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In a tough school

Anna Nguyen, Julia Nguyen and Livia Do moved from Ho Chi Minh to Mänttä to attend a Finnish-language high school. This is how the first semester went.

I’m excited,” Thy,  also known as Anna Nguyen, says. 

Phuong, known as Julia Nguyen, continues “I am excited and nervous”. 

No wonder: in one month they are moving to Finland, starting a three week summer camp and then moving on to start their High School in Mänttä-Vilppula at the municipality of Pirkanmaa. 

Julia supposed that they pass the entire high school, get experience in the best educational system in the world, and perhaps stay in Finland.

 It’s June, and the 16-year old youthlings are yet to depart from Vietnam. They answer very politely to the questions asked via an online call to which everyone participates from their own screen. We have Phuong or Livia Do. In Finland, these children will go by their international names of Anna, Julia, and Livia because these ones are much easier for Finnish people. 

Livia Do mentions in the online call that for the first time in her life, she is living far away from her parents. 

From Ho Chi Minh City, it is indeed a long way to Mänttä-Vilppula, over 8000 kilometres. These youths are moving from a city of nearly 9 million people to a city of less than 10.000 people. The culture is different, the climate is different,and the educational system is different. 

And then there’s the language. The youths are supposed to complete high school in Finnish language. They have studied Finnish just from February onwards, around 4 months [in June]. 

Anna Nguyen has learnt a lot during that time. She switches to Finnish when asked, thinks a little about the word choices, but speaks quite fluently.

 “We speak daily with the teacher, and we also practice listening and reading a lot. I’m also looking for something like finnish videos, and I’m shocked because they speak super fast”. 

Entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka and his business partners’ Finest Future Ltd aim to attract 15000 of foreign students to High Schools in Finland

Now a pilot stage is ongoing. During Summer and Fall, 15 international students moved to Finland from Vietnam and Uzbekistan. They started their high school studies at Mänttä-Vilppula, Pori, Rantasalmi, Rautjärvi, Salo, Savitaipale and Taavetti. 

The municipalities have either paid Finest Future for marketing, in reality 1000 euros per student, or the marketing is part of a bigger partnership between the two. The service is about identifying students, teaching the language, organizing integration summer camp and assisting in immigration procedures. 

Next year, the number of students may increase to 130, if all of the language learners apply and get accepted to Finnish high schools. New countries from which students come from are for example: Iran, Canada and Brazil. 

Vesterbacka has mentioned that the high school project is a big part of a larger plan in which a group of people are working together to accelerate the growth of Finland. 

The goal is that the foreign students would stay in Finland after high school. Vesterbacka ponders that the municipalities will benefit from this because the foreign students will ensure the maintenance of the current large high school network. 

Finnish education is of interest in the world. PISA has been successful since the millennium, attracting crowds of  international people interested in the Finnish education. 

The Board of Education of Finland alone says that they have organized many visits in the 2004-2019 period for educational purposes for more than 16.000 people from 114 different countries. 

Education exports have grown, and so have the international degree student numbers in Finnish universities. In Finland, there are also more and more immigrant background people who go through the entire Finnish educational system. 

The thing is still new that there are specifically international students who are attracted to the Finnish high schools – secondary education. 

The Finnish government said in September that it wants to at least double the number of foreign worker immigrants and triple the number of foreign degree students by the end of 2030. The government is worried about the weakening dependency ratio. 

In regards to secondary degrees, the government only mentioned that vocational foreign language education will be added more, and no mention about high schools. 

The Finnish high school system hasn’t been originally developed for having lots of foreign students. The High school law states that the Ministry of Culture and Education has to guarantee wide enough access to secondary education both locally and nationally. 

If, through Finest Future, there would be 15.000 foreign students coming to Finland according to their goals, the need for funding would grow significantly. 

This year the municipalities will receive government support – a system funded by municipalities and the government together – on average around 6.600 euros per student, but the euro amount fluctuates depending on the number of students in a high school. In Mänttä high school, the unit price is almost 8.400 euros. 

The students who came to Finland through the Finest Future program are part of this financial system to the cities, since they applied to and got accepted independently and of their free will. Their education is thus paid by the Finnish government and the Finnish municipalities. 

