In This Story
As part of my faculty study leave for 2021-2022, I spent the fall 2021 semester in Finland as a Fulbright-Nokia Distinguished Chair at the Department of Computer Science, Aalto University in Espoo, a suburb of the capital city Helsinki. When I mentioned my upcoming trip to colleagues at Mason, friends and colleagues were all curious – what made you apply to go to Finland? Finland was a strategic choice based on a number of factors including the range of Fulbright opportunities available, my experience with a postdoc in my lab who got his PhD at Aalto, and a visit I had made to Helsinki as part of an NSF workshop where I had met many academics from Finland. I was also aware that like other Nordic countries, Finnish people were very comfortable with English removing one potential barrier to travel. But most of all what had attracted me to Finland was the quality and quantity of research that Finland produces in the two fields where my research interests intersect – computing and education.
At Aalto, I worked as part of Learning Technologies or LeTech group led by Prof. Lauri Malmi and in close collaboration with the Critical AI and Crisis Studies (CRAI-CIS) research group led by Professor Nitin Sawhney. The LeTech group is at the forefront of computing education, especially the use of novel technologies for learning programming and abstractions. The CRAI-CIS is a new group at Aalto and group members are engaged in researching and designing AI-driven public services, including public health services related to COVID. During my time at Aalto, I wanted to develop expertise in ethics of AI, especially in educational technology, and was extremely lucky to find such a tight intellectual fit.
Travel preparations for the trip were marked with a lot of uncertainty due to COVID and although when I reached Finland in early August many meetings were online, slowly folks started showing up on campus and I was able to participate in many in-person activities. The opening up of the campus allowed me to attend and give talks and discuss research and teaching with new colleagues and even some old ones like Milos Mladenovic whom I knew from my time at Virginia Tech. Having prior contacts was also helpful with process of settling into a new city and institution.
Beyond my collaborations at Aalto, I was able to travel across Europe and present at different places and attend conferences. The advantage of Europe in terms of proximity cannot be understated. I was able to present papers at reach conferences and give invited talks in Rome, Italy, Stockholm, Sweden, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and Tallinn, Estonia. These visits also allowed me to showcase the work that my lab does and also publicize George Mason University as an institution.
Beyond the academic engagements, there were other factors that had made Finland an attractive place to visit and I was not disappointed. Although I speak multiple languages the ease of doing work and of living in Scandinavian countries with their high level of English adoption was definitely a plus. In this regard I was thoroughly impressed with Finland. Finns are very proud of their language and most public work is carried out in Finnish, but they are fluent in English. Public transport within the city and between cities is superb, and city planning is excellent. In Helsinki most neighborhoods have a grocery store, convenience store, coffee shop and restaurants all within walking distance.
The other attraction was being able to spend time in a country where public services are strong. It isn’t surprising that other Fulbright Scholars came explicitly to study these services In Finland. A new friend and colleague, Fred Markowitz, from Northern Illinois University was studying mental health and deviant behavior, including studies of prison systems in Finland. Finns are proud of their social innovations, women have had a right to vote since the inception of the country 100 years ago, and of public sharing of common resources such as mushrooms and berries in the wild.
In terms of my time on campus, I was pleasantly surprised by the support that faculty and students have their needs – from technical support, building managers, to support for labs and paperwork. This something that is increasingly amiss at U.S. academic institutions. Public funding for education in Finland means more resources for those who work and learn there. The building where I had my office had a break area with coffee machines, hot water for tea, and all utensils. It also had refrigerators and dishwashers. Compared to American campuses, the campus there was a lot more homogenous in terms of student and faculty population and this is downside that the university and workforce there realizes.
A Fulbright experience is unique and I highly recommend others to look into the opportunity. In addition to the Fulbright Scholars, Finland also supports those who are not in academia to visit the country. Students, of course, have their own program and there is also funding for short visits. Finally, the Fulbright Specialist program allows one to travel for specific projects that include workshop, curriculum development, and others. Finding a partner in the host nation is important and every country does it differently so there is a bit of legwork involved but the Fulbright website of each country provides information on staff that can help you make connections.
Finally, as I write this in April 2022, the war in Ukraine is at the forefront of international news. It reminds me of a lot of conversations with colleagues in Finland. Finland shares a long border with Russia and was ruled by the Russian empire for almost 200 years. Therefore, it is not surprising that geopolitics in relation to Russia is never far from the minds of Finnish people. They never joined NATO, something they are now considering, and have often maintained a neutral stance in matters related to Russia. This time that is not the case and University of Helsinki and Aalto University are offering free education to Ukrainian students. It is easy to forget when one lives in a country with oceans on two sides and relatively friends nations across the borders that when you share borders, you need to have a very different mindset. It is good to be reminded that we all have our own constraints.