Why did you choose to study Religion, Conflict and Dialogue?
"I completed a Bachelor's degree in psychology and I found that to be quite focused on the individual. To balance it out, it was really nice to enter more of a societal Master's programme. This programme was very multi-disciplinary and there were a lot of opportunities to look at conflicts from different angles and perspectives. I was also drawn to its flexibility and freedom. Of course, we had some compulsory courses but then you were quite free to choose additional ones according to your interests. You could also tailor the assignments to your thesis topic. My thesis ended up being about women in peace building and on the role of religious women in peace processes."
What are the benefits of studying in an international Master's programme?
"With English as the study language, international Master's programmes draw students with diverse backgrounds and interests. My classmates were quite international and there was a different sense of community than only studying with other Finnish people. I was positively surprised by how tight-knit the community was, even at such a large university. I was able to meet friends easily and gained a strong professional network. Between international conferences and visits to globally-minded organizations, there were a lot of opportunities to connect."
How did you become connected to your current employer?
"During my Master's studies, I was an intern at the same place I work now: Crisis Management Initiative. CMI works with peace through mediation and informal dialogue. One of my classmates sent me the advertisement for a role on the Sub- Saharan Africa team and I decided to apply. I grew up in Tanzania and have quite a long background with questions related to Africa, so the internship seemed like a really good fit. There were a couple of interviews and then I was offered a 6-month contract. After that, it turned into a full-time job. I left the organization after a year to complete my other Master's degree in psychology, but now I am back at CMI, this time in the Asia Team."
How does your work relate to your studies?
"The knowledge and skills I learned in the Religion, Conflict and Dialogue module gave me a solid base of knowledge about peace mediation. I put that knowledge to use on a daily basis and am constantly building on it in my work. Although religion is not the central issue in my current project, the value of having studied it is apparent in the field of peacebuilding. When you're dealing with conflict, religion is often an important aspect to consider because it is relevant to so many peoples' daily lives. It often needs to be taken into account in conflict analysis. Something I appreciate about this programme, is that it looks at religion in a nuanced way. Some may think that religion is only creating more conflict in the world- that it's part of the problem. But it is also important to look at the ways in which religion can be a part of the solution. In many cases, it can be something that helps in creating stable and democratic societies."
What advice would you give to a prospective ICE student?
"As I mentioned before, there is a lot of freedom in this programme. In every single course, there are really good opportunities to tailor it to your own specific interests. That being said, it is good to think about your goals beforehand. If you are coming into the program and not knowing at all what you want, then it's maybe a bit difficult to make the most out of it. You don't have to have a strict plan, but an outline can help."
How did you end up studying at the University of Helsinki?
"After completing my undergrad at the University of Aberdeen in the UK, I was faced with the choice of entering the labour market or continuing my studies. I love being a student, so I opted for postgraduate studies. I hold Danish citizenship and Denmark pays a pretty decent 'student salary', but will only pay that for 4 years if you decide to study outside the Nordic region. Hence, if I wanted the "salary" for my Master's as well, I'd have to return to the cold North. As I had fond memories of Helsinki from a family trip back in the scorching hot summer of 2010 and had quite a few Finnish friends during my time in Aberdeen who all convinced me of the superiority of the Finnish educational system (despite all studying abroad!), I set my sights on Helsinki. It was a complete no-brainer when I stumbled upon the ICE programme during my first browse on the university's degree selection website."
What makes the ICE programme unique?
"You can study literally (almost) anything. You can study aspects of other programmes, like politics, law, gender, sociology, area studies etc., but combine it with the interdisciplinary feel of ICE. If you are a political science nerd, you can study more critical and intersectional aspects of the traditional and hardcore political science theories. If you are into sociology, you can study any sociological aspect and combine it with any theory you like. You can put your own spin on traditional disciplines and rediscover and reinvent them! The ICE programme opens up the possibility of questioning everything that’s inside the box and everything that’s outside the box, and the box itself."
Is there something that surprised you during your studies?
"The flexibility of the programme has positively surprised me. When I say that you really have complete jurisdiction of what you want to study, those are not just empty words. You are in charge of what you want to learn and how you want to learn it, and if you want to do an internship abroad or go on exchange, you have the full support of the faculty."
What was the topic of your thesis?
"I wrote my thesis on racial identity development and internalised whiteness in young white university students. The analysis was based on fieldwork that I carried out in my native country, Denmark. This topic stemmed from processing my own racial identity in the ICE programme. The ICE programme helped me shift my understanding of how I position myself as a white citizen in a globalized world that revolves around hegemonic whiteness and thrives off the exploitation of racialized citizens."
