An Interview With Rika, a Social Psychology Student in Contemporary Societies

The Master’s Programme in Contemporary Societies (COS) at the University of Helsinki aims to provide a variety of fields, topics, and phenomena to study. But how do its students feel about the programme and the city?

Rika Yamada, a first-year Contemporary Societies student, discusses what made her choose the programme, the pros and challenges, and student life in Finland.

The Person and the Programme

Who are you and what were you doing before you joined Contemporary Societies?

My name is Rika Yamada and I was, funnily enough, unemployed before joining this programme. I graduated with my bachelor’s (double degree in Psychology from the University of Indonesia and the University of Queensland) in 2022 and had plans to continue my academic career in Psychology. I actually tried applying to the COS programme back in the 2021–2022 admissions cycle, but due to administrative issues with one of my universities, I was unable to. Thus, I had no choice but to try again in 2022–2023 and fortunately was able to get in. 

Why did you choose to study in Contemporary Societies and Social Psychology?

I admit, I had no clue what this programme was about when I first encountered it. What first caught my eye about this programme was that it was offering a study track in (Social) Psychology in English. At the time, I was struggling to find any Finnish universities offering any kind of Psychology programme in English. When I stumbled upon the COS programme, I was immediately interested. 

Social Psychology was (and still is) one of my favourite fields in Psychology. I have always wanted to understand why people behaved the way they did, especially within a larger societal, historical, and political context. I initially had plans to write my thesis about discrimination towards Chinese minorities in Indonesia, and Social Psychology was the perfect field for that. 

Eventually, I began looking deeper into what the COS programme actually was. The more I read, the more intrigued I was. I believe that multidisciplinary research is crucial to advancing our understanding of the world and this programme is a good place for that. Being able to take courses from six different fields has not only helped me develop my knowledge within specific fields of interest but has also allowed me to explore other interests that may not necessarily align with my specific study track (e.g. health inequalities)

Have you found anything special about studying in Contemporary Societies and your specific study track?

The COS programme has allowed me to explore a variety of interests without sacrificing my specific study track of Social Psychology. During my bachelor's, I was only able to take one major and one minor, effectively limiting me to two different fields. I remember struggling between choosing Criminology or Gender Studies for my minor. Eventually, I went with Criminology. While I did not regret my choice, I still wished that I was able to take some courses in Gender Studies as it was something that I have always been interested in, but never had the opportunity to study in an educational setting (due to Indonesia’s conservative values). 

Because COS has six different study tracks within one programme, I was able to satisfy this interest, among others, by taking several courses on Gender Studies. I was able to learn about health, politics, mental health, intergroup relations, and more due to this expanded freedom of choice. I don’t think that every programme has this flexibility and I appreciate that COS does.

Studying at Helsinki

When it comes to studying at Helsinki, what does a typical day as a part of this programme look like for you?

During my first three periods, I was quite busy as I was taking a minimum of 18 credits per period. I had wanted to get most of my required credits done in the first year so I could focus more on my thesis in my second year. 

Given my packed schedule, I would typically have 1-2 classes almost every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I would grab lunch with my friends (if they were available) in between or spend some time in the library to study or catch up on other assignments. I would specifically spend a lot of time in the Kaisa House library and sometimes would even go there during off days because it sort of became my ‘work’ space. 

Have you found anything challenging about your studies here?

Adjusting to the 7-week periods was quite difficult at the start of my studies. It felt like things were progressing way too quickly as I was used to 12-13 week semesters during my bachelor's. I remember feeling slightly overwhelmed with assignments as it felt like I had just started my studies and then suddenly, my assignments were due in the next week. It took a while for me to adjust to this change, and while I still struggle with it sometimes, I am much better off than I was at the start.

How do you feel about the city and the university as a place to study?

The University is a wonderful place to study and I am grateful that I get to be here to pursue my Masters. I am especially appreciative of the fact that I am treated as an equal here by both faculty and staff members. This level of collaboration was never something that I experienced in my Indonesian university as we had a strong hierarchical culture of respecting elders and those with higher status. I do admit that it was a bit odd when I first got here, but I do see it more as a welcome surprise than anything else. I still think about the time Kimmo (the director of COS) came into the class in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. 

