Thankful for the opportunity to learn 

As the Department of Chemistry, we should be much prouder of what we have and seek to share our good fortune with a wider audience. 

As international students, one of the questions we are often asked is why we choose to come to Helsinki. Not only when applying but also during our time in the Department of Chemistry we are asked, more often than not, to explain how we decided to leave what is often a warmer climate for the frozen north. This question often comes from a sincere fascination from the side of the asker rather than judgment or an attempt to establish our purpose here.   

In my opinion, the question is indicative of the fact that many of those who have not seen much beyond the University of Helsinki fail to understand exactly what makes it such a special place. As the Department of Chemistry, we should be much prouder of what we have and seek to share our good fortune with a wider audience.  

Who am I?  

I think that in order to best explain myself, my context is worth describing. I started my college education in a tiny liberal arts college in the small city of Middelburg in the southwest of the Netherlands. While the education I received there was of a high standard, its size made the availability of resources limited, which forces students of the scientific persuasion specifically to seek opportunities outside the university.   

 In my third and final year of my bachelor’s program, I began to consider where I might go next. The availability of master’s programs in English are not as widespread as one might expect within the field of chemistry. Even within the Netherlands, a country well known for its significant population of international students, the master’s programs available are specialized in chemical engineering or in biobased/medicinal chemistry.   

The same can be said for the other European nations, with many offering chemistry in their native tongue only; those that do offer English-language programs are often highly specialized. The Nordic countries stand in stark contrast to that trend, which led me to consider several universities in Finland, Sweden, and Denmark at the time. Sadly, when it came time to apply it had become clear that the shortcomings of my bachelor’s degree would make success at these universities challenging.   

 To reach the standards set by the University of Helsinki specifically, I applied to KU Leuven, which offered me an opportunity to attend the chemistry courses that I was missing. I am thankful for the KU Leuven for the time I spent there and for the scientific knowledge I gained, but primarily for showing me what I did not desire in my education.   

I do not wish to speak ill of what is by all accounts a worthy institution; different people simply have different preferences. What I will say is that my impression in Leuven is that you are inconsequential as a student. There were many more like you in the eyes of the professor, and your contribution mattered little, if at all. This opinion was not based only from my personal experience but was also shared by several other international peers; some left halfway through their master’s degrees for those very reasons.   

Helsinki is worth it because…  

To put this more concisely: Helsinki is everything my former alma maters were not. One aspect of the master’s program here that I am often quick to praise when asked is the degree of freedom we are granted as students by the university, with the understanding that learning is just as much about making choices as it is about making mistakes. This freedom comes both in the form of what we study as well as in what order. The former makes the program far more diverse, inviting students who seek to build their very own skillset within chemistry or even between several departments, because the world of tomorrow requires interdisciplinary thinkers who are not limited by just one academic field.   

 Secondly, and in contrast to the stereotype of the Finnish being cold and distant, the professors and staff at the department are approachable because they are unafraid to show that they are human. This matters to students more than you might assume. Feeling at ease in front of an instructor means you are more likely to ask questions and engage with a topic from genuine desire rather than for the purpose of achieving a certain grade.  

 Another reason why I feel the education provided here is forward thinking is the way by which we are assessed as students. While I cannot speak for all courses, more often than not we tend to be graded not on our memorization but on our application of knowledge. The prevalence of alternatives to exams, such as presentations, demonstrates a student’s ability to process information in a new way. In cases where exams are given, open-book exams with essay-style questions indicate to students very clearly that the instructor does not care about who can memorize, but who understands what is being asked of them.   

 Finally, it would be amiss not to mention the excellent facilities the department has at its disposal. We are lucky to have labs that are well stocked and equipped with some of the latest in scientific instrumentation. This does not only include the physical building we are in, but also the vast resources that the university extends to each student and researcher within it. Nearly every publication or written media is available to us at a moment’s notice, not to mention a vast collection of software.   

And yet…  

All this brings me to the reason why I felt the need to write this op-ed. I have helped orient new international students twice, and every time I am surprised by the small number of students that arrive at the department. Based on the latest numbers available, our current share of international students at the faculty of science is 10.5%. This number is even lower if we look at the university as a whole, where only 8.5% of students are international.   

 I have a hard time reconciling everything I have said above with this fact. I have wondered on more than one occasion if this is an issue of simple outreach and awareness. Do others simply not know we exist? While I find that unlikely the case, it would not hurt to increase our presence in recruitment abroad. Upon further reflection, the best explanation I could arrive at is what I have already stated from the outset: we simply do not know how good we have it here.   

 Do not misinterpret that statement as ignorance, but rather as humility on our part. Modesty is a virtue after all, and the traits mentioned so far leads me to believe that this department is simply being modest. We are content with our good fortune because we worked hard to get to where we are. I think we should be able to express that contentment with a bit more pride and confidence.   

 At least on the European stage, we are ready to educate high-calibre chemists, of which we are in dire need of. We know all too well that internationalization only makes us stronger, as diverse backgrounds foster new ideas and discoveries. Additionally, having more international students encourages collaborations and elevates the standing of the university on the world stage. Let us set out to diversify ourselves further, I would say.   

 In the same way that we are unaware of how good we have it, we are also unaware of the good we are already doing to reach this wider international audience. The department’s commitment to the Una Europa network and our ability to offer our master’s program free of tuition for the European community sends a strong signal to the EU that we seek to be a force to be reckoned with. In addition, the fact that the degree is offered fully in Finnish, Swedish, and English indicates that while the university is welcoming to an international audience, it does not forget its roots and remains Finnish at heart.   

 At the end of the day, I am but one student who feels an immense sense of gratitude to the university and specifically to the department for allowing me to mature into a much better chemist. However, I do believe that I am one student among many, as I witness my peers go on to do amazing things in large part because of their time here. Thus, to answer the question of why we chose to come here: because it has proven itself as a place worth of our time.   

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This article by Alon Nudler was originally published in Kemiauutiset2024. Kemiauutiset/Keminyheter/Chemistrynews is an annual magazine published by the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, which provides current news on studies, research, science education and introduces interesting people.