The following speech was delivered by Vesna Holubek during Tatte’s May Day celebration on April 28, 2023. The speech was written to be read, and it is presented here with minimal editing.
It’s really nice to participate in this gathering. And as we gather to celebrate May Day, in person, here on campus, we are reminded of the importance of being able to gather as a university community. The benefits of the university community are especially clear in the post-pandemic times and in the context of the ongoing “campus development” changes. So, in my speech, I would like to say couple of words about community.
Building communities at university is a spontaneous process, as we gather, discuss, and plan our research, our teaching and interaction with communities beyond the university. But building and maintaining a community is also a conscious, planned effort, and it requires us, community members to engage with the community. It also requires an organisational environment that facilitates community efforts.
Being a member of a smaller or a larger academic community can inspire us to think and to do better as researchers, as teachers, as knowledge workers. Being excluded or unwelcome in a community is not a nice feeling. So I hope you all feel you belong to some community at Tampere universities.
Now, I would like to bring forth one perspective of our university community – the perspective of members with international background. In our study last year, we asked university members with international backgrounds, how they experience their everyday work in this community. I will not summarise the study findings, you can read them on Tatte’s website, but I would like to bring the study participants’ experiences to this gathering by telling you a short story, a vignette of the study. Here it goes:
A new email arrives saying – congratulations, you have been accepted to the doctoral programme at Tampere University! Welcome to Finland! Proud and excited, this soon-to-be doctoral researcher shares the good news with their family and friends, as they start planning their relocation to Finland. The paperwork with the embassy takes surprisingly long – maybe because it’s an application from a non-EU-citizen. But eventually the residence permit is sorted out and the researcher can travel to Finland. Without their family though; the family will accompany them in couple of months when their permits are approved.
The first months in Finland are exciting and challenging. Many things needed to be figured out – apartment, registration with the officials, health insurance, bank account, taxes, bus card, and so on. And then the new school for the children when they arrive. Oh, and then, figuring out the things at the university – university account, access to the research space, university systems for researchers, university systems for students, finding out whom to contact for what – generally figuring out how things are done around here, at the university and in Finland. Many things are unclear which causes a lot of stress. The researcher is trying to focus on the research, but most of their time is spent on browsing different intranet pages trying to find information – information available in English… The supervisor and other doctoral researchers are supportive and willing to help, but they don’t know the practicalities themselves. Surely someone at the university can help with these practicalities? Ultimately the researcher alone needs to somehow find things out.
Two months later, the researcher is still not sure if they can get an office space for their research work. There might have been some email about this, or was it discussed in the faculty meeting – difficult to be sure when not understanding Finnish so well.
Fast forward to eight months later, research is going well, and there are many inspiring colleagues that the researcher learns from. Kids are adjusting to the new school, but the partner is having difficulty to find a job in their profession even though they are trying their best – they are attending a Finnish language course and it feels like it will take several years to reach the language proficiency needed on a professional level. Nonetheless, they stay hopeful as they join several programmes aiming at helping people with international backgrounds to find employment in Finland.
In their supervisory meeting, the supervisor asks the researcher about their future career plans. Do they plan to stay in Finland? Are they aiming for a career at Tampere University? And if yes, did they consider learning Finnish? – How to respond, thinks the researcher, and not to sound insecure? How to explain that they enjoy the research and cooperation with their colleagues, and that they could see themselves at this university in the future – But at the same time, they feel they will not be able to learn Finnish on an academic level, they can’t see themselves teaching and publishing in Finnish, so, in that case, is it even possible to get a permanent contract here? Do they even have enough teaching experience? And there’s research funding to be considered, will they receive a new research grant? And how about the family members, do they see themselves in Finland in the future? – It’s difficult to make career plans with so many moving parts…
At the moment, the researcher would like to focus on the research – working in a research group is inspiring, and it’s a fascinating project that will advance scientific knowledge. But first, the researcher needs to apply for new funding for doing research next year, as their current grant ends this year. Let’s just hope that the grant ending will not have a negative effect on their next application for extending the permit to reside in Finland…
This story is not the whole story; it’s not a story of a specific person, and not everyone has these experiences. But many will recognise themselves in some parts of it. The aim of my storytelling is to illustrate the feeling of being ‘lost in translation’ and being somewhere between belonging and not belonging to the university community. The story also illustrates the many moving parts that the international members of the university community might be juggling as they try to find their path for growth and career development in Finland. Competition for research funding, short-term contracts or grants, and many other uncertainties in the academic career – these are something that, unfortunately, most of us struggle with in today’s academia in Finland and worldwide. But these uncertainties may have a harsher effect on international members because their right to reside in Finland is linked to their work contract. And let’s not forget that different sets of uncertainties and expectations may come with different job positions in different career stages – for example participating in decision-making bodies and working groups at the university, participating in curriculum development, working with scholarly societies or with other external partners. Building a career with so many moving parts can indeed feel overwhelming.
There are ways in which the university can help, and we outlined a set of recommendations based on the study. These recommendations we propose to the university are also available on Tatte’s website.
But I would like to conclude here with a reminder that it is ultimately up to us, the university community, to address these thorny issues of language practices, internationalisation, and equal participation in Finnish academia. We are the university, and we can create an inclusive and democratic university community.
So I would like to invite all of you to contribute to creating this community in such a way that we can all feel that we belong as we are. Only we as a community can do that. Or as an African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.
Thank you Tatte for organising this community gathering. Happy May Day everyone! Hyvää Vappua!
Information on Tatte’s research and recommendations regarding support for international members can be found here on our website: