Feature / Summer 2003
The Finnish Connection

Begun in the aftermath of war, U of T’s oldest student exchange is just the ticket for 21st-century learning


Finland in the summer: Is there a better place to be young and far from home? “There’s 20 hours of sunshine and four hours of twilight,” says Bruce Emerson (BA 1989 UTM), a technical writer in Toronto. “In Helsinki there is something going on almost every night. And for whatever reason, Finland is a magnet for foreign students – and not just from Europe.”

Touching the Arctic Circle, renowned for its sparkling lakes and long, cold winters, Finland could be Canada’s transatlantic alter ego. And the two countries have one more thing in common: a venerable U of T student exchange program that has changed dozens of lives in both countries – and could serve as a model for new initiatives in lifelong learning and international studies.

Since 1951, the Hart House Finnish Exchange has sent 95 U of T students to Finland and welcomed 108 Finns to Canada. While the numbers may be small, the impact has been huge. U of T students have returned with global work experience and a lifelong interest in Finnish relations, while Finnish students have returned from Canada feeling more confident about themselves and their place in the world.

And of course there has been romance. Gordon West (BASc 1955, MA 1957, PhD 1960) met Katri Hagan at a dance in Finland in 1959; a year later he returned to Helsinki to attend an international geophysical congress and claim his bride. Two years ago, Bruce Emerson returned to Savonlinna, a medieval castle town in Finland’s Lake District, to celebrate the exchange’s 50th anniversary with 30 other former participants. There he asked his girlfriend, Margaret Davis, to marry him. “I wanted to propose in a place that was spectacular and memorable,” he says. “When I saw Savonlinna the first time, it was bathed in moonlight. To me, it was the most romantic place in the world.”

The magic works both ways. “I fell in love with Canada at first sight,” says Nina Lindroos-Kopolo, a Finn who took part in the 1984 exchange. “I didn’t really know much about the country and what to expect. I loved the different ethnic communities, the possibility of buying fresh bread at 11 o’clock at night from a Portuguese bakery, the feeling of freedom and space.” She returned for several summers to work and travel across Canada.

The most celebrated alumnus of the Finnish exchange is probably actor Donald Sutherland (BA 1958 Victoria). Succeeding groups of students hear the story – which may even be true – that the pea jacket he wore in the 1970 film MASH was a souvenir of his exchange to Finland in 1955.

The arrival of eight Finnish students in Toronto this June marked the start of the 14th round of biennial exchanges. “It is likely the longest-running non-academic international exchange at the University of Toronto, and possibly in all of Canada,” says Miranda Cheng (BSc 1990 St. Michael’s), director of the university’s International Student Exchange Office.

The program traces its roots to 1950, when the Men’s Choir of the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT) sang at Hart House during a fundraising tour. The choir’s leader suggested that house warden Nicholas Ignatieff lead a student group to Finland to help rebuild HUT, which had been largely destroyed during the war. Ignatieff thought the opportunity fit Hart House’s mission of helping students learn outside the classroom. The following year, “he rounded up a number of us who were active in the house to go over,” says Bill Harris (BA 1953 Trinity, LLD 1986). The group took a bus to Norfolk, Va., where they boarded a freighter to Sweden.

“The Finns were somewhat surprised to learn that we had actually taken up their offer,” says Harris. “We soon realized that Finnish students did not get directly involved in actual construction. Instead, our hosts showed us around the country.” But it wasn’t all fun and games; Harris’s group helped build a sauna at the university’s new campus in Otaniemi. (Three years later, the first Finnish exchangers built the sauna at Hart House Farm.)

The first Finnish participants from HUT were mainly technical types, who worked in Canada at jobs in forest products or architecture. By the early 1960s, three more Helsinki universities joined the exchange. Before long, Finland was also sending women participants (this came as a shock to Hart House, which didn’t become fully co-ed until 1972).

Exchanges now take place every two years, with the previous round’s members acting as hosts to the next group of travellers. Every four years, Hart House sends eight students to Finland for a memorable summer that includes a two-week orientation – one week in Helsinki, one touring the country. Students also work for eight weeks, normally landing jobs related to their studies or interests.

The preparations are demanding, but not overwhelming. “Since Canadians only come to Finland every four years, it helps keep it special, like the Olympic Games, so students here will work hard to get ready,” says Erkki Tikkanen, a management consultant in Helsinki who participated in the 1967 exchange. “If the exchange happened every year, like the world championships, it would not be so special and would be harder to do.”