But what can a small Finnish municipality and its high school offer to Vietnamese youths? Will they integrate into Finland well enough to stay here?

Anna Nguyen (keskellä) toivoo, että Mäntän lukiossa olisi enemmän tapahtumia. Lukio on pienempi kuin hänen entinen koulunsa Vietnamissa.

Anna Nguyen (center) hopes there will be more events at Mänttä High School. The high school is smaller than his former school in Vietnam.

In August, Anna Nguyen, Julia Nguyen and Livia Do arrived in Mänttä-Vilppula. 

Behind them was three weeks in Finland. Out of that, two weeks were spent with Finest Future and Salla high school’s summer camp, which has more than 15 years of experience for international high school students. In Salla high school, there are annually 8-10 students from Russia who start their high school. 

Anna Nguyen, Julia Nguyen and Livia Do met these students and the staff of the school, practised Finnish language, tried floorball, finnish baseball and frisbee golf, ate salmon soup and reindeer meat, admired the nature and friendliness of Finnish people.

After Salla, they toured Finland for a week under the direction of Finest Future and visited Santa Park in Rovaniemi, Suomenlinna in Helsinki and Aalto University in Espoo. They all especially liked Helsinki.

Now, however, they have spent their first weekend in Mänttä-Vilppula. High school starts in three days. It’s time to make another video call.

What was the first impression of Mänttä-Vilppula?

Calm and beautiful, young people describe. Not as busy as Helsinki, but not as quiet as Salla. Artistic because it is an art city. On the other hand, there are also many sports venues.

Julia Nguyen says sadly they couldn’t see everything yet because many shops are closed on the weekends. The church and museums, on the other hand, were open.

So far, many things are a bit unclear: they are still staying in temporary housing, there is no information about the roommates and the order of reading will not be clear until next week. However, the teacher in charge of international affairs recycled them already in high school.

They say they are looking forward to the start of their studies.

Vietnamilaiset nuoret osallistuvat suomenkieliseen opetukseen. Livia Do ja Julia Nguyen kuuntelevat, kun historianopettaja puhuu keskiajasta.

Vietnamese young people participate in teaching in Finnish. Livia Do and Julia Nguyen listen as the history teacher talks about the Middle Ages.

IF you follow the Finnish art life at all, you know for sure that in the summer you could see the works of the world-famous street artist Banksy in Mänttä-Vilppula. Mänttä-Vilppula is known as an art city, there are visual art weeks and music festivals. In summer there are enough visitors.

The city’s population has still shrunk. Back in 1990, more than 14,000 people lived in Mänttä and Vilppula. The municipalities merged in 2009. There are no less than 10,000 inhabitants.

At the same time, the population is aging. Less than 12 percent of the population is under the age of 15, and nearly 36 percent are over the age of 64. The age groups coming into high school are shrinking.

High school acting principal Johanna Rintapää says that the number of high school graduates varies a lot from year to year, but overall the number of students is declining. The 80 annual starting places for the joint search have not been filled for a long time. There are currently a total of 113 students in the high school.

“I could think that with circa. 115–120 students, the  high school would have the opportunity to function,” Rintapää says, but also states that he does not decide on the future of the high school.

Mänttä High School thus strives to attract high school students from further away. High school has a wide range of art, music and exercise courses. There is a joint top sports academy with the Mänttä Region Training Center and co-operation with, for example, Fine Arts Weeks and Serlachius Museums.

Since the autumn, high school students have also been able to study in the medical-natural sciences. It means additional courses in mathematics and science, collaboration with universities, and, as a special incentive, in-service coaching courses for the Faculty of Medicine’s entrance exams.

According to Rintapää, the new study line is a necessary attraction for Mänttä High School.

“Of course, at the moment, many small high schools are profiled in certain things. The competition is likely really fierce. ”

According to Rintapää, the new line has been popular among young people in their own city and neighboring municipalities. In addition, it started with six young people from other parts of Finland, including the Helsinki metropolitan area and Forssa. Julia Nguyen and Livia Do also started on the line.