Why do you think it is important to study your thesis topic?
"I think critical whiteness and race is absolutely crucial for everyone to study. Whiteness is still conflated with our idea of what is normal and the whole concept of inherent and natural, yet we lack the ability to talk constructively about it. It is relevant to all disciplines and has affected the base of knowledge that all disciplines inevitably draw upon- even in the ICE programme. Although the ICE programme has increased my awareness about race, it needs to further interrogate the norms of hegemonic whiteness and white supremacy that continue to dominate in academia."
What did you do right after graduation?
"I was really, really lucky to land a job in a Finnish start-up even before graduating and worked there while putting together my application for doctoral studies. In my case, my foreign language skills were absolutely crucial to landing this job. The general experience that I get from my friends is, unfortunately, that it’s super difficult to land a job in Finland as a foreigner. Whether this is due to the COVID-19 pandemic or due to Finland being embarrassingly inaccessible to foreigners who don’t speak Finnish is still up for debate, but I know people who have been here for many years who have struggled to properly enter the Finnish labour market."
What are you working on now?
"In January 2021, I started my doctoral studies at the University of Helsinki! I research how normative whiteness operates in discourses surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement in Denmark. This movement has gained a lot of attention, and most of the media attention in Denmark has, not surprisingly, been negative and stereotypical. I think there is a huge potential to examine how hegemonic whiteness operates with regards to how white people react to a social movement that forces us to examine our color blindness. This is obviously also problematic, as I have the white privilege of approaching racism and race from an academic and objective perspective. I feel that we, white people, are very good at distancing ourselves from this topic, even whilst we are engaging with it on an academic level. I try to abandon the abstract talk in my research, and focus on how I make up part of a structure, how I reproduce it, and how I recognize whiteness in my own knowledge and my beliefs. Race is not external to us – we create it, we live it and every single day, we abide by the rules set out by history.”
How did you come to study at the University of Helsinki?
"I came to Finland right after graduating from college in the United States. I had a Bachelor's degree in International Relations and Latin American Studies. When looking at the ICE programme, I thought its focus and flexibility was something that I could benefit from. I liked the fact that you could obtain a base theoretical framework, but still have the ability to decide upon your specialisations and the topic of your thesis."
What was your area of specialisation?
"I chose to continue learning about a topic that I was already interested in, which was gender equality. I focused on this topic through courses in several thematic modules. In fact, I think I took a course from every module that was offered! The name of my thesis ended up being, Local Voices and Perspectives: A Study on the Contextualisation of Women’s Empowerment in Lima, Peru. Initially, I thought I was going to finish my degree in two years. However, my timetable changed when I started to work on my thesis since the focus was on Peru, and I had to go there to do some preparatory interviews. I continued my fieldwork and ended up spending about five months there. This extended my studies a bit. In the end, I took about three years to graduate."
What was your journey after graduation?
"Right after graduation, I got accepted into a doctoral programme at the University of Helsinki. The programme was in Development Studies. I was doing that for a year, then I came to the realisation that it was a bit too theoretical for me. At that point, I already had time to examine different dynamics on paper, but I wanted to grow my own experience in praxis. I was lucky enough to find a job here in Finland, working at an NGO called Plan International. I have been with them ever since."
Can you tell us about your current work?
"I have been working in the development sector for the past six to seven years now. The entire time, I have been focusing on programming around gender equality. Until very recently, I was working for the headquarters of Plan International, in the global gender and inclusion team. Now, I am part of the technical team for the office of Plan International Finland. I specialise in sexual and reproductive health and rights, advising and supporting the development of projects in Africa and Asia with funding from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs."
What is something that stands out about your ICE experience?
"One of the most defining courses that I took was on post-colonial theory. I started to explore different themes related to gender equality, but with a more intersectional approach, examining all different types of dynamics that surround identities and the different structures that define who you are. The ICE programme also allowed space for my own independent study. I was particularly interested in issues related to feminism, intersectional feminism and power dynamics. Literature on these themes has foundationally shaped the approach I take to my job as a development practitioner."
Why did you choose to study in the ICE programme?
"When I applied, I didn't have a clear idea about what I would like to do in the future. I had a major in Comparative Religion from the University of Helsinki and wanted a Master's programme that was relevant to my previous studies, but a bit different too. I'm interested in many topics, so ICE appealed to me. It has a wide scope."
