“Aalto-yliopisto… Aalto-universitet… Aalto University”
The sound of this familiar metro announcement as the train approaches the Aalto University metro station signifies the start of my daily routine as an exchange student studying under Aalto University’s Master’s of Architecture Department. Over the past 4 months, I was blessed with the opportunity to embark on my exchange semester in Finland. As a bachelor’s student approaching her second year of architectural studies, taking on a semester under the Master’s of Architecture programme sounded intimidating in the beginning, but it soon turned out to be one of my most fulfilling semesters yet in my undergraduate studies!
During orientation week (which is typically the week before the semester officially starts), there was a course information session whereby the different professors would take turns to introduce their studio programmes for the semester, thereafter we were required to submit our ballot slips through an online form indicating our top 3 studio choices. Despite the Wood Studio being one of the most competitive ones, I was fortunate enough to be offered a spot in the programme.
The majority of the Master’s students were exchange students as well (from Sweden, Norway, Germany, China, Spain, Japan, and more), so you could imagine the mix of languages that can be heard in the same room everyday haha! Immersing yourself in different cultures and meeting new people are two of the core aspects of going for exchange, and with everyone being new to one another, it provides a space where everyone was more than happy to share about their experiences in their home country, which I appreciated a lot.
My lovely groupmates were from Norway, Germany, and Finland/Paris. Despite meeting each other for the first time, our group dynamics worked out pretty well for us and our work styles complemented one another very well. As I was a bachelor’s student while the rest of my group was doing their Master’s, I have admittedly much less experience in the industry. However, I made sure to contribute more in areas that I consider my strengths while absorbing all the knowledge I can from our discussions. A big shoutout to them for being so patient with me even when I had to clarify a few things with them multiple times especially when it came down to the technical details. (I was also a whole 30cm shorter than all of them… I could stand directly in front of any of them during our presentation and I still would not block them at all… perks!)
Most of my time spent on campus would be in the wood workshop, and honestly, I do miss it very much. Being part of the Wood Studio, we spend all of our time in the paja building, short-form for Arkkitehtipaja, in which we share a space with the students under the Wood Programme at Aalto. The seminar room where all our lectures were held was on the third floor, while the wood workshop occupied the second floor. There was something special about having more than 40 people together at some point hustling alongside you, carrying timber of all sizes from huge logs to small cut pieces that I cannot express in words. Not to mention, the Finnish radio was constantly blasting as we were working in the assembly space! Fun fact: 15 minutes before the end of every 3-hour slot, the workshop master will ring a bell that signals everyone in the workshop to stop working and clean together, emphasising that the workshop is a shared space and everyone has an equal responsibility to upkeep it.
Another core aspect of going for exchange would be experiencing their unique student culture. It is common for one to spot students wearing multi-coloured overalls with various cloth badges sewn on them along the streets of Helsinki. You can deduce the students’ guild based on the colours of the overalls and the emblem of the school or student organisation on the back! The ceremony in which we would be able to redeem our overalls is called Haalarihulabaloo, and it is one of the most important layovers in one’s fuksi (freshman in Finnish) journey at Aalto University. It is also a tradition for the seniors to pour red wine on your new overalls, and your overalls should never be washed!
Another unique student culture I’ve experienced in Finland would be the local sitsit culture – a Nordic culture widely experienced by all students, though it originated from Sweden. During a sitsit, students will be seated around long tables dressed according to the theme of the sitsit, and they will be served soup, a main course, and dessert along with alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks. A sitsit typically lasts for at least 3 hours, guided by several toastmasters. Songs will be sung before and after every dish is served, or even spontaneously! The songs sung in a sitsit are usually traditional or well-known Finnish songs and sometimes the original lyrics are replaced by something goofy.
I had the opportunity to experience my first sitsit at the cabin weekend organised by the Guild of Architecture. We stayed overnight at a wooden cabin located along a swamp built in 1992 by Aalto’s very own architecture students in Espoo. After a long dinner, we headed to the in-house sauna where many of us had our first smoke sauna experience! It was a perfect night of getting to know everyone and experiencing local culture together.
4 months flew by, and here I am starting my internship semester. My exchange semester at Aalto University is definitely one for the books, an unforgettable experience I would treasure for a long long time. Till next time, A!