Two days from now, at 3pm on December 19th, I'll be attending my graduation ceremony. It will be exactly six years, six months, twelve days and one hour since I began the entrance exam for the Faculty of Arts (for the second time), back on June 7th, 2007. You can then add another 364 days if you want to go all the way back to when I sat the exam for the first time. Like so many goals that we set for ourselves in life, for most of that time I've been so focused upon reaching this destination that I feel as though I've spent precious little time appreciating the journey. Over the past few weeks however, since my degree was finally registered and made official with the faculty, I've spent some time looking back over those years, trying to comprehend the full significance of this long trek I've taken, before it does finally reach its conclusion.
It had been a very big decision for me when I decided to apply to study in Finland, and I can honestly say that reading the rejection letter I received in the summer of 2006 was one of the lowest points of my life. I was living in Stockholm at the time, and once the bad news had finally sunk in, I took the novel we'd had to read that year – Peter Carey's Jack Maggs – walked out of my apartment, crossed the hall, and dropped it in the building's rubbish chute, waiting just long enough to listen to it plummet down all eight storeys to the dumpster below. This remains the only time in my life that I can ever recall throwing a book away.
Fortunately for me, the following year I got to experience the opposite extreme. After completing the entrance exam in 2007, I didn't so much walk out of Porthania as I did float out. I knew with absolute certainty that I would be accepted the moment I handed in my exam paper, and the letter I received six weeks later confirming this felt almost anti-climactic by comparison. However, the sense of joy, relief and vindication I felt at the time was incredible – it remains one of the highlights of my life. In fact I felt so elated, that it was only a few days before orientation week was due to begin that I really started thinking seriously about what I had actually signed myself up for. At 32 years old, I knew that I would be at least a decade older than virtually my entire freshman class, whilst simultaneously being able to speak a mere word or two of Finnish. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I might well be in for a very lonely six or seven years.
What I got instead exceeded anything that I could have reasonably imagined. I discovered that I was starting school with a truly wonderful group of people – friendly, kind, intelligent, generous people, who clearly couldn't have cared less how old I was, or that English was all I could speak. The kind of people who, upon learning that I didn't have a computer, gathered together spare parts that they owned and built one for me. In no time at all I found that I would never have to be alone if I didn't want to be, and largely as a consequence of these new found friends, my freshman year turned out to be about the most fun I'd ever had.
In the midst of all these freshman antics began a student life that was to last over six and a half years – a life that I have to imagine was fundamentally similar to that of any other student of English here at the university. One filled with essays and exams, assignments and presentations, poetry and clauses. There were classes I loved and classes I loathed. There were classes I listened to, classes I talked through and classes I fell asleep in. There were 5's, 4's, 3's, 2's, 1's and 0's. There was SUB, BTSB and NMES. There was Uusi and Vanha. There was Vappu in Kauppatori, Christmas at Wäiski, and fuksiaiset all over town. There were long lunches in Unicafe and long nights in Aleksandria. There was speakeasy and there was anniversary. There were elections and there were protests. And then there was reading. Followed by more reading. Which came before even more reading. Which was subsequently followed by still more reading. A process which, once completed, promptly repeated itself.
Not surprisingly, my university experiences didn't always turn out exactly as I'd hoped for. After the euphoria of being accepted, the excitement of commencing school and the enjoyment of freshman life, there came the long, hard slog of years of study with no end in sight. I've had to struggle with bureaucracy, wrestle with unfamiliar languages, and fight my way through my own general confusion as to just how things work at this school and in this country. There have been headaches and heartaches. Once I was able to find a job there came the difficulties associated with having to juggle school and work. As a consequence, I was frequently forced to choose courses based more upon whether or not I would actually be free at that time to take them, rather than on my level of interest in the subject. I came to have much less time to spend with friends, and I was largely unable to get to know succeeding freshman classes, as much as I would have loved to do so.
All in all, however, when I look back over my time as an English student, what I feel most of all is an incredible sense of gratitude. I'm grateful for the teachers who taught me, and I'm grateful for the friends that I made. I'm grateful for all the experiences I had, even the bad ones now, with the benefit of hindsight. I'm grateful for all the people I met along the way, who may not have become my closest friends, but who nevertheless contributed to making my student life all that it was. But most of all, I'm grateful for having been given this incredible opportunity to change the course of my life, at a time when I felt that it desperately needed changing. Regardless of what the future holds for me now, I know that I will always be grateful for having been an English student at the University of Helsinki.