The Finnish experience has left an indelible impression on many participants. Returned members created an academic exchange with Finland in the early 1970s, and supported the 1985 Canadian premiere of Jan Sibelius’s opera Kullervo at Roy Thomson Hall. In 1989 they helped U of T establish Canada’s first full-time Finnish studies program.

Seeing Canada has also influenced Finnish participants. “I was interested in other countries and cultures, but the exchange strengthened it,” says Lindroos-Kopolo. “After coming back to Finland, I became a member of the board of the Finnish-Canadian Society. And when an opportunity to work abroad arose, I seized it.” In 1990 she joined the United Nations Industrial Development Organization to oversee industrial development projects in Sri Lanka.

Unlike many international exchanges, the Finnish exchange is a student-run, person-to-person enterprise. It’s up to past members (in Finland) or those chosen to go (in Canada) to raise funds, find jobs and organize hospitality for the next group. “The exchange has lived on for so long due to its uniqueness,” says Lindroos-Kopolo. “It builds strong ties between the organizing groups on both sides of the Atlantic for an extended time. When you return home, you wish to offer the next group the same positive experiences you enjoyed.”

For Jeff Bickert, those positive vibes were enough to keep him in Helsinki for 17 years. “I became totally intrigued with the Finnish way of life,” he says. Indeed, he so loved his 1985 exchange that he stayed in Finland, abandoning his U of T Slavic Studies program. “It was such a relief to find a country outside of the hyper, consumer-driven world of North America.”

While one-third of U of T participants continue to support the exchange financially, funding is a constant problem. Although they are paid for their work, students’ wages mainly cover their expenses, leaving nothing left over for next year’s tuition. “Financially, my summer was more or less break-even,” says Lisa Douglas (MLS 1985, LLB 1991). “In fact, I later had to apply for an emergency bursary to get through the year. But the summer was worth it.”

Indeed, the most consistent thread connecting members is how the exchange opened their eyes to the world. “It was my first international experience,” says Robin Rix (BA 1999 UC), a member of the 1997 exchange. “By permitting me to travel, work and live in a foreign country, the exchange helped me adopt a more global outlook that later resulted in my decision to study in the United Kingdom.” (He recently returned to U of T to study law.)

Similar sentiments echo even from the inaugural exchange. “It was my first trip overseas,” says Bill Harris. “Travelling around Finland with the group made me feel more comfortable as a Canadian dealing with other people in their country. Later, when I was studying in Oxford, I didn’t feel the need to stick together with the other Canadian students. After I returned home from England, had it not been for the exchange, it’s possible I would have lost touch with the university.” Instead, Harris went on to serve as chairman of the Board of Governors and vice-chair of the Governing Council.

In a set of green papers on U of T’s future academic priorities issued earlier this year, provost Shirley Neuman set out the university’s commitment to enhance the student experience, create more learning opportunities outside the classroom and encourage international perspectives. Proponents of all three concepts could learn much from the success of the Finnish exchange. “It is so well conceived,” says Hart House warden Margaret Hancock (BA 1971 Victoria, MEd 1992). “Through travelling and working together, a group of students connect with one another so that when they return they are eager to keep the exchange going. It has a timeless appeal because people love to be with other people. All of us want that experience of living in a true community.”

Hands Across the Sea
As a participant in the 1968 Hart House Finnish Exchange, I was promised a summer job in Finland related to my field of study. Since I was studying Chinese history, I just told them to find me outdoor work.

The Finnish exchange committee found me a job with Metsahallitus, the Finnish National Forestry Service. While most participants worked in and around Helsinki, I toiled in the bush at a camp in Lapland, on the border with the Soviet Union; you could see the Russian guard tower in the distance. My job was to weed out the birch trees from the more valuable evergreens – with a machete! For the first few days my supervisors forgot to give me work gloves, so my hands were soon covered with blisters.

When my Finnish hosts saw my hands, they were aghast. They promptly told the Forestry Service people that I was not to do any real labour. I was disappointed, because that meant I was moved to a new camp, where I counted seedlings in boxes.

Somehow, my legend lived on. Years later at a Hart House reception, I met former Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Brewer (BA 1966 St. Michael’s), who coached the Finnish national hockey team in the early 1970s. When I told him I had spent a summer in Finland, he responded, “Oh, you’re the kid with the hands.

Ken Mark (BA 1969 UC, MA 1970) is a Toronto writer and a veteran of the 1968 Finnish Exchange.


Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, Not for Publication
optional, eg: BSc 2008

Next story in this issue: »
Previous story in this issue: «