About Me & Disclaimer

Hi friends, family, and whoever happens to stumble upon this blog,

This blog is for me to share some of my thoughts regarding my experiences in Finland while working on my Fulbright project: to complete a Master’s degree in Economics from Aalto University and think about how Finland will respond to the challenges of globalization. I hope that my experiences will help me reach my long term goal of helping shape Finnish-American relations.

After graduating from Columbia University, I was blessed with one last summer at home. I had a lot of time to hang out with and correspond with close friends, as well as work with an amazing personal mentor and trainer (you rock Mohamed Marah!) So to CG, MG, ND, ZO, SA, WS, VL, and all the other lovely people that have made my New York experience so wonderful, miss you lots and can’t wait to hear about your wonderful projects, experiences, and travels when we meet up.

Then it was off to Finland, a country that I’ve always wanted to learn more about since I was probably 16, and whose language I’ve been trying to get a grasp on for the last 4 years at Columbia University.

And to explain, ‘Why Finland?’ I have to turn to high school to begin my explanation. I’ve always been a hockey fan (go San Jose Sharks!) and Teemu Selänne was my absolute favorite player. My first cell phone was a Nokia brick and I probably grew up with Fiskars scissors. But I never knew that they came from Finland (in fact, probably didn’t even know that the country existed!)

It took a very deep, somewhat challenging, but ultimately rewarding friendship from high school to bring my attention to the country, and I was hooked. From the statistics on equality, the stability of the country, the quality of the public education, the commitment to sustainability, and the genuine character of the people, I guessed that I had stumbled upon one of the hidden gems of the world. And thankfully, I wasn’t alone in those views.

In college, they say you can always find your niche and for me, Finland was it. Max and Clare, I don’t know how I would have made it through all those long Finnish texts and ridiculous grammar lessons without either of you. (Apua! Mä en kestää!) So then, in senior year, I got the wonderful news that the Fulbright Commission had chosen my proposal to study economics and globalization in Finland. And thus, my journey begun.

Please join me as I try to work out what makes these somewhat shy, very honest, and absolutely wonderful people represent one of my favorite cultures and countries in the world and how I think Finland will help us shape the world in our challenging, but very exciting future.

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Also, here’s a disclaimer that we were asked to put on our personal blogs from the Fulbright Center.

“This is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Finnish-American Fulbright Program and its sponsors.”

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About Me & Disclaimer

Hello from the Inside!

It’s been a year since I’ve last written, so a quick highlight reel of the things I didn’t share. from 2016!

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The beautiful dessert platter we enjoyed while celebrating a friend’s birthday in NYC!

-I celebrated my birthday in NYC with friends.
-I talked to a number of mentors (Finns living in the US) and they said I should be brave and just do what I want to! (Ota selvä!) This led me to applying to the IDBM Program and doing it as a minor.
-I went to Japan with family and also ran into one of my favorite persons in the world who I’ve seen in NYC and HEL.
-I did an internship with Demos Effect, the consulting arm of renowned Nordic think tank, Demos Helsinki.
-Hosted Jussi Takajeejee (last name obviously edited!) because he was at Stanford when I was in California for the later part of summer so we had to hang!

But the biggest shift isn’t about me. It’s not about some great personal revelation. It’s about the imperceptible shift that the larger Finnish community has had towards me.

After flying back to Finland that fall, I remember distinctly biking to work and having this brilliant moment where Jussi’s girlfriend was biking down the opposite side of the street and we shared this brief hi and a wave. That little moment got me one step closer to answer the question: “Could I consider Finland to be a home?” I know how reticent Finns behave and for them to allow me to snap out of their default bubbles and acknowledge my very American need for little moments of reinforcement and community building made me quite happy.

Then, I had to reflect upon two friends in particular: Tapsa and Stefu. I think both of them took huge risks in spending the time to help me get familiar with the city and taking me around and describing their lives in a way that was very relatable to me. It’s very humbling to realize when people take time out of their lives especially when I’m from so far away and has just met them. Over the course of a year, they’ve shown me parts of Helsinki that definitely surpass that recent Vogue feature!

Finally, I have to give a shout out to the IDBM program. From Professor Miikka Lehtonen who made a really fun pop-up restaurant to the dedicated people I get to work with on the Klubi board and all the students on my Industry project team, I got to see the power of collaborative teamwork in a multidisciplinary context at work!

Hopefully, this gets me on track with posting more frequently.

Terkkuja,
Eki

Hello from the Inside!

