Student life in Helsinki

As Stephen Frain embarks upon his year abroad, his initial impressions in Finland have lived up to the Nordic ideal


It is indeed a unique and wonderful experience for this year’s freshers to walk through front arch and begin their college years. Starting your university life is a wonderful and special feeling that you will never experience again, or at least that was I thought up until now.

Just over three weeks into my Erasmus experience and I feel my university life has been reborn. On a whim 9 months ago, I applied to study at the University of Helsinki in Finland and I think it has been the best decision of my life.

Life in Helsinki

I arrived here in Helsinki at the end of August. I nervously boarded a flight from Dublin Airport full of misconceptions about Helsinki and the enigma that is the Finnish way of life. People told me that Helsinki is a cold, dark and depressing city, far north of discernible civilisation; this could not be further from the truth. The Finns are currently enjoying their longest summer in recent history.

Each morning since I have arrived I see the sun glisten over the Baltic and locals abandoning their typical Scandinavian overcoat in favour of attire you’d expect to see in a Mediterranean summer resort, certainly not in a city a couple of hundred kilometres south of the Arctic Circle! Granted when winter inevitably does come, it will be cold and dark (sunset at 3pm in December I’m told), and it will not be an easy adjustment, but it is one I look forward to it with excitement nonetheless. There is no other Erasmus destination where you can witness the wonders of Scandinavian snow, see the phenomenon that is the northern lights, and try reindeer meals almost every day!

I personally chose the University of Helsinki because of its wide ranging list of modules available to study. I myself study law and political science, and if you are anyways interested in international law, EU law or foreign policy, Helsinki is the place to go. Their courses are niche yet in depth, and even though classes are really only starting as I write this, the university has excellent lecturers who have already earned my admiration. I didn’t know that much about the culture or the people, but I have quickly grown to love them. The Finns are a quiet people who certainly aren’t afraid of their own company, but once you get to know them, you will find yourself with a firm friend for life. The society in general places a large degree of its social capital in its sense of trustworthiness. There are very few other places in the world where you can walk down an empty street in the middle of the night and feel safe or drop your wallet in a shopping centre and have someone approach you to give it back to you after.

The Nordic way

To my shame when I moved here, I did not give a great deal of consideration to the stark differences between the Nordic and Irish societies. I certainly realised them when I got here, and my bank account noticed them even more. Everyone tells you Helsinki is expensive, and by and large, they are not lying. The cost of living is pretty high, and the tax levels are well above Irish standards.

What Helsinki has opened my eyes to the most though is how well the Nordic welfare model works. Whilst Irish people would bemoan a hike in taxes in the budget, here it is considered a norm and for the common good. Their public services, thanks to immense government investment is the best in the world. There is after all a reason why people say the Finnish education system is the best. Not to mention their transport system is unbelievably efficient and reliable, on a scale that Dublin cannot imagine or even dream to rival.

On the plus side, such good public transport has led to decreased traffic. Despite more people living and commuting to Helsinki and its suburbs than Dublin, there are less cars here, which bodes well for the environment and the city’s carbon footprint. It was certainly something I didn’t expect and my Erasmus and exposure to the Nordic welfare state has most definitely opened my eyes to a new way of living.

Capitalising on the Erasmus experience

Helsinki, unlike any of the other Erasmus destinations, provides an eclectic mix of culture and is most strategically situated for travel excursions and adventures. Finnish history has an interesting story to tell, Helsinki has over the course of time played host to the Swedish and Russian Empires, and eventually claiming independence in 1917. Telling a Finn you are Irish is always a good start to a conversation, there is a bond of nationalism, and a lot of them know about the story of 1916, given they are preparing for their own centenary celebrations next year.

And no better a place to witness Finnish-Irish relations play out than Molly Malone’s Irish Pub. Being right across the road from the university itself, it’s already becoming the local watering hole for myself and the other new Irish residents in the city. The Finnish Irish Society here in Helsinki is larger and livelier than ever so I am told. They are planning their own Irish culture festival next month.

For one week only, Helsinki’s Senate Square will be bopping to Riverdance and the Auld Triangle. Most Trinity students I know said they fear Erasmus because of homesickness or culture-shock, maybe it has yet still to hit me, but right now I am having the time of my life.

Travelling is of course a must for all Erasmus students, and Helsinki is quite literally a hub of opportunity. Being situated in a harbour city on the Baltic does not come without its advantages. Just last week my friends and I took a ferry to Tallinn in Estonia, and from there a bus to Riga in Latvia. Tallinn is a regular stomping ground for most Helsinki residents.

The high cost of living in a Nordic city like Helsinki is somewhat offset by ridiculously cheap prices of almost everything in Estonia and Latvia. The whole cost of our weekend holiday was under €100, and that covered travel, shopping and the cost of sightseeing and other touristy excursions. Stockholm is next on our list, a short ferry ride west, not as cheap, but beautiful to experience. And of course, the musts are Lapland and St. Petersburg. If you can get to visit all of these during your Erasmus, which I most certainly intend to, then you will have seen a vast array of cultures, which I firmly believe, the likes of cannot be seen on any other Erasmus.

Without a shadow of a doubt, my Erasmus is off to a far better start than I could have possibly anticipated. As I finish writing this article, I prepare for the day ahead, which will be my first full day of classes, and thus my Erasmus learning will commence in earnest. The last three weeks have been a rollercoaster ride to say the least, here’s hoping the rest will be just as enjoyable!