A Series of Small Hurdles
Once Aaron Yi Ding got settled in, he knew he would want to finish his PhD here–despite the weather.
When Aaron Yi Ding applied to study Computer Science at the University of Helsinki, he both did and did not know what he was getting into.
Finland was a foreign country in all senses of the word, but then again he did have some idea of what the West could be like. The problem was that his preconceived notion of open-minded, sociable people was based mostly on Americans.
— That is totally different from the culture I saw here. After I realized it, I thought 'okay,' but it confused a lot of people, especially Asian people, Mr. Ding now says.
That is not to say that his stay in Finland has not been rewarding. Mr. Ding, who turns 30 this month, came to Helsinki from Hunan, China, in 2006 to study for a Master's Degree. He graduated with excellent grades in 2009 and started immediately working towards a PhD, which he hopes to finish by 2014.
But when he arrived here, he did need some time to get accustomed to things, like the way people did not hang around to talk after class, but headed straight back home.
Breaking the ice took some effort, but he found it rewarding. For Mr. Ding the way into Finnish society was opened through work and hobbies. He participated in basketball practice with several different teams, thereby coming into contact with Finns, international students and Chinese players.
Then there was the support from the faculty he got as a student, and later on he took on various volunteer positions, e.g. in the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers.
This meant he came into contact with different kinds of people, not just his professors and other Chinese students.
— A thing I like about the teaching here is that there are a lot of interactive exercise sessions. They not only made me participate in the teaching, but I got to know how people work together as a team, Mr. Ding says.
He has also benefited from the mentoring system, which has put him in contact with various senior professors in several universities. His PhD supervisor is there to talk with him about the research, but with the mentors the subject is free.
Stuck for Six Months
Coming from outside the European Union, possibly the biggest hurdle Mr. Ding has had to clear–repeatedly– was the residence permit process. At first acquiring the necessary paperwork in China required a lot of back and forth between various governmental agencies to get the proper documents properly stamped.
He has to renew his residence permit every year, and even though the process is easier, it can still be stressful.
— Once I had to wait for almost six months. They had my passport, so I could not make any travel plans or visit home, he says.
In the nearly seven years Mr. Ding has spent here, the culture shock has mellowed. He describes his department as being 'quite international,' and has no major complaints about the way things work from day to day. Neither has he met people who would have a hostile attitude towards foreigners.
The problems that persist are in some ways minor, but also more difficult to mend.
— There might be something more subtle, alienation and some problems with integration, he says.
Mr. Ding feels that the language barrier is 'a permanent one' that can be hard to circumvent. Finnish is still the primary language in many places, few foreigners manage to learn it, and they might not have other ways of communicating with the locals.
When we get deeper into the research path and have to apply for grants or teach, most of the materials are translated into English, but they might be outdated or some parts might be missing a translation, Mr. Ding says.
On the other hand, he feels that the constant influx of tourists has improved the way the city of Helsinki presents information in languages other than Finnish.
At the time Mr. Ding got his Master's Degree, he was working at the department and doing research. He had a chance to leave the academia and join the industry, but chose to stick with the former.
His decision was greatly influenced by the fact that a very interesting research project was looming large on the horizon at the university, and he could use this research in his PhD.
Having gone through the wringer in the first few months of his studies, what with all the new people, customs, and bureaucracy, Mr. Ding knew he would not want to switch universities at that time, as that would have meant going through the same process all over again.
Mr. Ding feels his years in Finland have helped him gather academic capital and experience that will help him in the future. He has already visited several other universities and done research and development work with companies like Deutsche Telekom, Nokia, and TeliaSonera.
Now his plan is to graduate in two years and then see what opportunities are available.
— My immediate goal is to become a member of the research community and get my first position in the academy. It could be here or somewhere else, I am fine with both, he says.
Over the better half of a decade, Mr. Ding has learned to understand the Finnish psyche, but there is one thing that is still giving him trouble after all these years.
Yes, it is the weather.
— When the weather was really bad, it was dark, I was suffering of a lot of stress, I did not know that many people and felt kind of left out… When all these things got added up together, I thought 'okay, I am going to leave next year.'
But he did not.
text Olli Sulopuisto