Winter Has Come

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When I got off the plane to HEL before New Year’s Eve, I found myself stunned by how bright and snowy Helsinki had become. In contrast to the gloomy, endless darkness of November, January seemed promising. One of the most heartwarming experiences of kicking off the new year was getting invited to my friend Juuso’s place. It’s definitely an experience to meet new people, play Settlers of Catan in German (though we interacted primarily in English with some Finnish slipped in) and drink enough to be merry!

It took me back to the idea of hospitality that had been explicitly highlighted by my experience with the Core Curriculum, but less pedantically, by my friends on an everyday basis. Regardless of culture, background, socioeconomic, and any other factors, being welcomed into someone else’s home is the most humbling and wonderful feeling for me.

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On a more disappointing note, I need to spend more time practicing before trying out for KYL again. I didn’t realize how much more practice I need harmonizing. I’m really looking forward to the challenge when I’m up for it again.

In the mean time, my biggest conundrum still seems to be with language. Things seemed smooth sailing at first, but I’ve hit this strange curve. I’m so excited to build genuine relationships with people but it necessitates that I speak more and more English to push forward. It’s quite baffling to be “failing” and “succeeding” all at once and I wish I knew how to qualify it all. The best analogy I can give is that I wish I could communicate as fluently in Finnish as Finns communicate with me in English so that conversation truly flows freely. There is always this slight disconnect when I have to slow down the conversation for my limited Finnish comments or even jump to English. I want to be able to jump in and just go for it in Finnish. Soon perhaps!

Winter Has Come

Midway Check-in and Happy Holidays!

Since Slush, I found myself spending a lot more time in the library and grinding through the realities of being a student, problem set, essay, problem set, (rinse, lather, and repeat). Unfortunately, I must admit that this was my first time being so focused on school in a long time. I was quite consumed by my vices and distractions during my undergraduate years, and I think this new environment has certainly set me on a road to recovery.

A large part of this I attribute to the student attitude towards studying. While the American system makes it so that graduating on time is highly emphasized, it often comes at the price of feeling the pressure to push through, even when everything isn’t necessarily balanced in one’s life. Here, among my peer group, I love working with students who are quite serious about their studies, because I know that if they were any less serious, they could easily take time off to work, explore other projects, and come back whenever they were ready. Academic freedom is a real thing here in Finland.

From Left to Right: Adam, Juuso, Riku (he's hiding!), Henrik and me!
From Left to Right: Adam, Juuso, Riku (he’s hiding!), Henrik and me!

We ended the year with a pikkujoulu (Christmas party) with the KY Economics group. I felt that the funniest tradition was a derivate solving competition. I will proudly share that our team finished in 3rd place and won a lovely bar of chocolate for our tipsy math efforts. Also, I met a bunch of fun people, enjoyed great food and drinks (some people baked a delicious chocolate cake and I’m glad they forced me to try), and went to sauna.

New KY Economics Board!
New KY Economics Board!

The most exciting thing I get to share is my election to the hallitus (student board/government) of KY Economics as one of two yrityssuhdevastaavaa (corporate relations officer). Since there were more people running for the spot than there were places available, I had to get up and present about myself as well as answer questions from the audience of fellow economics students from all levels, bachelor’s and master’s. I somehow made it through the whole thing in Finnish, but I did have to ask for some clarification of questions in English. I guess people liked my ideas and I think it always helps to try in Finnish.

I’m really excited to be working with the whole board and the other yrityssuhdevastaava. We have such a great dichotomy between us: bachelor versus master’s student, Finnish versus global (American), etc. I can’t wait to see how this relationship evolves and I’m sure we will learn a lot about how to work together as the year progresses. If that’s not a tangible form of international relations and cultural exchange, I’m not sure what is!

Currently, I’m on my way back to California to recharge my batteries and gear up for an amazing 2016 in Finland. Whereas I had only half of 2015 in a place I could see myself calling home, I can’t wait to see what 2016 brings in Finland!

Hyvää joulunodotusta!
Erkki

Midway Check-in and Happy Holidays!

Slush and Storytelling

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It’s been a while since Slush, but I finally had time to sit down and reflect upon it for a bit. I think the most amazing thing about the event was how it revealed how interconnected we are.

  1. I became a volunteer because of my networks. Coming to Finland just three months ago, I probably had a very short list of concrete tasks to complete. At the top of the list was becoming a Slush volunteer and getting to experience it. I thought at first, “Oh, this event isn’t for me, it’s for these start up nerds and entrepreneurs.” But I’m very happy to say that I was quite wrong! It’s for anyone with a passion, a dream, or an idea that they want to share with the world. I saw and experienced a very real energy that was more transparent than what I felt in the Bay Area and New York.
  2. I found friends and colleagues from almost every point in my life. One of the strangest things was seeing one of my colleagues from my time at Vaisala’s US office in Colorado, my high school friend who was studying abroad in Denmark, and an ex-foreign ministry intern friend working in NYC back-to-back over a two day span. Slightly disorienting at first, but ultimately quite cool.
  3. The professional contacts and friends I made since Slush have been amazing! Ultimately, Slush probably has the “most” value for those who are active participants and are actively making the connections and developing the resources necessary to advance their business. However, I still claim that as a student volunteer, I did get to meet people who have helped me continue to build out my Finnish (and even my American) networks. The difference was that for me was that Slush has been more of a social lubricant that started the important conversations for me and exposed me to the people who I’d be most excited to be involved with.