Rintapää estimates that foreign students play an important role in Mänttä High School. Mänttä-Vilppula has not yet made a decision on the continuation of the cooperation with Finest Future, but Rintapää considers that a continuation is likely.

In the future, there would be only one fee of 2,500 euros, regardless of how many students.

The ART CITY has bold buildings, such as the Serlachius Museum in Gustaf. The city center is still typical of a small Finnish town: there is a funeral offices and a pizzeria on the stone foundations of the low-rise buildings, and the barbecue is in a separate building. A peaceful Monday in October.

Mänttä High School operates in common premises with Koskela lower secondary School. High school classes are mostly on the second floor, the first floor is for the lower secondary.

After eating, we dive deeper into history. The topic of the two-hour lesson is the Middle Ages, more specifically feudalism and medieval professions. Teacher Henna Ketonen’s speech is full of words such as the province, the eyewitness, the doll ruler, the vassal and the merry girl.

Vietnamese youth listen to where their fellow students speak Finnish as their mother tongue and take notes when asked by the teacher.

Sometimes the teacher shows videos in English. A BBC documentary says that in the Middle Ages, the streets of London were flooded with mud, urine, animal droppings and everything else.

The second video is from The Worst Jobs in History series. It talks, for example, of gun carriers who cleaned the equipment of knights who had fallen under them, and healers who hung live earthworms around their necks to cure sore throats.

“If you’re sensitive, or you can’t stand seeing blood, for example, or how your skin is cut, don’t look at the point where you talk about the profession of barber-surgeon,” the teacher instructs. For some, the video feels bad, but for Vietnamese youth, its language is a relief.

Anna Nguyen estimates that she understands about 60 to 70 percent of the content in an hour. After an hour, she wants to stay talking with the teacher about things that remain unclear. The teacher explains them with a mixture of Finnish and English.

After history, it is the turn of the S2 double lesson that ends the school day, i.e. teaching Finnish as a second language. The group also includes one exchange student and two other students with a foreign background who have ended up in Mänttä High School without a Finest Future project. One of them is not here today.

Teacher Henna Linkopuu explains clearly what the task is this time: to get acquainted with the material package, to make an observation map and finally to write an essay using at least two different materials.

The topic is social media and media, and the essay can be continued next time.

In history class, Vietnamese high school students remained silent even when the teacher asked something. Now they ask for advice if needed, such as how long the essay should be.

“The length of a good practicing essay should be 2,000 characters and over. But since this is your first big essay, I won’t give a very limited number of characters, ”the teacher says.

Whatever the number of characters, the task sounds demanding for a high school student who has only studied Finnish for well under a year.

AFTER THE SCHOOL DAY, Anna Nguyen, Julia Nguyen and Livia Do step across the yard, cross the street and rise to the second floor of their apartments. The dorm is so close that it can be seen from the high school windows. During summer it serves as a summer hotel.

The apartments are cell homes for two people. Each lives with a Finnish roommate who has moved to Mänttä-Vilppula from elsewhere.

Sometimes they invite their friends to eat Vietnamese food, but only on weekends because it takes a lot of time to prepare the food.

Especially at the beginning of the school year, you tended to feel homesick. Anna Nguyen has filled out her calendar so she doesn’t have time to feel sad. Among other things, she attends Mänttä Valo’s football training, drum class, dancing and swimming.

Livia Do, on the other hand, is happy to enjoy her own time. She enjoys reading and walking. Julia Nguyen also goes for walks.

“Nature is really nice in Mänttä,” she says.

The young students have also picked lingonberries and given them to seniors living in the yard.

“We give them the berries and they bake and give us back the berry pie,” Anna Nguyen says.

Julia Nguyen kehuu kouluruokaa maukkaaksi ja terveelliseksi. "Joka päivä mä odotan koulun ruoka", hän kirjoittaa Whatsapp-viestissä.

Julia Nguyen praises school food as tasty and healthy. “Every day I look forward to school food,” she writes in a Whatsapp message.

MOTIVATED, brisk, study-oriented.

This is how Linkopuu, who teaches Finnish as a second language, describes Vietnamese high school students. For her, their language skills have grown rapidly.

