Anne Karjalainen spent the fall semester as a study abroad student from Finland's University of Turku. In the narrative below, Karjalainen describes her experience at SHSU, the things that she learned and what it was like to be in America for the first time. She will resume her studies in Finland in the spring.
I had the honor to be the first student from the University of Turku, Finland, to partake in the study abroad program between Sam Houston State University and my university. I am majoring in English and minoring in German and Swedish; after graduation I would like to work as a language teacher in high school. Here at Sam Houston I took both American history and English classes. Language residency in an English-speaking country is a requirement for English majors at my university, but that was not the main reason for my decision to spend a semester abroad; I have always liked travelling, and student exchange is a perfect way to meet people from all over the world and learn about new cultures. I had never been to the U.S. before, and I wanted to find out how accurate the pictures of America and Americans as seen in news programs, American television shows and movies actually were.
I arrived in Houston in August, when the temperature was at its highest and unbearable even to Texans themselves; heat like this was something I had never experienced before. Classes had not started yet, and I never saw anyone walking outside before it got cooler in the evenings. The summers in Finland are rather short, and when the temperature rises above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, it is considered a heat wave. So, for me, the Texas weather was amazing. I used to walk to campus with a big smile on my face, and I spent my spare time at the pool trying to absorb as much sunlight as possible. When I stayed inside during the daytime, it felt like I was wasting sunshine that was supposed to be stored for the winter. This phase lasted for about a month until I realized that the sun was not going to disappear any time soon. The feeling of wasting the sunlight never really went away, though; I think it is a part the Scandinavian worldview.
Other things that I immediately liked were the lovely campus area, the staff and the atmosphere on campus. There was always someone to ask for help, and both the staff and the students were glad to give advice and support if there was something unclear. During my first days, I heard about the “southern hospitality.” It became clear pretty quickly that this was not a myth, but that people really wanted to make my stay as nice as possible. There were always people around who would drive me to grocery store and other places, and I cannot even count the times of hearing people say, “Just let me know if you need anything. I mean it.”
This is a feature that I love about Texans. Hopefully I can take some of it back to Finland, and I will launch it as “northern hospitality” there.
Before I arrived here, I was told that there was no public transportation in Huntsville at all. This was something that was really hard to believe, but I thought that there must be something, maybe a bus running once an hour or at least once a day. Sometimes I heard a loud car driving past me and thought that it was a bus passing me by. Each time one passed me I was surprised the “bus” was actually a truck (as loud as and almost as big as a bus). But to be quite honest, I learned to like the scary-looking, giant trucks, and I even caught myself taking pictures of them. Maybe trucks, for a non-Texan, are an acquired taste and had I stayed here longer, I would have been soon driving one myself. But, the lack of public transportation is something that the state could make improvements in.
So, going back to the image of Americans conveyed by the media, some negative stereotypes I had heard before I got here were: “They are selfish. They know nothing about the world outside of America. They are superficial.” Southern hospitality disproved the first belief. And their knowledge of the world? In some cases, there might be some need for reviewing the world map. Then again, this applies to many people outside of the States, too. The third belief, about Americans being superficial, felt true at first, perceived from a Finnish perspective of conversational behavior. Talking with people and always receiving a big laugh with “that is so funny” as an answer made me think that they were not paying attention at all. However, after noticing that for most people it was just a way of showing they were listening to what you are saying (which a Finn who wanted to show agreement that they were listening would probably show it by filling the conversation with awkward-feeling silence). I realized that the third stereotype was based on conversational differences rather than superficiality of Americans.
I have no regrets that I chose Sam Houston as my study abroad university. I will go back home with many new experiences and memories. I have learned a lot about different cultures, met people from every continent and hopefully learned something about myself, too. I will miss the weather, “southern hospitality,” and even the bus-trucks. Most of all I will miss the new great friends I have made during the past four months.
For other international students I want to say: Never forget how brave you are for having taken the challenge of living in a foreign country and, also, how lucky you are for having the chance to do it. For local Sam Houston students a few encouraging words: Go, explore and enjoy the world!
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