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On a very tangential aside, at the Slush after party, they announced that the first performer was Sanni. For me, a very open fan of Finnish pop music, I was very hyped up for the performance, but the international audience and the Finns who tried to appear serios and disinterested killed the vibe. The audience let the mike drop on her so many times when she turned it to us. Oh well! I suppose it is an excuse to find her on her Lelu tour next year!

Finally, maybe I’d expound a bit on the final point about the contacts I’ve built around Slush. During our training sessions, we had the wonderful opportunity to attend a workshop hosted by former ambassador Bruce Oreck. I had fun and as a result, I decided to take his storytelling class as a whim. Turns out, it was really quite inspiring and I’ve learned a set of practical skills that I will continue to hone hopefully for the rest of my life. I don’t think it’s every day that I get to take a class like that so I’m quite happy with the outcome!

-Eric

 

Slush and Storytelling

Nordic Case Competition and the Duck Pond

Participants at the Nordic Case Competition 2015. So much fun to have met wonderful people from all over the Nordic region!
Participants at the Nordic Case Competition 2015. So much fun to have met wonderful people from all over the Nordic region!

Over the last month, life took off in strange and unexpected ways. I thought I came to Finland to experience language and culture, but I found it alarming how quickly I’m starting to “find myself.” This isn’t some cliche reflection about my specific insights, but how specifically the Finnish environment affected my process of self-discovery and perhaps reveal some values about the Finnish mindset that I’m trying my best to perceive and articulate.

Perhaps the best set of stories concerns itself with my foray into management consulting and practicing for the industry-standard case interview format. While I was attending a KY Economics event, I happened to be ambushed by a company presentation. “Oh no! I thought! It’s just like New York all over again where companies try to sell themselves at us and the point is for every Columbia student to get into a hyper-competitive, awkward discussion with company representatives.” How wrong I was! Everyone was quiet and respectful (obviously the Finnish shyness perhaps interpreted in another light), but those with questions waited until the end, and you could really sense that those with a genuine interest were those who went above and beyond to connect.

For me, I had actually read reports on the circular economy, and the lovely coincidence came to a head when I introduced myself to Annastiina, and she told me she was on a team that helped produce the report. We got lunch and I had a chance to share a bit about my background and interests, and she then introduced me to Tapio, who used to be part of KYL (the male academic choir I joined). The interesting aspect of these series of introductions was the genuine feeling I got, that people took time out of their busy lives and really wanted to help me and share their experiences, but only after I demonstrated a committed interest and that I’ve done my homework. In that regard, those insights would probably have helped me navigate through all the noise in New York, but how naturally these interactions happened in Finland helped me consciously realize that the networking matters, but the genuine passion and interest conveyed in an interaction is the key driver behind making a connection.

After buildling the relationship with a number of firms, I realied that I had a long term interest in making this a career option, so the next step was finding people to practice with. The subject club (KY Economics) as well as other student organizations in Helsinki put on these wonderful events that give unparalleled access to professionals. One of these involved events was the Nordic Case Competition, organized by Hanken, the Swedish-speaking business school across the street from the Töölö campus of Aalto.

The competition itself was challenging and rewarding, but for me, the amusement came from the after party. One of my friends from my round table team at Slush had mentioned me to his Hanken friends, and they had heard things about me before I introduced myself (oh you’re the person who has been in Finland for only two months and you can speak Finnish). So all good things, but one particular conversation with a new Aalto acquaintance really summarized how I felt about the people that stand out to me. He remarked, “I want to do well because I’m genuinely interested in the future of Finland and how I can contribute to it.” Perhaps we’re all young and näive, but I think it’s that energy and passion, when they come out in a difficult time (have you looked at the forecasts for the Finnish economy) that really make a difference. Maybe that’s my first example of perceived ‘sisu’; it’s not let’s run away to Sweden or Spain, but rather, how can I make a diference.

On an ending note, by making friends with Hanken people, they say I’ve made it to ankalammikko, or ankdammen (depending on what you speak). Translation is: the duck pond. Obviously it’s a metaphor, but it means that Hanken is a small community where everyone knows everyone.

