Lauren Stevens is a dual citizen of Britain and Finland currently living in Tampere with her Finnish wife. She moved to Finland in 2015, ready to start her family life and pursue a Master’s degree in Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research. Despite the incredible amount of effort she has dedicated to integrating into her new country, today she’s still struggling to answer the question: “Was it all worth it?”
QUESTION: What brought you to Finland to stay?
ANSWER: I was born and raised in Britain. In 2015, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies from the University of Chester. I met my Finnish partner (now my wife) during her Erasmus exchange. As the relationship developed, we looked at the possibility of living together in the same country. I also wanted to get a master’s degree, and my wife Maria encouraged me to apply to universities in Finland. I was accepted in Tampere, and Maria found a job here.
Q: What was your initial perception of the country?
A: I arrived at Helsinki airport on 17th of December 2012. My initial thought was: “Where is everybody?” Now when I visit Britain, I’m shocked by the number of people there. (laughs).
Q: How was the initial integration process?
A: I took a lot of initiative to participate in various networks out of my comfort zone to meet people and learn new skills. I was motivated to learn Finnish so that I could communicate with my wife’s family. I extended my master’s degree by 2 years to participate in 17 Finnish language courses alongside my degree at Tampere University. Teachers showed flexibility and the university supported my language learning.
I often felt that there was a division between international and Finnish students. I tried to bridge myself in between the two and occasionally felt like an outsider
Q: Did you also find support from the authorities?
A: From the Finnish authorities’ side, I don’t feel that I’ve received a lot of support. Getting involved in student associations was challenging because many of them predominantly used Finnish. The food menu at the student restaurant often was available in Finnish only. I’m a vegetarian and I once accidentally bought a chicken meal! I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that international students, especially exchange students will learn Finnish unless they are really interested in the language. I often felt that there was a division between international and Finnish students. I tried to bridge myself in between the two and occasionally felt like an outsider. The university did its best with the orientation weeks, but after that, it fizzled out.
Q: What are your career ambitions and goals?
A: My long-term goal is to find a full-time job with a permanent contract in a non-governmental organisation or intergovernmental organisation related to development cooperation and peacekeeping. I want a stable employment situation so I can settle down and start a family.
Job search in Finland
Q: What is your experience with the Finnish job market?
A: Shocking. After my graduation last June, I was excited to get my career started. First, I applied to jobs that I was really interested in. Then I set a goal of sending 5 applications every day for almost any kind of work. In December, I went to Helsinki for my first graduate interview (in Finnish) to work in a warehouse! One month later, after numerous emails and phone calls, I was informed that I didn’t get the job. I wasn’t given any feedback. Altogether, I’ve sent around 500 applications in almost one year after graduating from Tampere University with a master’s degree.
Assuming that job seekers are just lazy was a weird attitude and fairly demotivating to say the least. I cried after that meeting
Q: And with the employment services?
A: Last July, I registered as a job seeker with TE-toimisto. My first direct contact with them was in September when I attended a compulsory meeting in Finnish at their office in Tampere. The information presented was not particularly useful to me as someone who wants to work in an international non-governmental organisation rather than a local business. I wanted to check some of the vocabulary used in the presentation, so I used the dictionary app on my phone. One of the hosts said: “No wonder you’re all unemployed. You spend all day scrolling social media. Can you please put your phones away?” Assuming that job seekers are just lazy was a weird attitude and fairly demotivating to say the least. I cried after that meeting.
Q: Did you attend other meetings after that?
A: My wife encouraged me to go see a career counsellor at TE-toimisto. I waited for two months, and finally got an appointment in January this year. The counsellor looked over my CV and said: “I need to tell you something. I don’t know why this Master’s degree is offered in Tampere because there aren’t many opportunities for graduates of that field in Finland. Do you want to study something else?” I replied: “No, I’m already 27 years old. I want to work and have a family one day.”
Q: What challenges do you see in obtaining a full-time job related to your education?
A: A lack of opportunities in English related to my career aspirations due to the limited presence of international organisations in Finland, the closed-mindedness of employers and recruiters, and too many unpaid positions. Another challenge is the assumption that I can’t speak Finnish based on my name and background despite my certifications and citizenship.
Q: You mentioned that there are plenty of unpaid positions, is this kind of work valued by Finnish recruiters?
A: No. I don't know whether it’s the way I communicate it or that recruiters mostly value paid work. My whole CV is full of different initiatives. Through volunteering, I learned how to network, organise events, raise awareness of developmental and environmental issues in the world, and work in different languages with people from a multitude of backgrounds. When it comes to the interview, I have a lot to say regarding my volunteering experiences. But when it comes to writing the application, many recruiters seem to disregard the value of volunteering work.
Q: Have you experienced other difficulties caused by cross-cultural miscommunication?
A: I filled in an application in English for a study grant provided by Kela in 2015. My wife helped me with it. The reply came in Finnish. I could understand a few words, but not the entire meaning. I showed it to her. She told me that my application was rejected because there was not enough evidence that I moved to Finland for family reasons. We appealed it. We printed out all the photos we took together, all bank transactions between each other, everything you can imagine, and sent them to Kela.
Q: And what did Kela say?
A: They responded that those in same-sex relationships are only considered as spouses if they are in a registered partnership. We weren’t in a registered partnership because we wanted to get married. It just got to the point where we would have had to seek legal support to pursue it further. Unfortunately, we had neither the money nor the energy to do so.
Cross-cultural miscommunication isn’t only affecting immigrants, but also their spouses. It puts a significant strain on the relationship
Q: What was it like dealing with Finnish bureaucracy?
A: There was a lot of miscommunication with Kela. It was unfortunate to experience being in the home country of my wife and seeing her home country making things so difficult for me. It has not only given me a bad impression of bureaucracy management here, but it has also caused both of us a lot of stress. My wife supported us financially while I was trying to get a study grant or find a job. Finnish government should consider that cross-cultural miscommunication isn’t only affecting immigrants, but also their spouses. It puts a significant strain on the relationship.
Q: So what is your overall impression of your experience?
A: I've dedicated a lot of effort and energy to integration and sometimes, it almost felt as if Finland has responded with a big 'F**k you'. After becoming a job seeker, I had moments when I felt like I could despise Finland. I hate to say this because Finland has given me so much. And I have also given Finland a lot back in return. I don’t want to let my negative experiences with job seeking, Kela, and TE-toimisto change my affection for the country. Only recently, things have started to look positive for me.
Q: What do you love about the country?
A: That it’s not too crowded and it’s a great place for cyclists. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian food options. I appreciate the general attitude towards the environment. Some consider the younger generations in the Nordic countries to speak the highest level of non-native English in the world. People appear to be more genuine compared to Britain. Nature is amazingly beautiful, especially during summer and winter. The welfare system is good. It’s an excellent place to be for the LGBT+ community.
Q: Do you have a message for anyone considering moving to Finland?
A: The country is awesome. Learning the language will help you to integrate more easily. But you might have to lower your standards and accept jobs that aren’t necessarily related to your interests, skills, or education. It’s down to you to decide whether it’s all worth it.