Terhi Nurminen, a Finnish exchange student, told us about her stay at GBZA. She revealed how the school system differs from the Finnish one, what surprised her a lot and what is her best experience from Slovakia 🙂
GBZA is a school for internationally minded people who want „something extra“ already in high school.
What made you choose to study right here – in our school? Why Slovakia?
The first time was pure coincidence – it was the first meeting of our school’s Young European Leaders club and we were offered several different countries to go to. Since Slovakia was one of my choices, I got to go there. So happy that I took part in the YEL project!
The second time though, when I returned on my own, I specifically wanted to come to GBZA. We don’t have bilingual schools in Finland, so this was a great opportunity for me to learn more French, and on freetime, Slovak. I have also noticed that Eastern Europe is culturally quite like Finland, so it’s easy to switch between the countries. Not to mention having friends there already.
How would you describe GBZA? What do you like here and what not?
Ah, GBZA is a school for internationally minded people who want „something extra“ already in high school. Getting to know and studying in a completely new language is an awesome thing, and a vivid international network offered creates such a unique setting that I’ve not seen anything like that anywhere else. I also like the feeling of community at GBZA: it’s not just a place where you go to school, but also do theater or participate in MUNs. On the walls you can see projects students are doing, competitions they won and also just artwork a class did together mentioning everyone’s name and creating a feeling of togetherness.
What I didn’t like is a lot tougher question, since I got to pick the classes I liked and didn’t have to take exams. But sometimes I felt that checking homework took so much time when we read everything sentence by sentence – I’m used to just seeing the answers projected on the screen.
The Finnish education system is one of the most developed in the world. Was there anything in the Slovak education and teaching system that surprised you?
Maybe the biggest thing that surprised me was your school books, and lack of them. In Finland several large companies compete on creating books and online platforms, and teachers use their own materials to support those. Of course it’s different for a bilingual school, but I think in general the study materials used are very different.
A thing that you do a lot better is encouraging students to speak in language classes. Most if the time the teacher spoke the language we were studying, whereas in Finland teacher speaks Finnish maybe half of the time or more. Also having class-wide discussions is something I miss a lot.
The last thing I want to mention was the lack of supporting staff, by which I mean school nurses, psychologists, special needs teachers and student counselors. In Finland every school has a nurse and psychologist students can go to during the day, and a special needs teacher to support students with dyslexia or other learning difficulties. Student counselors on the other hand work with all the students, help us pick the subjects we need to and choose our university and future career.
In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between the school in Finland and Slovakia?
The school system itself. In Finnish high schools the year is divided into 5 or 6 periods, and during each period we study 5-7 subjects. At the end of the period is exam week, and then the cycle starts all over. In addition, we construct our timetables ourselves (with some help from the student counselor), so we can decide when we want to take a certain subject and with whom. One third of the studies are optional, meaning that we can choose them freely and make any combination we wish. The flexibility even extends to graduating: even though most people complete high school in 3 years, some do it in 2 and some in 4 – or, one might graduate in fall having studied 2,5 or 3,5 years.
On the other hand, Finnish schools concentrate more on studies and we have much less competitions, conferences or anything like that. Having these intense 6-week periods gives few possibilities to take even a couple of days for something special, and being absent just for a short time means you miss a lot of content.
Many students are afraid to go abroad for such a long time. What would you recommend to those who hesitate to go on exchange?
I think high school is actually easier time to go abroad, since you get to live in a host family and don’t have to figure anything out yourself. You will also have people to spend time with from day one and get to experience the culture much more. To out it short: I’ve never heard anyone regretting using the opportunity to go abroad, but many people regret postponing that until it’s impossible due to work or family reasons.
If you’re not feeling particularly adventurous, consider going to a country familiar to you. Especially if you already know someone – or the language -, things will be much smoother and cultural differences will be easier to handle. In Western countries there’s very little to worry about in terms of healthcare or safety or anything, and most times problems are fairly easily solved, whether it’s getting lost in the city or not knowing how to open a door (happened to me, had to ask a neighbor to use the key).
When it comes to actually being abroad, most people feel homesick and experience culture shock. That is part of the experience and a possibility to learn. Just do your best to adapt to your new life, and don’t keep too much in contact with people staying home. If a relationship is truly worth it, it will survive. Exchange is like taking a break from your life and getting a new one, so it’s better not to fight back but embrace the experience.
What is your opinion on the importance of this kind of mobilities? Which benefits did you get from your exchange?
I could have never afforded an exchange semester through some organization, so these experiences have been once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for me. I’ve definitely learned a lot about intercultural communication and have realized how even in our own countries we assume too much of each others‘ behaviour. And getting another perspective to, well, everything from politics to how to be polite helps with original thinking.
What others have said is that I’ve grown during my time abroad, and I feel that I’ve gained this confidence in a way I never could in Finland. Being able to make lasting friendships and navigate unexpected situations is just invaluable. All the shared knowledge and feelings have helped me to become the person I am and bring some fresh ideas to my communities.
What is the best experience from Slovakia that you remember?
I have to name two! First if all, Easter was something I’ll never forget – being thrown water at and just experiencing your customs. We are always so reserved when we celebrate (except when it comes to hockey) that it was just wonderful to see something so different.
The second thing is ZAMUN, writing working papers at night and doing „silly stuff“ in someone else’s hotel room. I even have a picture if me wearing Make America great again cap (the room belonged to the delegation of U.S.), which made my American friends wince a bit. I’ll always carry the friendships with me, and the magical feeling of those warm spring nights we will never have here up North.