Overall, Helsinki has been a great place to study. One of my favourite things about the city is how accessible transportation is. Being able to use all modes of public transport using one single card is incredibly convenient, and the best part is that students get a discount on the monthly ticket. Additionally, on the topic of student discounts, I like how most museums (and other recreational institutions) offer discounts to students. I think that it is important for students to have a good study-life balance and considering that most international students are on a tight budget, it is nice that we are still able to participate in recreational activities at a cheaper price. I actually recently bought the museum card that allows me to go to any museum in Finland for free for a year. As someone who loves museums, I think that this is a worthwhile investment (and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves museums, gardens, and fun little events as well).

However, despite all this, I think that it is important to consider that with all cities, Helsinki still has its faults. It can be tough for an international student to live, study, and work in a foreign environment. It can sometimes feel discouraging, especially when you feel homesick and alone. I hope that anyone who is considering coming to UH knows that the university has many support systems in place and that its Faculty and staff members (and students!) are always available to help. 

Was there anything that surprised you when you first came to Helsinki or that still surprises you?

The Finns’ love for coffee, seclusion, and sustainability/recycling was something that surprised me when I first came to Helsinki. As a coffee lover myself, I was excited when I found out that Finnish people loved drinking coffee. However, even I admit that they do tend to take it to another level completely. One cup of coffee used to be the norm for me, but now I often take 2 instead. I do try my best to limit my caffeine intake, but I do not have the best self-control when it comes to coffee. If anyone offers me coffee (which happens often in Finland), I am almost always going to say yes even if I have already gotten one beforehand. 

Meanwhile, with regards to the seclusion, I was surprised that Finnish people would prefer not to sit next to each other on public transport (and many actually would stand instead!). However, as someone who is quite anti-social, I can respect their boundaries. Nowadays, I tend to do the same, only ever sitting next to someone if I am tired or have a long journey ahead.

Lastly, sustainability has long been a value close to my heart. I actively try my best to reduce food and material waste, though I admit that I have not always been the best at it. I like how many second-hand stores there are in the city. It feels like a win-win situation for me as I can spend less on clothes and participate in recycling practices (and avoid fast fashion gimmicks). As many of my friends know, I am a big fan of one specific recycling store here in Helsinki (not sure if I can explicitly mention what the name is) and will always recommend it to anyone coming here. I have gone so far as to visit one of their branches in Espoo (which was most certainly worth the visit, and I would go again and again and again). 

Looking Into the Future

What would you say to students who are considering joining the Master's Programme in Contemporary Societies?

Join! It’s an amazing programme filled with excellent lecturers and peers. If you are interested in multidisciplinary research, then this is definitely the programme for you. Even if you aren’t necessarily interested in the other five study tracks (beyond your own) offered in the COS programme, you can simply take courses from your specific track with no issues. I think that despite the fact that the programme is made up of 6 different tracks, the courses still go quite in-depth with the topics discussed. Additionally, there are also quite niche topics that you can still explore!

What are your near future and long-term hopes and plans?

I do hope to continue to a PhD here at the Faculty of Social Sciences in the university. My current thesis has been split into two sections, one of which I am currently working on and the other I hope to continue for my PhD. I believe that there is a lot more research I can do within Social Psychology and my specific field of interest (Indonesian populism). Based on my experience not only as a student of UH but also as a research assistant, I know that the university has the resources to provide the best learning experience for me. 

Long-term, I do see myself working in academia. I remain unsure where I will eventually settle down my roots, but I am open to the idea of continuing my work with the University, whether it be as a collaborator or as a member of its Faculty. 

Contemporary Societies

In the Master's Programme in Contemporary Societies, you choose from six major subjects:

  • Global Development Studies
  • Social and Cultural Anthropology
  • Social and Public Policy
  • Social Data Science
  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology

You also study themes like Data and Society, Ethnic Relations and Migration, Mind and Society, Socio-Cultural Shifts and Sources of Inequalities.