Viky Garcia, Texas A&M International University's director of career services, writes by email of her experiences to date as a member of a team sponsored by the South Texas Rotary that is visiting Finland. Her fellow team members on the trip include Abigail Delgado, KLDO television reporter, and former Laredoan Margarita Gonzalez, now marketing communications manager for the Brownsville Public Utilities Board.
Lappeenranta, FINLAND - Loistava! That is Finnish for "glorious." Few other words can describe the immense natural beauty in Southeast Finland. Forests, lakes, and great expanses of green make up most of the scenery experienced by the recent South Texas visitors to Southeast Finland.
The five South Texas Rotary-sponsored representatives, two from Laredo, arrived at their first stop in Lappeenranta, about 220 kilometers northeast of Helsinki, on May 8th. Lappeenranta's original Swedish name meant "Harbor of the Wild Man." A border city like Laredo, Lappeenranta was established in 1649 and shares its border with Russia.
Busy schedules have kept the South Texas team moving from activity to activity, resting with host families only in the late evening. In addition to the initial jet lag and the eight hour difference from Central time, time confusion has also occurred because the beginning of Spring marks the lengthening of the day. The sun sets at 10 p.m. (9:51 p.m.) and rises at 4 a.m. (4:13 a.m.), due to the proximity to the arctic circle. The Summer will of course be an even longer day.
The first group visits included the Lappeenranta University of Technology whose growth is comparable to Laredo's Texas A&M International University. Plans for adding buildings in phases five through seven are underway.
A striking difference pointed out to the team is the country's social democracy which guarantees education for students at any level. This means that students at Lappeenranta University (and the Polytechnic Institute) pay no tuition or fees. Students pay for books and some living expenses. Education for all is made possible by an 18% municipal tax rate.
The Finnish educational system requires attendance through the end of 9th grade, but few stop at this level and the country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Visits with the Finnish-American Society's pre-kindergarten, English language primary school, and technical high school has taught the team how valued languages are in Finland. As a bilingual nation, its inhabitants are required to learn Finnish and Swedish, plus another language of their choice by the end of their primary studies. That choice is usually English.
The team has had no difficulties in communication, as most activities are lead in English, but have had a few encounters where Spanish was necessary. For example, my host family was Spanish and spoke no English.
Following group visits to educational institutions, city hall, an award winning newspaper and printing house, various businesses, and the largest area industry - the paper and pulp mills, the team divides for individual visits to their respective fields. Evenings are spent providing presentations of life in South Texas to the area's four Rotary clubs and interested Lappeenrantans.
The presentations in this small town of 57,400 are open to the public and well-attended. The mayor and local presidents of businesses have been escorting the group around and introducing us to others.
The Finns have treated the visitors magnificently, including the sharing of the Särä , a traditional meal which we ate in a short visit to Lemi, Finland. It was a feast of succulent lamb and potatoes in a wooden trough, slow cooked overnight in an apparently brick oven. Fresh baked bread and a home made beer was served followed by a tasty raisin soup dessert. The team had no problem with requesting triple helpings!
There is great interest in the U.S. culture which keeps the team pretty busy. The opportunity to wind down in the wonderful Finnish tradition of the sauna is always welcome. Finns are the originators of the sauna concept, and it is deeply ingrained in the culture.
Most homes, including summer homes, have the small wooden structures built in. Dense stones/rocks are heated with wood, plentiful all over Finland, and water poured to create a relaxing hot steam enjoyed in silence or with family/friends. City homes have the convenience of electrically heated manufactured "rocks." If using a sauna at a summer cottage, a quick jump into a cold lake is expected. The sauna tradition is so pervasive that all companies and even city hall include a sauna area.
After the first week in Finland, the South Texas team is convinced they are all staying in Finland for good. The eight days in Lappeenranta days in Imatra, just north of Lappeenranta.
The trek will continue north to other cities and finally end in Joensuu, then back to Helsinki after their month long exchange. Laredo will see their ambassadors back after the 2nd week in June.