News 2022

Mari-Anna Suurmunne moved from the capital of China to the capital of Lapland


Mari-Anna Suurmunne, Director of International Affairs at the University of Lapland, moved from Bejing to Rovaniemi in October. The deal included an abundance of fresh air and freedom to move about.

It was a Sunday afternoon in spring 2022. Mari-Anna Suurmunne, a senior speicalist in education and science at the Embassy of Finland in China, was reading the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper at home in Bejing and came across an intriguing job advertisement: The University of Lapland was seeking a director of international affairs. That evening, some friends in Finland also sent a message and tipped her off about the position. 
– I decided to apply – and here I am. The university wanted me to start already in August, but the Chinese corona restrictions made it difficult for me to leave. Finnair used to have 10 flights a week from Bejing to Helsinki, but now there was only one flight and it departed from Shanghai, Suurmunne recollects. 
Finally, at the beginning of October, a metropol with more than 20 million residents was replaced by an Arctic capital with 60,000 residents, and an office in Bejing turned into a position at the University of Lapland. Suurmunne’s interest in the position and her appointment have to do with her strong academic background and linkage with the North. Before moving to China, she worked as the director of international affairs at Aalto University and earlier on wrote a dissertation on the security of the Arctic. 
– Although the trip to Rovaniemi was long both physically and mentally, everything has felt familiar and natural. It was nice to return to the university environment, where I feel at home.

For the world 
Internationally oriented. This is what Suurmunne feels she has been from the days of her youth. Already before high school, she tested her wings as an exchange student in the US, and after graduating from an upper secondary school in Lahti, she went on to study international politics at the University of Helsinki.  From there, she returned to the US to complete her master’s degree, whereafter doctoral studies took her to Canada.  
– I’ve always wanted to travel and observe the world. I completed my dissertation in Canada because I had an interest in Arctic regions. I conducted interviews in Canada and in Norwegian and Finnish Lapland. In addition, I was a university teacher in Romania for a year before giving birth to my first son and then returned to Finland.

Suurmunne’s both sons almost reached adulthood in Finland, but just almost. In 2018, her younger son, still a minor, was “privileged” or “forced” to follow his mother to China. For Suurmunne herself, China cooperation had already become familiar during her previous years at Aalto, where she headed a process of internationalisation. In China, her duties included interpretation of the changing operating environment, assessment of the potential of academic collaboration, and promotion of the exporting of education. 
– China is truly interesting. I only worked there for a year during normal times, and then came corona. It changed everything: The borders were closed, and the quarantine procedures have been strict up to the present day. The work was interesting, but the corona environment started to wear me down. It was a good moment to set out to Rovaniemi. 

International viewpoints 

What has been done in the name of internationalisation? What must be done so that the goals of internationalisation are met? Suurmunne started out by mapping out modules of internationalisation at the University of Lapland. In her opinion, our community has plenty of international expertise, but there are some structural challenges to be met. 
– As we have committed ourselves to internationalisation and seek more international students, certain requirements must be met. We need more degree programmes in English, and the accessibility of the language should be improved in all areas, Suurmunne sums up. 
The present world situation challenges the promotion of internationalisation and university collaboration. China has become a superpower of science and university education, but our collaboration is mostly on ice and the borders of the country are closed because of the coronavirus. Suurmunne thinks that China is a big question mark for the entire Western world. 
– China’s position in international collaboration involves many challenges. All of this also affects university collaboration. Collaboration is needed in the future as well, but we must recognise the risks, which is possible by adhering to our own values, she sums up. 
A world citizen from the city of Lahti, Suurmunne has encountered many challenges and made bold moves on her journey, the latest one being her voyage from the capital of China to the capital of Lapland. Once in Rovaniemi, the first weeks were spent in “camp conditions”, sleeping on a mattress instead a bed – until finally, the last shipment of her belongings arrived in the north. Rovaniemi also managed to fulfil two persistent dreams: There was plenty of fresh air and freedom to move around in contrast to the stale air and congestion of Bejing. 
– It felt good to get settled in an Arctic environment and to become part of the university community of Lapland. I’m confident that in my work here, I can make use of everything I’ve learnt so far. Everything I’ve experienced has increased my understanding of the world. An ability to view things from different angles is very important in the university community. 

Written by: Maria Paldanius