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Maija Gamett: Foreign exchange student from the United States with Finnish roots

When Maija first proposed the idea of a foreign exchange year in Finland it was seen as weird and unrealistic. Now she’s showcasing Finnish life from a student’s perspective on Instagram to her family and friends back home.

Why did you decide to come to Finland for your exchange?

My mom is Finnish and so I’ve been visiting Finland in the summers for probably ever since I was born. So I’ve always really enjoyed Finland in general, just the whole environment of it. Last summer, when I was in Oodi I was looking at all the students and then I just thought it would be cool to do a foreign exchange year; so that’s where the idea came from.

I never really thought about coming as a foreign exchange student until I started seeing all the other students. I always knew that the Finnish education system was really great, so I brought the idea up to my mom and then we researched schools for the next couple of months. We came across this school, and then I applied.

So you applied directly to KSYK?

Yeah, I just emailed the principal, and then they gave me a few questions like why I want to come to this school and then after a couple other things they told me that I could come.

You said you went through a few schools? So why KSYK specifically?

Well at first I wanted to go to a sports school, but they didn’t have very many English opportunities and though I really want to learn Finnish, I still want to be able to get a good education and to be able to learn in classes so this school, after researching, was the best option. I didn’t want to go to an international school because it was just too… English but I didn’t want to go to a complete Finnish school where I wouldn’t learn. This school had a very nice mixture of the two, I can still learn and get the Finnish environment as well.

Have you found any particular courses interesting?

I’m really into art and photography and I think the photography courses are really cool because at least at my school that course isn’t available, so I think it’s super super cool to be able to have a photography course. The art and photography teacher [Erika] is really amazing.

How did covid-19 affect your plans?

Well I booked the flights to come here before covid-19 affected the whole world, so when the whole situation happened, I was really curious if I would still be able to go. After a couple months my flights got changed about nine times by the time we finally got on the airplane, but since I’m technically a Finnish citizen I was still able to come into the country at that time from the US, even though there was a law saying you couldn’t.

What did you do when you first came to Finland?

My mom and I went to my mom’s parents’ old house in Savitaipale and we stayed in quarantine there so it was just by ourselves for two weeks. After that my uncle picked us up and we drove to Helsinki and now I’m living with my aunt and my uncle.

How were those two weeks in quarantine?

Personally I did not like them. The first week was really nice and relaxing, but the second week was really difficult because it was just me and my mom and there’s only so much rummikub you can play. So I think boredom just got to me by the second week.

How were your first days here?

Well after quarantine when I was in Helsinki I still had a couple of weeks before school started and obviously I didn’t know anyone really, so my mom and I just went around and saw the city. We got to sightsee like tourists, and since I didn’t come through a program I had to get a Kela card and switch my address and get a bank account and so that was kind of a lot to handle, since it’s pretty much like moving somewhere completely new. It was a very long process but after everything was completed, it’s now working out quite well.

What about your first days at the school? Did you find people to talk to and such?

Since I’m in 20e all of the students are new to the school as well, so I think it was really easy because everyone was trying to find friends in the class and so I wasn’t seen as just the new kid, I was seen as just everyone else which I really liked. Also since 20e is English-speaking it was really great and really surprising to me that everything was in English, like the teacher spoke in English which I wasn’t really expecting especially on the first day in home room, I thought it was going to be in Finnish. The students are super super nice and they were super welcoming and it was a really fun experience. Also we don’t really have an open house or like an open day to meet everyone in Las Vegas, so I think it was really cool that the first day was really chill and everyone just got to meet each other.

How have your family and friends seen your exchange throughout the process?

At first, when I had the idea my parents were interested. My mom was really excited about the idea, thought it was really cool, since she did something similar when she was in high school. My dad didn’t think of it as something realistic but as a couple of months went by and I found the school and got the tickets my whole family was super supportive. My friends thought that it was kind of weird because it’s not as common to do foreign exchange when you are from the US, they thought it was crazy at first but once covid happened and school completely stopped for them towards the end they said that I was very lucky that I get to just leave and go do school somewhere else because they aren’t able to do that where they are, so their idea on going to a foreign country completely flipped when covid happened. But as of right now they think it’s really cool. I post videos on Instagram about my experiences and they really enjoy learning about how the Finnish school system works, especially since they know that it’s a really really great school system.

You make videos on Instagram. Can you tell me a little more about them?

Well before I left I really wanted to have a way that I could remember all of my experiences and also share to my friends and family back at home what I was doing and I thought that doing video was a great way to showcase all of that. I also really enjoy making and editing videos, I find that really interesting and it also fills my time when I’m bored.

Have you noticed any obvious differences between the schooling systems?

Definitely, the schooling systems are completely different. In Nevada high school is four years and you take six classes each year, so you have the same six classes for a whole year. That’s completely different from here where it’s three years and you choose your courses and take multiple courses throughout the year. I really like the independence of choosing your classes here because you have control of your own schedule and who you want to be in your classes, which I think is really cool. It’s more structured in Las Vegas where you are told to take specific classes and then there’s only a couple classes where you can pick.

Are the elective classes different in Las Vegas?

Yeah, in Las Vegas there’s band, some art classes and then they have maybe some specific ones like school production, publications, public speaking or things like that. I feel like here, since the courses are only eight weeks and then they keep switching, you get a really large variety of different types of things. I’ll be able to do art, photography and music here in one year whereas in Las Vegas, I would only be able to do art one year, music another year and then photography another year.

What are the school days like in Las Vegas?

Well in Las Vegas the school starts at 7am and it goes till 1:16pm and that’s really different. Since it starts earlier in Las Vegas, it ends earlier so there’s a lot more time for free activity, so that’s the positive to that.

Does everyone there need to attend some kind of after-school activity?

No, all the after-school activities are optional, so usually the after-school activities are certain clubs, maybe like sign language club or stuff like that. I personally did sports and that was every day after school until around 3.30pm.

General sports or specific?

Specific, you have to try-out for a team. The teams will be soccer, basketball, track and field, volleyball; there’s a bunch of different sports but you have to make the team, so it’s not guaranteed for you. Clubs are for everyone.

And what did you play?

There’s three sports seasons. I played soccer in the fall, I didn’t do a sport in the winter and then I did track and field in the spring.

Do you have any hobbies in Finland?

Yeah, I play soccer. I emailed a coach from HJK to see if they would let me train with their team, and luckily they said yes so I’ve been training with them since I got to Helsinki. I do that most days in the afternoons.

How has that been?

Super fun. It’s nice because it fills up my time a lot and I think if I wasn’t doing any other extracurricular activities I would be pretty bored. So I really enjoy doing that, and especially meeting new people from all different schools around Helsinki is pretty cool.

Do you miss your friends?

Definitely, before I left for here I hung out with my friends and relatives almost every single day. The night before I left, we had a bonfire and had fireworks just to have a little fun before I left.

Have you kept in touch with them?

I call a lot of my friends often. I call my parents and siblings almost every single day. I send my grandparents emails or letters, but I think it’s different for every person when they leave home. Some people think it’s easier to not get homesick by not talking to their parents as much but personally I think that talking to friends and family has helped with not being as homesick because I can keep them informed on what’s going on and they also like to hear how the whole school system and everything is like over here as well. I think I definitely talk to them a lot.


Kirjoittaja: Aaron Urtti

Kuvat: Lauriina Heikkanen


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