What is the most memorable part of your studies?
"One of my fondest memories was my traineeship at the Family Federation of Finland. I actually visited them during the course called Career Clinic, which orients you to working life. A while after the visit, they had a traineeship position open and I simply sent them the application. They were happy to host me. I worked in their global development department where they do advocacy on sexual and reproductive health. As a trainee, I wrote many texts and I acted as Secretary in meetings with the Finnish All-Party Group Parliamentary on Sexual Rights and Development (APPG). These were really good lessons because I do a lot of writing in my current work."
Was it hard to find work after you graduated?
"After graduating, I knew that I wanted to do something immediately. Starting in June, I applied everywhere... and my plan worked! I started to work at Kela in August. My first position was in customer service, answering international social security questions. If you think of my degree, I was maybe a bit overeducated, but I didn't really mind. I wanted the experience. Also, I knew that Kela was a big institution so I could climb up the ladder. That is exactly what happened. Now, I am an International Affairs Counsellor- a specialist position. I have really enjoyed these last 5 years with Kela."
Do you use any skills from ICE?
"Of course! Everytime you work with international themes it is good to have the type of academic background that ICE gives. For example, my department maintains one website for people who either reside in Finland and travel abroad or actually reside abroad and are travelling to Finland. I have to be intentional about the terms and concepts I am using, and how they might translate to a diverse range of people. I always keep intercultural communication at the back of my mind. ICE helped with that."
Why do you think it is important to study intercultural encounters?
"Oh in so many ways! You just have to open up your computer and scroll through the news to see why. I started to work at Kela at a time when Finland received a lot of Syrian refugees. Since then, discussions about migration and globalisation have become more common. So, I think it is important to have experts on cultural diversity and global thinkers who are able to see the world from different perspectives. Especially now, when debates are a bit heated, you need to have concrete arguments which are based on research, rather than random opinions."
Do you have any advice for ICE students or recent graduates?
"Be curious- and by that I mean, be a bit adventurous about your possibilities. Intercultural understanding is relevant to so many organisations and positions, so keep your options open."
How do your previous studies relate to the ICE programme?
"When I entered the ICE programme, I already had a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration and a Master's degree in Social Psychology. Coming from Georgia, I did quite a lot of research about what different universities offer students from overseas. The University of Helsinki had high-quality education and, at the time, it was free for me to attend. When I checked the list of Master's programmes, the themes in ICE very much related to my academic interests. It was multidimensional and had a variety of courses that were attractive."
How well did the ICE programme prepare you for professional life?
"In ICE, the first part is very theoretical and then you get the opportunity to put everything into practice and see how it works in the real world. Some students can do this in practical courses. I chose to do a traineeship. It can be challenging to find an organization to take you as a trainee, but I was very lucky. I submitted a traineeship application to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Helsinki and was accepted. It helped that I had funding from the University. so there was no need for IOM to pay me.
I worked at IOM over the summer period and it was a fantastic experience! I got to see everything about how the organization operates. Their work is all about international migration and protection, which closely matched what I was studying. After completing my three month traineeship, IOM decided to keep me on the team and gave me a part-time contract. This was great for me. I was able to work with them and continue my studies."
So, your traineeship led to your current job?
"Yes! Everything started in Finland. In December 2014, I had completed all of my courses and just needed to do my thesis. Since you can submit your thesis online, I decided to return to Georgia and begin working. At the time, there was an open vacancy at the Georgian mission of IOM. I submitted my application and I was accepted. When I arrived in Georgia in January, I started working for IOM right away. This has been an excellent continuation of my work and I feel very lucky that the vacancy appeared in my world."
What is your role at IOM?
"I am a Migrant Resource Center Coordinator at IOM. The target group for our centre are Georgians who want to migrate abroad or those who have already gone on the migratory experience and returned. My team provides counselling on different topics, such as legal migration routes, awareness about human trafficking, and re-integration for those who need to reestablish themselves in Georgia. We also do training and capacity building with government officials, increasing their knowledge on issues so that they can make informed and impactful policies. Another large component of my work is community outreach campaigns. Nowadays, these mainly take place on social media."
How does your Master's education apply to your current work?
"It is very hard to sum up all of what I do briefly, but it is clear that cultural sensitivity is very central to my job. Skills that are taught in ICE- like intercultural communication, flexibility, and open-mindedness- are all important to working in an international organization."
Did the ICE programme live up to your expectations?
