How helping other students turned into a career

"Well, maybe I could try to do it better myself!" thought Alex Hetrick to herself when considering tutoring at university. A little over a year later she is embarking on a career as international student coordinator knowing this is something she really is good at.

Alexandra Hetrick, better known as Alex, is welcoming spring in Helsinki with enthusiasm. While her bubbly character contributes to her joyfulness, it is also fueled by her new employment as a student coordinator for international master's students at Aalto University. With a five-year contract, she looks forward to settling into both her budding career and into her new homeland which she has grown to love dearly.  

Hetrick was among the last graduates from the Russian Studies programme MARS that has since widened into its current form of Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European Studies programme MAREEES to better suit the diverse research expertise the lecturers had to offer and the students were seeking for.

Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from and what did you study before moving to Helsinki? 

I’m from the United States. I am originally from Pennsylvania, but I worked in Washington DC for several years before I came to the programme. My bachelor’s degree is in International Studies with minors in the Russian language and Russian and Central Eurasian studies. 

What made you decide to apply to the University of Helsinki? 

I was an exchange student in Finland during my bachelors’ degree at the University of Turku. During that time, I grew to really love Finland! I also enjoyed the studying environment, which is different from the US, it’s more independent. It feels that they treat you more as an adult here.

So, seeing that there was a Russian studies programme [MARS programme, 2018–2022] at the University of Helsinki, it was the best way for me to get everything I really wanted: come back to Finland and to keep studying Russia. I didn’t apply for any other programme!

What were your first impressions when you first began studying?

First, I was definitely intimidated because it had been several years since I graduated from my bachelors’ degree and a lot of things had changed in the region. I was a little nervous that I hadn’t kept up with current events enough while I was working. 

It turned out that there were a lot of people that didn’t necessarily have a background in Russian studies because of interdisciplinarity. I felt that the way the programme was taught was really helpful in reaching people with different levels of expertise in the region. 

You were quite active during your studies at the University. Tell me about the traineeship and other experiences you had. 

I was at least a trainee and a student tutor. 

It can be a little bit difficult to find a traineeship as a foreign student in the humanities, but with a little help from my supervisor, I was able to get a traineeship at the Aleksanteri Institute. 

I feel that my job at the Institute was just “Alex, can you do this?” and the answer was always “Yes!” as I thought that I can probably to figure it out. And I appreciated how people seemed to let me do so. They didn’t limit themselves and suggested new tasks quite open-mindedly. 

The reason I sought to be a student tutor then was that I wanted to bring in a perspective of a non-EU migrant. Moving to Finland from Germany is really different than from say, Bangladesh or even the US. Things need to be done in a specific order so that, for instance, you are not still waiting for a bank account five months later. I first thought that things could be done better in securing that the migrant students have all the resources they needed and then I thought, well maybe I could try to do it better myself!

And if I understand correctly, your current job is linked to your experience as the student tutor. Tell me about that.

Yes! I am a student coordinator at Aalto University’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering. Which sounds very far away from Russian Studies, but I have used my expertise!

So basically, I work on two international joint degree programmes and am primarily in charge of the other one. It welcomes a lot of international master students that come from all different parts of the word. They study at Aalto, Norway and Hungary, a semester at each, and then get to choose at which of the three universities they’ll do their thesis at. We need to make sure that they settle in Finland but also in Norway and in Hungary.

My studies came in handy when I did the review for the applications from Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Knowing some Russian and recognizing the higher education institutions from a research project I took part in during MAREEES, I could easily understand the documents even when they were not translated or when background information was needed for some context. 

In which direction would you like to pursue your career in the coming years?

I have a five-year contract now in Aalto. I really like working in academia and with international students so I would like to continue in the same field after the contract ends. Perhaps with humanities students in the future? 

If someone is considering coming to study at MAREEES but is not yet undecided, what would you say to them? 

If you are coming from the US for instance, yes, it’s far away, but it is close to the area of the subject of your studies! Eastern Europe is right there! Having that proximity and having people that are more hands-on familiar with the area, it feels more concrete and impactful than when I was studying Russia in the middle of Ohio. 

Also well, I might be slightly biased since I have worked alongside so many people at the Institute, but I genuinely feel that it would be hard to find people more passionate, more knowledgeable, and more determined to see you succeed.