From Martha’s Vineyard to Finland, learning about the world


As a junior at Wheaton College in Illinois, I was atypical — a piano performance major hoping to study abroad in Finland? Unprecedented. I knew that I would be pioneering through uncharted territory, so I designed a personalized semester at JAMK University of Applied Sciences in Jyväskylä, Finland’s third largest city. In order to fully immerse myself in the local culture, I arranged to live with a Finnish family in downtown Jyväskylä.

Because I would be studying in a country outside of Wheaton’s study abroad programs, my usual financial aid would not transfer. During a meeting with my financial advisor, I became aware of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, part of the International Institute of Education (IIE). Offering scholarships for Fall, Spring, and Summer terms, the Gilman Program seeks to enable U.S. students of limited financial means to study abroad, thus equipping students to assume significant roles in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world. I applied, outlining my purpose for studying abroad in Finland and agreeing to promote their organization and encourage fellow students to pursue study abroad. My interest in Finland came from my grandmother, who was born there.

One December evening near exams week when I was bogged down by papers, juries, and the prospect of finals, I opened my email inbox and read “Congratulations!” I was going to Finland!

Thus, in January 2011, I embarked on a trip to Finland that tested my cultural perspectives and inspired me to pursue additional international study. Many Finns speak several languages fluently (Finnish, Swedish, and English at the very least) and, according to Laura, a recent high school graduate, learning new languages is the “latest thing to do.” In conversation with a Finnish acquaintance, I expressed my admiration for those fluent in numerous languages. To this he replied: “For an American, speaking a foreign language is a parlor trick. But for us, English literacy determines survival.”

While I progressed rapidly in my Finnish studies, taking several language courses at JAMK and striving to speak, think, and even dream in Finnish, I still have a long way to go before I attain mastery. For instance, one day I was trying to describe to some relatives how I had met two Canadian students at JAMK. However, by elongating a single syllable, I changed tapaa (to meet) to tappaa (to kill), essentially admitting to a nonexistent murder! But in this and my other blunders, everyone was forgiving and delighted at my efforts.

Finland is called the “land of a thousand lakes,” and rightly so. For even in winter the lakes, which dot the landscape, are central to daily life. I skied and hiked on Jyväskylä’s adjacent lake, Jyväsjäärvi, rode in a car around Mansikka Saari, and even swam in a lake when I experienced the Avanto (ice hole). I first became acquainted with the Avanto in February during a youth retreat. A few guys took axes and a chainsaw, carved out giant chunks of ice from the lake, creating a four-foot square swimming hole, and shoveled a path through the three feet of snow up to a sauna.

Later that evening, along with a few other students, I went in the sauna, a wooden structure containing a wood-fired stove that embodies an integral part of Finnish culture. Once everyone was too hot to remain inside, we donned towels and woolen socks, ran out on the snow path down to the lake and stood, shivering in the winter night waiting for someone wild enough to jump in the dark water. As if plunging into the chain-sawed ice hole was not enough, we then leaped into the snowdrifts before sprinting back into the sauna. The adrenaline rush that comes with the transfer of these extremes is intense: going from 212 degrees to submersion beneath the icy lake waters made me feel incredibly alive and Spartan-like.

Although I experienced many memorable adventures in Finland, as I reminisce, it is the people I remember most. Sirkku, my energetic host mom with whom I traversed the country, hugged ancient trees (from 1518 and 1641), and suffered the first stages of frostbite after falling into a swamp; Matti, a fellow student whom I met weekly, practicing my Finnish and helping him with his English; Caroline, an Oxford alumna who encouraged me to run after my dreams, odd and unusual though they may be. These and other friends gave me a taste of true Finnish culture and helped me understand where I am from and where I am going.

So just do it! Go study abroad. If you are receiving a Pell Grant and plan to study in a less-frequented country outside of Cuba and the U.S. for at least four consecutive weeks, consider applying for the Gilman Scholarship ( Through study abroad, I widened my comfort zone by becoming internationally involved in our diverse world and learning from those with differing ideologies.