"Yes! I will never forget those professionals which I interacted with in the ICE programme. My thesis supervisor was brilliant and I learned a lot throughout my time studying. I am sure that the programme has even improved since I attended, because the leadership team was very interested in the students' feedback and improving the programme on a yearly basis. I think this is a very strong advantage to any programme. Overall, the life I had in Finland was very memorable. I wish to come back soon and see my friends who are still living there."
What led you to apply to the ICE programme?
"I have always been very curious about the surrounding world. I love to discover new cultures and languages, whether through traveling or other interaction with people from diverse backgrounds. While searching for a Master’s degree with my European Cultural Studies background, I wanted a programme that would provide me with up-to-date intercultural knowledge and first-hand experience to help me to lead an intercultural career. I found the ICE programme to be a perfect fit. I could gain a wide variety of perspectives while studying mainly in my home country of Finland, but having the opportunity to carry out an exchange period abroad as a part of my studies."
How does the ICE programme stand out from other Master’s programmes?
"The ICE programme provides a truly international environment. This is achieved by everyday learning with professors and classmates of different nationalities and the interdisciplinary nature of the programme. As a student, you are given the flexibility to choose the subjects and topics that you are most interested in. This way, you have the freedom to create your own combination of study modules that can help you to get closer to your personal career goals."
What were your areas of interest within ICE?
"Geographically, I have been interested in exploring the Mediterranean countries, especially Spain. I am interested in their communication cultures and the latest trends in media discourses. My thesis analysed some problematics of political parallelism in news coverage of political events in Spain. In the hyperconnected 21st century, where the media plays a significant role in shaping our everyday understanding, I find it insightful to examine the media and power. I explore in what ways media discourses can either intensify our cultural differences or promote intercultural understanding."
What is your current job and how did you obtain it?
"Currently, I work in Spain as Programme Coordinator of Adopta Un Abuelo. It is an extremely dynamic social startup that brings together the young and the socially excluded elderly generations through an innovative model of volunteering. While still finalizing my Master’s thesis, I moved to Spain as a European Volunteer Service participant. I had the opportunity to work in an international NGO and got to know interesting, socially responsible job opportunities. I applied to my current job to make the world a better place. At Adopta Un Abuelo, we connect social groups that typically lack interaction, but have so much to give to one another. I am proud of our intercultural team and all that we have achieved, especially during a global pandemic!"
If you could choose again, would you opt for the same area of study?
"Yes! My studies in the ICE programme have given me useful soft skills and intercultural competence that I apply every day living and working in my new home country. I was happy to learn something new in each course we had and I was positively surprised by how many amazing people I got to meet and even call my friends still after graduating! Going back though, I would try to put more effort into my own studying methods and planning in order to get the most out of my time at the University of Helsinki."
Who would you recommend the ICE programme to?
"I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in broadening their horizons, passionate about intercultural learning and motivated to study in a truly international environment in Finland."
Why did the ICE programme appeal to you?
"I have always been interested in traveling and engaging with different cultures. In my Bachelor's, I studied Spanish language and after graduating I lived in Spain for two years teaching English. When I moved to Finland and started looking into Master's studies, I initially wanted to study English language teaching. Unfortunately, the criteria to be an English language teacher in Finland is quite strict. The Intercultural Encounters (ICE) programme was a good alternative and ended up being a great fit for me."
What was it like to enter the ICE programme?
"I came from a background in language studies, so there was a lot of basic sociology and cultural studies knowledge that I wished to develop. I had been out of the education system for a few years and I was just so keen to learn. I really enjoyed my return to university and everything that it involved, including the chance to meet my coursemates in the ICE programme. I think that the two year duration for the ICE programme is really good. In the UK, where I am from, a lot of Master's programmes are just one-year long and the schedule can feel really tight. Two years gives everybody a chance to catch up on their learning and get to the academic level they need to be at to complete the final thesis."
What was your Master's thesis about?
"During my studies, I started volunteering in an organisation that arranged sports activities for asylum seekers and refugees in Helsinki. I started helping out in a local initiative at a sports centre in Kamppi and recruited asylum seeker participants for a weekly volleyball session. I ended up doing a summer traineeship with the same organisation, and thought I could write an interesting Master’s thesis about these activities. So, I wrote my thesis about sports policy and sports programmes for migrants in Helsinki. I interviewed the people who were running the programmes, as well as policy-makers. I was trying to understand how sports for migrants was coordinated and how it could be improved. It was something very specific to my interests and that is what I really liked about the ICE programme. Everyone in my year was taking similar classes but applying the knowledge and theory learned to completely different projects. It was really interesting to see."
