“Why Finland?” The question I expected from overbearing family, concerned friends, and the odd psychiatrist, actually, has most often been derived from the incredulous Finns themselves. After all, what rationally minded, 30-year old American would pull up stakes and hop the pond to an out of the way northern European country? For maritime school no less!
The truth is I didn’t know where I might land when the bug – a pre-midlife crisis – for a life change started gnawing. My only steering mark was a total avoidance of the office. The infinite power of the internet launched my quest. Where universities from Romania to Kazakhstan failed to respond to my inquiries (and the UK was too expensive), a small university in southwest Finland was more than ready to answer my every question. The program head himself even provided some insight into the shipping industry. Moreover, Novia University of Applied Sciences presented a sleek, user friendly website that eventually walked me through the application, acceptance, and immigration processes.
"Finally – and most importantly – no silly uniforms"
Naturally, it’s a quandary to some as to why I didn’t attend a U.S. academy. Admittedly, that would’ve been a much simpler endeavor. However, studying abroad has both apparent and implicit benefits. For instance, the industry is inherently international, so being immersed in such an environment builds necessary awareness and tolerance. Beyond that, the Standards for Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) convention ensures I receive the same training in Finland as I would in any other member state. That will be important later when navigating the job market. Finally – and most importantly – no silly uniforms.
It has not all been, pardon the pun, smooth sailing. The expected culture shock of moving to a different country unexpectedly came in the form of a different educational process. Notably, I was accustomed to a system where the student chose his courses and program map. Moreover, I had no idea a majority of the courses would last just a week or two. Perhaps most peculiar has been the treatment of the students. From affordable housing options to subsidized cafeteria lunches, the Finnish mentality in regard to education seems to be one of support - quite opposite from the student debt culture I left back in the U.S.
"The education takes place in a modern training center"
Having never attended a maritime university elsewhere, I cannot compare Novia’s program. That said, the program displays some admirable attributes. To begin, Novia is partnered with Aboa Mare Training Center, meaning I receive the same quality of instruction from the same cadre as Finnish private and public sector seafarers. On the topic of cadre, since the education takes place in a modern training center – as opposed to a stuffy, ivy-covered university building- the teachers match their surroundings; a majority are former officers with decades of experience behind them. So, while some may be a bit rough around the edges, at least I’m assured the ground truth of the industry from professional sources.
To be fair, there are some shortfalls here. For instance, most courses are offered only once a year leading to a “now or never” situation. Also, this type of scheduling severely limits progressing faster in the program. That issue has somewhat been addressed with a propensity towards e-learning, however as a traditionalist, I prefer lectures and a bit of the Socratic method. Such a bias might evolve from a love of linguistics, which every lecture is chock-full of given the three languages – Finnish, Swedish, and English – that most of the instructors throw around to ensure comprehensive student understanding.
"The professional environment of Aboa Mare has led to several partnerships outside of the national placement system"
Aside from these pros and cons, the crowning mark of any maritime academy is its practical training. Unlike some academies where students are sponsored by a shipping company, Finnish academies fall under a nationwide system that pairs students with Finnish flagged vessels. Effectively, this presents the opportunity to gain experience on anything from a Ro-Ro ship to an icebreaker. Although it is worth noting, being a non-Finn (and non-European) can restrict some placements due mostly in part to bunkering in Russia. However, the professional environment of Aboa Mare has led to several partnerships outside of the national placement system. Because I walked into this field completely ignorant, I’m quite pleased to be free to explore a multitude of ship types.
For those unaware, this Baltic Sea nation furnishes a lengthy seafaring history. Whilst not in contention with the British and Spanish sea giants from days of yore, Finns have been no strangers to the maritime environment. Fast-forward a couple of centuries and now there are major shipyards up and down the west coast churning out ships. Not willing to let the industries grow stale, Finnish marine companies continuously innovate to stay on the cutting edge with inventions like azipod propulsion and the Wärtsilä 31 diesel engine. But I’m no expert. Thankfully, one of the best maritime museums, the Forum Marinum, is right down the street from the university.
As for living in Finland, if I didn’t find something to complain about then I wouldn’t be properly assimilating to the culture. The culture, I should mention, that embraces just about anything the rest of Western society has collectively labelled negatively: extreme temperatures (from the sauna to ice swimming), salty licorice, long silences, and underselling every national pride out of sheer humbleness. So, while the days are cold and dark and a decent pint might cost 8€, I still have managed to find plenty of endearing aspects in this country.
"When a Finn asks me “why Finland?”, I can answer as a middle-aged American undergoing a reeducation for a drastic career shift “why not?”
Thinly veiled under a veneer of IKEA furniture and Scandinavian-styled social security, a raw, earthy people still connect with nature on a regular basis. This preference towards the outdoors and general tranquility speaks to a bygone era, to those “good old days”. For me, it feels like home. Perhaps that’s a byproduct of the Finnish culture of embracing the unpopular; it leads to a sense of acceptance. That is to say, when a Finn asks me “why Finland?”, I can answer as a middle-aged American undergoing a reeducation for a drastic career shift “why not?”. And for them, as well as for me, that’s just fine.
Trevor F. Yoak
Maritime Management Student - Novia UAS