How do we embrace outsiders in student life? Some reflections on integration night held by CISSI

Text: Chau, Meng-Han, edit: Maria Luhtaniemi, picture: Aune Sanz

CISSI, also known as Organization of International Social Scientists, is a student organization that organizes events that integrate international students with Finnish students and facilitates dialogue between different Finnish organizations. On the 27th of September 2016, CISSI held a meeting with other student organizations from Faculty of Social Sciences. The meeting was in reference to a survey designed and collected by Maria Luhtaniemi, CISSI’s integration specialist, about experiences regarding respondents’ student life as international students.

The survey consists of 7 questions with 10 to 12 responses, below would be some excerpts from the survey so we can have a glimpse of what people think.

When asked what kinds of things make you feel excluded, 8 of 10 people mentioned the language barrier. The language barrier has serious consequences, just as one respondent mentioned, “It is close to impossible to get a job or an internship when you are not a native speaker. To see how domestic students can build up a career, have job experiences during their studies but how for you [an international student] it is just not possible no matter how hard you try, makes you feel very much excluded. The University of Helsinki does not really make an effort to change that situation!”

One respondent said that after becoming the chair of a student organization he/she felt even more excluded than before. “There were no English instructions for many things, the calendar to book halls in the new student house is totally in Finnish and some user trainings are only in Finnish. It made me feel like the University does not expect international students will ever be active in student organization life and when they are, they are encouraging only on paper. In practice, not so much,” the respondent shares.

Regarding student organizations, most of the respondents thought they didn’t get enough information. “I guess it’s because of two reasons: the organization of student life in my country is different, so I was feeling a bit lost at first. But also because a lot of them are mostly in Finnish. And even though they make a description in English, at the actual organization there are mostly Finns so they won’t suddenly change the speaking language and the whole organization to English,” one respondent writes.

One of the responses mentioned another serious issue that probably could not be solved by limited efforts from student organizations. “The moment you go out and want to socialize is the exact moment when you know that no one really wants to socialize much (with you). It’s not just among Finns (who I sort of understand) but other ”international” (which is a term that should not be used to describe other Europeans in my humble opinion” students from Germany, France, or wherever in Europe they are from prefer to hang around with their own language groups (or regional groups), which makes it very difficult. I did some experimenting with this in various social events, social apps and I’ve realised that, as long as I look ”different” (non-European), I will always be excluded from most things. It is the simple truth and there is no hiding or denying it. Most Finns I’ve met are very friendly once I got to know them. They open up to outsiders more than the others I’ve met,” a non-European respondent writes.

It’s fair to say that most of the participants at the meeting agreed that from the survey and their own experiences there are definitely things that need to be improved. Some concrete suggestions were also expressed through the survey. For example more English information for events would benefit everyone. As one respondent writes, “More content in English, reach out to internationals more, tutors should encourage their international tutees to go to events held by Finnish organizations and likewise, Finnish students be encouraged to join events by CISSI so that we don’t separate internationals from the rest of the student body.” One respondent also mentioned that international students should be more active in asserting their positions and also reaching out to student organizations more actively.

After the meeting, all the organizations agreed to create an action plan that would serve to be a document that would first define what the problems are and then seek possible solutions to them. The action plan will be created in collaboration with all the organizations. To me, this evening was a small step towards addressing the integration problem and to tearing down the barrier between students with different nationalities. In a broader sense, the meeting called for asking a crucial question that has now become more relevant than ever:  “How do we live with people that are different from us in the same community?” The fact that we had a meeting and discussed how to address this problem was probably politics in its purest form. This is probably how political life started in ancient Greek if I may boldly suggest.

There has been some progress in integration, for example student organizations are starting to post in both English and Finnish in social media more often. There is no way that one meeting could overturn the present situation that reflected in the survey. It’s more like a promise or commitment that could only reveal its own worthiness through each of us to be a little bit more conscious in our daily political life. I would like to recall one of passage in Weber’s famous “Politics as Vocation” speech: “Only the person who is sure that he will not despair when the world, from his standpoint of view, is too simple minded and wicked to accept what he has to offer, and only the person is able to say ‘In Spite of it All!’ has the calling for the profession of Politics!”