-Eric

Nordic Case Competition and the Duck Pond

The Long, Slow Integration Process

Me cutting apart mats for Slush!
Me cutting apart mats for Slush! Talkoo from Sept. 29. PC to Eeva Siika-aho

When I arrived to Finland, as I mentioned before, language would be a key factor that could help me break into the circles and activities I was most keen to be a part of. However, a key insight that I probably previously neglected was the need to first find people who would appreciate and attempt to understand a full description of myself, irrespective of any potential language barriers or culture differences.

Perhaps I was too tunneled onto the idea of ‘fitting in’ and being surrounded by native Finnish people to appreciate the idea that a dialogue is always a two-way process. While being an ambassador of American culture, I found it just as important to take the time to find a curious and willing audience, rather than simply preaching to who is available. The richest conversations and friendships thus far have come from those who share activities, ambitions, and/or values in common! In retrospect, it seems to be common sense, yet in execution, it took me a while to truly realize why I was previously dissatisfied with a number of interactions I was having and hitting a wall in terms of growing my networks and friendships.

Furthermore, my initial thought process of being involved in extracurricular activities has panned out beyond what I expected. I wasn’t sure if I’d get the opportunity to try out new things in Finland, but I think being open minded has been fun. KYL has been really fun, and it has been a wonderful way for me to reconnect with some of that hidden musicality somewhere deep in me. Also really excited to get to see what Slush is all about up close and personal. The team I’m helping out with is pretty small so hopefully we get to know each other a bit better and work well to make the round table event go as smoothly as possible.

I’ve learned, for the thousandth time probably, that patience is often key. It may be trite, but I think good things in life don’t come instantly, but when they come around, I want to be ready to seize the moment and run!

The Long, Slow Integration Process

Empowered to be Leaders in Student Life

The stage at FallUp held at Musiikkitalo
The stage at FallUp held at Musiikkitalo

There’s an interesting idea about the Finnish drinking culture that suggests that they consume quite a few more alcoholic beverages than the doctor would necessarily recommend as being good for the liver. While this may be true, I wish it were more the university student life reputation in Finland that would be spread around the world.

Of course, I do once again have to start with the preface that a lot of what I will recount will be rather atypical for a new foreign student, especially one without some command of the Finnish language or understanding of Finnish culture, but regardless, I think one should always try to familiarize themselves as much as possible with a new language and culture before entering and so various degrees of this experience hopefully resonate.

To backtrack a bit, one of the greatest moments during orientation week was the opportunity to purchase our student overalls (haalarit) which represent which school we go to. As Aalto University School of Business students, we get green (money right?) overalls. As we participate in different events, we get patches to sew onto our overalls to show our community and student life involvement. Of course, not all the master’s students were excited as me as many of the students already had a old set of overalls from their Bachelor’s or somehow thought the whole idea was silly.

One of the first cool patches we could earn was the ‘Supermursu’ (Super Walrus) patch by making it all the way to the end of a 24 event, ripe with activities and parties. So at 5:15 am, I made the trek with my neighbor Christine to Kamppi where we met up with our orientation group for a wild day of ridiculous activities and fun.

The moment that stood out the most for me was when we had to perform a song for KYL (the male choir). Despite having little to no voice from being sick and also having a bit to drink, I managed to do a somewhat okay rendition of Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ Something I did clearly was passable, since they actually asked me to audition, although they apologetically told me the choir was run in Finnish (no problem, thankfully).

I did make it until the end of the event, the next morning at 6 am and stumbled home to fall asleep for the next 12 hours, my supermursu patch safely tucked away in my pocket.

To fastforward through the narrative, I tried out for the KYL choir (made it to the next round!), got an email back from Slush inviting me to volunteer, attended an awesome entrepreneurship conference (FallUp) organized by Aaltoes (the entrepreneurship society) and also arranged a number of presentations and events for my Fulbright program.

Throughout the whole experience, I had the horrible realization that I had dwelled too much on the drinking and partying to realize how creative, passionate and awesome all these activities were. In Finland, people took years off school to be part of the leadership team within student unions and organizations in order to pull off professional, full-scale events that I would rarely, if ever, see at the student level at a university in the United States. Sure, plays and student productions have the same budgets and sense of humor, but for events such as FallUp and the upcoming Slush conference, there are huge CEOs and players in the global market and society coming to talk at these events. As a student in Finland, I really feel the sense of empowerment that comes from the idea that today’s students will be tomorrow’s leaders. And even though I’ve just landed in this land from far, far away, I can’t wait to dive right in and find my own part in this crazy, awesome place.

Empowered to be Leaders in Student Life