How did you find your PhD placement?
"When I was researching doctoral study opportunities, I really wanted to contribute to a larger research project. I found a position advertised for a PhD about sports and volunteering. I thought, Wow. My Master's thesis was about exactly this issue... I am going to apply. I didn't end up getting that position, but then another opportunity came up and the people in the research project remembered me. They reached out and encouraged me to apply for this other position. I applied, did an interview, and it all worked out. A few months later, I started the PhD position. Now, I have a job as the Project Manager of two international research projects, for four days a week, and have one to study for my PhD."
What advice would you give to students who want to pursue an academic career?
"I would say that it is very normal to shift your research topic to match your changing interests as they develop. From my personal experience, it is okay to change your mind. I wrote my Bachelor's thesis about Spanish popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s, and I wrote my Master's thesis about sports policy in Helsinki. Now, I'm writing my PhD and it is about migrant experiences in Scotland and Scottish nationalism. It just shows that it is good to have a good spectrum of interests and you can always change paths.
Also, there is a lot of value in trying to match your outside interests with your academic interests. In the ICE programme, you will learn a lot from the theoretical side of things. It is interesting to put those into practice in a community setting- not just in the library and on your laptop - but in the outside world. For me, volunteering worked as a method for connecting to the outside world but for other people this connection could be something totally different. If you can align and create connections between your studies and your everyday life I think you will make the most of your degree."
How did you come to apply to ICE?
"Before entering the ICE programme, I had completed a Bachelor's and a Master's degree related to communications. I applied to ICE to further my studies and to learn more about culture and communication. As a foreigner in Finland, I was positioned to see many intercultural interactions and I was questioning my own values and identity. This programme was attractive because it included an examination of cultural phenomena, but also of personhood. In this way, it combined my educational and philosophical aspirations."
What was it like to write your Master's thesis?
"My thesis was on the topic of environmental communication. Using ethnography of communication, I looked at environmental professionals as a cultural group and analysed how they talked about their subject. This methodology was new for me, so I learned so much in the process. Looking back, I was a lot like a baby learning to walk- uneasy, afraid and stumbling around. Your supervisor helps you up at the beginning but at some point they have to let you try it out yourself. That is always the way when you start something new and of course, you learn. It is a process and that is the point."
How did your studies lead to an entrepreneurial career?
"Entrepreneurship is nothing new to me. I was in an entrepreneur club in highschool and many of my family members have been entrepreneurs. However, for a long time I was more interested in academic life and business was more in the background of my mind. Then, when looking for work, I realized that many companies do not have the resources to hire their own communications person. This was especially the case in small and medium sized businesses- they were doing communication unprofessionally and it was affecting them. So, I thought, Maybe I can offer services like that. Work started appearing, here and there, until my business grew into what it is today."
What advice would you give to a student that is interested in entrepreneurship?
"First of all, I think that Finland is a very entrepreneur-friendly place. People are problem solvers and the country has good legislation for businesses to start and continue. So, it is fertile ground to explore entrepreneurship as a career option. For those interested, I would recommend joining an entrepreneurship society at the university and attending workshops through organisations like NewCo Accelerator. This will help you learn what entrepreneurship actually entails. Some people just hear the hype or cool things about being an entrepreneur, but it is important to be aware of how demanding it is and how much Sisu, or perseverance, it takes. Starting and running your own business can be very rewarding but it is not for everyone. You really need to love it. Before committing to anything, do a lot of research and find out what supports are available to you."
In a business-oriented environment, how do you explain your studies in ICE?
"I don't have a clear-cut elevator pitch, but I typically explain intercultural encounters as a way of understanding communication by considering cultural factors. Most importantly, I always adapt to the listener. Especially in the business world, people may not be so aware of studies in intercultural encounters. Some people may see this subject and assume you just like to eat spicy foods or speak many languages. I try to always link my skills and my experiences to my audience's worldview and explain them in terms that they understand."
How does your Master's education show up in your work?
"Most recently, I think that the communication aspect of our lives has come into the spotlight. For those of us who work in the communication field, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges and highlighted questions that we had never considered. I think that it has shown how important speech is to humans. With digital communication becoming even more present, it is important to study how intercultural encounters are affected. Especially when we are not encountering many people physically, how do we define these encounters now? I think the ICE programme plays a vital role in examining the crucial issues of our ever-changing world. It continues to be relevant and important."
See also these stories featuring ICE's alumni while they were students: