Speech by Claes Bergh, the chair of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki, at the opening ceremony of the academic year 2020–2021 on 31 August 2020

Mr President, Mr Chancellor, Madam Rector and distinguished Vice-Rectors, members of the University community and friends of the University.

It is an honour to welcome the entire University community to embark on another academic year from this 150-year-old building dedicated to students. Already last year, the opening ceremony was exceptionally held at the Old Student House, as the renovation of our University’s Main Building had commenced. Little did we know at the time how exceptional the circumstances of the coming academic year were to be.

The past spring put enormous pressure on our University and society. In spite of the major challenges, we can take pride in how well we have coped so far. Working and studying at the University have been successfully carried on throughout the exceptional circumstances. This has required from all of us an unusual capacity for learning new things, adapting and supporting one another.

I wish to thank the students who have exceeded themselves and demonstrated remarkable flexibility in the face of uncertainty. I wish to thank the students who have stood by their friends in these hard times, as well as the people and organisations who have kept communities going after meeting in person was no longer possible. I wish to thank the University staff for their commitment to supporting students and safeguarding the University’s operations.

To all those who have experienced feelings of failure and who continue to struggle with balancing their everyday lives, I wish to say this: what you are able to do in this situation is enough. I wish for all of us the ability to be kind to ourselves, while urging each member of our community to speak about their feelings, successes and difficulties to a person close to them, a colleague or a fellow student. I hope that we in our University community will boldly try out and share ways of maintaining contact with others, of meeting and supporting one another. Together we are stronger, also at a distance.

I wish to direct my words particularly at the new members of our University community who are beginning their university studies this year. The first year of studies is a special experience. You have applied to the University and will begin your studies in circumstances that are exceptional through and through. However, these circumstances need not define your first year, nor the years following that.

A whole new stage of life is about to commence for you, and it is not to be dedicated solely to studying. A number of communities operate under our Student Union, including hobbyist organisations, student nations and subject-specific associations. Our diverse organisational field is unique, and I hope you do not hesitate to acquaint yourself with anything you find interesting. Personally, I have found my place in the StudOrg faculty organisation and the Nylands Nation student nation. In organisational activities, I have found life-long friends, love and opportunities to change the world.

Studying at university is a period during which we have the chance to learn to learn, find our personal paths and grow as human beings. As studies continue to be completed remotely in the autumn, we are lucky that the University provides us with a community, alongside a location, for our growth.

Early this year, new strategic plans were approved for both the University and the Student Union, putting into words our central values and setting a path forward for us. Although the strategic plans were separately drawn up, I find it wonderful to see how similar the values and goals of us students are to those of the rest of the University community. Both plans rest on inclusivity and engagement. The idea is that each member of the academic community is equally valuable, can consider themselves part of our community and have a say in its development. In these times of physical distancing, I believe the significance of these values shines brighter.

The democratic decision-making conducted at the University is one of the finest signs of both inclusivity and engagement, with each member of the community having the opportunity to influence and personally make decisions concerning our community. Much like the world in general, the University will never be completed, and perspectives from all of us are needed for its development. As a student union, we are calling for making our decision-making increasingly equal by adopting a democratic tripartite system where the different groups of the University community have equal representation in decision-making. Our community needs genuine democracy where no single group has more votes and power than the rest.

This autumn, students have twice the number of opportunities to influence the activities of both their degree programmes and the Student Union. In September, all students can seek membership as a student representative in the steering group of their degree programme, where they can have a say in key matters that have a tangible effect in students’ everyday lives. Acting as a student representative also serves as a lesson in many useful general skills, opening a more in-depth perspective on University operations as well.                    

Elections for the Student Union's Representative Council will be held in late October and early November. All University students, who are also our members, have the right to vote and stand for election. The council is a parliament for the Student Union where 60 students make decisions on how to spend the organisation’s funds and what to focus on in its operations.

Make the best of the new academic year and enjoy everything that student life has to offer. Look out for each other, as in these exceptional circumstances we need one another more than ever before. Together, we make the University what it is.

I wish you all a good new academic year!