“They had only had time to study Finnish for six months before coming to Finland. Compared to that, they have done tremendously well, ”says Linkopuu.

According to her, someone is a little more courageous to talk and someone is quieter, but you can see from the course exercises that everyone already speaks Finnish quite well.

In her essay, Anna Nguyen wrote: “Technology and social media have grown faster and bigger these days, almost everyone has their own phones and they help a lot in many parts of life. However, excessive use can also cause poor physical health and loneliness in people, especially young people. ”

However, young Vietnamese have had to work hard. Linkopuu thought it would have been ideal if they had had time to learn the language a little more in advance.

The history teacher was surprised. the essay of a Vietnamese student was better in Finnish than the text of some Finnish-speaking students.

History teacher Ketonen gave the opportunity to answer the essay task in English in the first history exam, although the starting point is that everything should be done in Finnish. However, one in three wrote an essay in Finnish – and the teacher thought that she wrote better Finnish than some Finnish-speaking students.

He describes the three young people as ambitious, talented and intelligent. For him, they did great in the first year of history compared to the fact that it was hugely fast-paced.

“But I think they would have gotten a lot more out of the course if they had taken it in their second year.”

Ketonen therefore recommends that if new students enter high school in the future through the Finest Future project, they will not have large courses in the first episodes with Finnish text and a lot of new concepts.

ANNA Nguyen, Julia Nguyen and Livia Do have a big advantage for the future: unlike, for example, many foreign university students, they are likely to acquire fluency in Finnish.

It can help to catch up with Finnish working life, for example. However, that is no guarantee. A foreign name alone makes it difficult to get a job in Finland.

Even during high school, you may face problems, for example a serious illness. Finest Future assumes no responsibility for young people, but responsibility issues go like with any other Finnish young person.

At the beginning of the second period, a young Uzbek man also arrived in Mänttä-Vilppula. However, he wanted to move to another location because of a friend and a more affordable apartment. Some of the housing for young people who came to Finland within the framework of the Finest Future high school project is paid for by the municipality, some pays the rent themselves. Rintapää says that the matter was resolved quickly and the young person changed places in less than a week.

The city of Mänttä-Vilppula has also organized support for young people in their daily lives. The leisure instructor is always available after school days. For example, he has worked with young people on banking matters, guided hobbies and helped with homework.

At the beginning of the school year, the school had also appointed a teacher in charge of international affairs to ensure that the studies got off to a good start.

In mid-NOVEMBER, it’s time for a video call again. The days have become even shorter. Anna Nguyen, Julia Nguyen and Livia Do are no longer afraid to take a walk in the mornings before class because it is so dark.

Now, the third semester is coming to an end, and chemistry has begun as a new subject. The new subject always causes a headache at first, because you have to learn vocabulary in Finnish.

Finnish high school is different than what the young people expected.

Anna Nguyen thought Mänttä High School was more international in advance. And even though she knew that Mänttä-Vilppula is a small town, it is even smaller than she expected. The high school is small too.

“Because it’s not a lot of people, it’s a little hard to do something active or events or really fun stuff,” Anna Nguyen says.

“Students are pretty shy,” Livia Do points out.

“They speak Finnish too fast, and sometimes we can’t understand what they’re saying,” Julia Nguyen continues.

It easily leads to discussions stalling.

However, they say they got friends. For example, they plan to spend Christmas with a friend’s family in Mänttä-Vilppula. There are also plans to visit Tampere or Helsinki during the Christmas holidays. They will travel to Vietnam next time on summer vacation, if the corona situation allows.

Young people say they are happy. At least yet, however, Finland does not feel completely like home. Livia Do describes that Finland is a place where she lives and studies.

The trio is also planning university studies in Finland. Anna Nguyen dreams of moving to Tampere, but she can’t study to be a cultural producer at Tampere University of Applied Sciences, so the reflections are still ongoing. Julia Nguyen would like to study pharmacy at the University of Helsinki. Livia Do may be interested in psychology at the University of Helsinki or Eastern Finland.

It is yet too early to think about the time after that.

Read the original article (in Finnish) on Suomen Kuvalehti 3.12.2021