Find yourself in Lapland

Gergana Alekova, Belgium


When Belgium girl Gigi heard about the place with the Northern Lights and husky safaris, she had no doubts on leaving her home and study there. She never regret it and today she calls it “home away from home”.

“Like I said before, I have been here for a while now, almost 3 years. I got a job here and I made many friends. I do feel like this is kind of my “home away from home”. Everyone is very welcoming, especially when people know that you are new here.”

Tell us something about yourself.
People usually call me Gigi, because it is a little bit easier. I was born in Bulgaria. When I was young, my parents moved to Belgium, and I grew up there. After high school, I decided that I wanted to study tourism management, which I did in Brussels. During my bachelors and tourism management, I came to Rovaniemi for one year to do exchange studies. I liked it so much, so I decided to come back and do my masters in tourism, culture and international management here. After my bachelors, I applied for the masters here. I was lucky enough to get in and now I am here.

What were the challenges you had faced here?
One of the biggest thing that foreigners experience here is the cold and the dark. It can be extreme when you compare it with some other destinations. During my exchange, it was not that big of a deal for me, because we had very tight community of exchange students. We were busy with parties and all that stuff all the time. Then, when I came here as a master student, it became quite difficult. School is so much more important when you are actually doing your degree and you are trying to focus on that. Therefore, you spend a lot of time working on school projects and then you do begin to feel the dark and the cold. That is why I think it is also very important to get out there and make sure that you socialize with people and stay in touch with friends.

Did you feel the darkness?
You do feel it. Maybe if you are only here for one year, or one semester, it will not make that big of an impact, but if you are here for a longer time, than I do think that you start feel it a little bit – the weight of the dark and not being able to see the Sun.

Do you feel like you developed any skills while studying in Lapland?
Well, I did also get a job in a tourism industry while I was here. It was great for me, since I am studying tourism research. I did get to evolve quiet a lot professionally through that work, which I am grateful for. I learned to rely on myself, and you have to do that, because you are living by yourself most of the time. That is something that I did learn through work and school. I am very happy I did manage to evolve in that way, personally.

Could you compare your studies back home and studying here?
I really love it here. That is why I chose to come back. The classes are organized and the way that the university system works here is different from the way back home. In Belgium, when we go to university, we would have lectures where professors give the materials and then you have to memorize everything and take the exam. Here, the program for tourism specifically, is more practice based in the sense that you have to digest the material yourself by reading and writing. I think it helps you to learn a lot better, at least for me. That is why I decided that I want to come back, because the way that the school system works here and the way that the education works here, fits with my personal desires, much better than back home.

Did you face any difficulties at studies here?
No, because I think that everyone is very flexible and very willing to help, as far as the professors and the university staff goes. Whenever you have an issue with something, something is not clear, or you have just arrived, everyone is very open and approachable. You can just go and ask if you have a problem and they are more than willing to help you. That is something that I really appreciate.

Does Rovaniemi feel like home?
Yes, it does. Like I said before, I have been here for a while now, almost 3 years. I got a job here and I made many friends. I do feel like this is kind of my “home away from home”. Everyone is very welcoming, especially when people know that you are new here. The other thing is that Rovaniemi is quite small, so you get to know the place and the people quite easy.

Did you make any friends here?
I made many friends. At least I hope they are my friends [laugh]. One of the funny things (that I started noticing lately) is that whenever I go out of my apartment, and I go to either university of city center, there will always be someone that I know walking in the streets. I think that is amazing.

How do you spend your free time?
I remember I was having a conversation with one of the first year’s master’s degree students. She was having a problem with darkness and loneliness. During the winter, especially, it gets quiet hard, and if all you do is work on school stuff, it might be too much to handle at times. Personally, I got a job because I thought it is going to be a benefit for my future, because the tourism industry here is unique. I joined the Erasmus Student Network. If you are here and you get to do the opportunity to do that, I think that is something that can be a lot of fun. You get involved with international students and you can help them and learn new things yourself. I go to the gym sometimes, and whenever the weather is nice, I hike or try to meet up with friends.

What tips would you give to new students who are applying to study here?
I would say read a little bit about studies and Lapland before you come here, so you would know what to expect. People from different cultures, who are not used to Finnish culture, might have a bit of a culture shock. Quite many people have been writing about their experiences. You can check out the university website for a student’s experiences and things like that.
Study wise, if you have anything that you are not sure of, reach out to people, either to student ambassadors, or program coordinators, or teachers. However, if you have any questions, make sure that you know exactly what it is that you are coming here to do - to avoid any additional shocks.

Can you name something unexpected that happened to you during your studies here?
The best and the most unexpected thing, and I think I am going to start crying now, is that I have made good friends here. You always expect to meet nice, interesting, good people, but I made really close friends. Because I had a chance to stay a little bit longer than just one semester, it was amazing how close you get to people. That is absolutely wonderful here. I think it might be different if you are going to a bigger city. There is always something new to learn and experience here.

Would you recommend people to come here?
Yes, definitely. It was the best decision I made in my life, because it pushes you so far out of your comfort zone that you have to adapt, grow up and learn a lot about yourself. I think that is something that everybody should do in his or her life, at some point. This is a great place to do it because you get to experience something completely different and unique, in the European context.

Would you like to share something with our future students?
Go for it! If you have any doubts about possibly coming here, just do it. You have nothing to lose. Either way you are going to have an experience. You get to be a part of this tight community at university. If you want, you can find a job that is completely different and unique, and NORTHERN LIGHTS, reindeers, and huskies… That was exactly how my brother pitched it to me. When I was talking about coming here on exchange, he said that one of his friends had come here and he was like: “Oh yea, Northern Lights, and husky safaris!”. I was sold: “I am going there.”

Did you experience any funny moments in Lapland?
I decided that while I was here, I should try different kind of winter activities. My friend and I went cross-country skiing. We were both amateurs. We did not have anyone to show us how we should ski. Downhill part was quite self-explanatory, but going uphill was a little bit difficult. If I would paint you a picture - it was me, desperately trying to get up the hill and failing and sliding back. That was the first and the only time I have ever done cross-country skiing. It was an experience!