are also intensive courses, when you go to lectures every day for a week and then take an exam. There was a fourth type of subjects – book exam, when instead of lectures you read a designated list of literature, and then pass a written exam on it.

Part of the books for the book exam. All books could be borrowed for free from the university library.

About the Finnish language

Many exchange students signed up for the Finnish language course. I was no exception. The course was called a “survival course,” and this was indeed true, because without knowing Finnish it was impossible to even go to the store: the names of products and signs seemed incomprehensible.

Learning Finnish is difficult, it is not similar to English or Russian. Greek was much easier for me; I had a clear advantage over other students, because many Russian words came from Greek. In Finnish, you had to memorize everything, because even the names of the countries sound different there. For example, Russia – Russia (English), Rusia (Spanish), Russland (German), Rosja (Polish), Russie (French), and in Finnish – Venäjä! And I haven’t yet mentioned the 14 cases, 6 types of verbs and endless prepositions that are added to words, which makes them too long.

About the language barrier

At the time of the trip, my level of English was Upper-Intermediate. But for the first month it was difficult to study in English: there were no problems with communication, but writing a 15-page essay was not easy. I remember hanging stickers with words around the room and in the bathroom to help me remember new words faster, and in the first line of each essay I apologized for possible grammatical errors.

How I learned new English words

But it turned out that no one pays attention to your mistakes. For other students, English is also not their native language, but for teachers the main thing is that you express your thoughts and be able to reason. No one will make fun of you for your bad English.

If you don’t want to submit an essay in English with errors, use the Fluent Express service , where professional editors and native speakers will check your text in a short time. 

About exams

There are no regular sessions at universities in Finland. Exams are taken on Fridays, and students are offered a choice of dates on which to take the subject. Sign up online for any convenient one. On the day of the exam, you come to the classroom, receive a personal packet with the task and sit in the seat assigned to you. The trick is that on this day economists, doctors, and physicists can sit in the audience with you, thus eliminating whispers and hints.

The main rule of the university is not to copy or plagiarize, so using cheat sheets is prohibited. Nobody will deal with you if you take out your phone and check the time or say something to your friend in your native language – it will be considered cheating. If you get caught doing this, you can safely fly out of the university with a scandal.

All exams are in written form. Works are written in pencil; why this is so is a mystery to me. In stores, for example, it is difficult to find an ordinary pen, but the selection of pencils is huge. During elections, ballot papers are also filled out in pencil! When I asked the teacher whether the Finns were afraid that they could erase their pencil and put a tick for another candidate, I drove him into a dead end: “Why falsify the voting results? In Finland, no one would think of such a thing.”

Credits (points) for exams are posted after a few days without announcing names; only the student ID is included in the statements. This ensures confidentiality: only the teacher and the student know about the exam result. The maximum points is the number of credits that was indicated when you selected the items. When the semester ends, you receive a transcript with all exams passed and the total amount of credits.

About part-time work

Initially, I did not plan to work while studying; the scholarship was enough for me. But after a month of studying, I found out that the university needed Russian guys to help Finnish students with the Russian language. I became interested, I approached the Russian language teacher and agreed to work with her.

I met with Finnish students once a week for one hour. For the lesson they paid a symbolic 7 € (~ 308 ₽ in 2013). I just had to talk on any topic with each student for 10–15 minutes. Sometimes I checked their homework, for example, the stories “How I Spent My Summer” or essays on Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” I was pleasantly surprised that many Finnish students want to learn Russian and are interested in our culture.

About the student community

Exchange students join the ESN student union and receive a special membership card that gives many discounts. For example, you could dine in the canteens on campus for 2.5 € (~ 110 ₽ in 2013) according to the buffet system. Food is expensive in Finland, so you either go to these dinners or cook at home. Often in the evenings we would get together with our neighbors from the floor and have culinary evenings, preparing dishes from different countries. It was very tasty, fun and economical!

In addition, ESN organizes leisure activities for students: from trips out of town and to another country to wild parties in a bar, quests and international dinners. During the winter holidays we went to Lapland, and one evening they organized a finish home-dinner for us (Finnish home dinner): we visited Finnish students and tried national dishes.

Finnish students also have an interesting tradition – wearing overalls decorated with stripes. They are called “haalarit”. Each faculty has its own color of overalls and its own symbols. Haalarit is like a Facebook page, from it you can find out a lot of interesting things about the student. As a rule, the number of stripes indicates the social activities of the owner. Of course, you can buy stripes, but it’s much cooler to earn them by participating in various student events and fun activities. Completed the quest through bars from one end of the city to the other – get a reward.

Residents wear their overalls, as well as the white caps that every Finnish university graduate has, on Vappu, the May Day holiday. It also differs from our Labor Day in meaning, because in Finland it is primarily a holiday for students.

About life in Turku

Turku reminded me of my hometown Tver: a small city through which the Aura River flows, there is an embankment with cafes on boats and ships parked at the piers, in the center there are low houses, there is a central square where fairs are held on weekends, and an ancient castle from the 13th century .

There are shopping centers and cinemas where they show films in English, a developed network of buses that run on schedule, there is an airport from where low-cost airlines fly to other European countries, a railway station and ferry terminals Viking Line and Silja Line . You can sail to Stockholm in Sweden or Tallinn in Estonia for the weekend.

But the best transport for getting around the city is a bicycle. If you are a student, you have a big discount on your travel pass, otherwise traveling by public transport is expensive, one trip costs 3 € (~ 230 ₽). Therefore, many residents prefer to ride bicycles. The distances are short, and the presence of bicycle paths makes it easy to move around the city. People ride bicycles even in winter when there is ice.

Bicycle parking near the university

The capital of Finland, Helsinki, is two hours away, but during my entire study I was there only twice: once on an excursion to the Finnish parliament, and another during the sales season. Not far from Turku there is the colorful city of Naantali – the birthplace of the Moomins, where the Moominland theme park is located.

What did you like about studying at university in Finland?

I liked the variety of courses and their modernity: instead of the usual subjects like “Political Philosophy” and “Political History”, which I studied at my university as a major, there were more specific “Evolution of the Foreign Policy of the European Union” or “Europe and Other Countries”.

Much of what I learned during my studies at the University of Turku was included in my master’s thesis, which I wrote on the Nordic countries. Foreign scientific literature expands the boundaries of your research, and a couple of links to foreign sources increases your authority in defense.

During the exchange, I made many friends from different parts of the world. My neighbors were guys from Italy, Spain, Slovakia, Japan, China, Korea, France and Poland. During our studies, we often went for walks and trips together, hunted for the northern lights, prepared for exams in the kitchen, talked in the evenings about the traditions and way of life in our countries, cooked, laughed and had a great time. We still correspond with some of the guys and go to visit each other.

Do you want to study in Europe? Sign up for a free consultation with specialists.

You can also read Christina’s story about English courses in New Zealand on our blog .

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