In this edition, I relive my student exchange as a Masters student including getting scammed. Over the Racetracks to Boardrooms series, I am exploring “between the lines” of my MBA journey, how I went from trackside at Formula 1 races to inside Boardrooms as a Management Consultant, whether my MBA helped, and ‘was it all worth it?’.
Should I go on student exchange?
Absolutely! This was one of the most amazing experiences of not only my program, but my life.
I chose AALTO University Executive Education, Helsinki, Finland (Suomi in Finnish) as my destination.
Why Finland? I receive that question a lot, including from the Finns themselves. I wanted to go somewhere that was different to what I grew up with. Being fortunate to have grown up with beaches and hot weather in Australia, Finland was definitely different for so many reasons – climate, physical landscape, economy and most of all, culture.
The experience was just as much about the life experience as it was the classroom experience
How quickly I learnt about that life experience.
In the weeks leading up to my exchange, life was crazy. Now working in management consulting, my client project involved flying between Melbourne and Brisbane each week, kicking Monday morning off at 4am heading to Tullamarine airport to board the 6:10 AM QF600 to Brisbane and winding most weeks up back in Melbourne around 10:30 PM on Friday. Thankfully an MBA friend Liza, also a Management Consultant but at another firm, by coincidence had a similar flight routine for her client also in Brisbane. We would muse over career moves, workplace politics and the value of the MBA while sitting in departure lounges, in Ubers or trains.
Liza had made a career transition from rail engineer, to management consultant with one of the top firms. Now she faced similar challenges to myself. She brought life and work experience to the table but had been thrust into a new and often strange world of consulting – where the language isn’t quite normal; PowerPoint and Excel are weapons; and you have numerous bosses to answer to.
Liza and I would lean on each other to make sure we were leaving the office at a sane hour, try to go for a walk, or have a quick bite in the evening. It definitely helped having a friend around who could relate to the tribulations of a large career switch, travelling each week and working with a Government client.
The lead up to my departure for exchange in March also coincided with the end of that project in Brisbane. Anyone who has worked in client facing teams knows that the end of a project is always crazy with deliverables, reporting and capturing lessons learned.
Needless to say, life was pretty frantic.
Heading over on exchange it was my responsibility to organise flights, accommodation, class enrolments and all other general needs like meals, transport and social activities. I liked this aspect as it meant I had to learn about the local scene. This also led me to getting scammed!
How to get scammed
For my accommodation, I did the usual research through the recommended websites provided by my exchange university, these included local hotels, short stay accommodation and student housing. I also connected to a few Facebook groups through one of my best friends, Henri, who is Finnish. One of the Facebook groups led to a great apartment with a friendly and accommodating owner who was renting a room out in central Helsinki. We swapped messages and signed contracts. I paid my deposit and arranged to be picked up at Helsinki airport. The pickup never arrived and I spent the next week on Henri’s couch!
I felt sorry for the person who was behind the scam (whoever and wherever they are) and felt a bit dopey about being ripped off. Though as Henri and I both conceded, hats off for pulling a very convincing heist! I genuinely felt sorry for the person because I started to think what if my life required me to scam others. That’s a tough way to live a life. I felt grateful to come from the upbringing in Australia that I had, and that I was on a trip to develop further skills. Skills that would allow me to give back to the community.
Exchange was a great way to learn about Finland.
There is nothing quite like living and studying in a foreign country to really get to know its people and culture
I’ve learnt that so much of a country’s culture is often less about what is said, and more what is not said. This is definitely true of Finnish culture!
I would find myself in (what felt odd to me) social situations where everyone would be standing in a group not saying anything. Just politely standing with a slight smile (or not) in complete silence. For someone who comes from a culture where small talk is usually an icebreaker, or the entire conversation, this was quite a strange sensation.
My time in Finland coincided with Vappu. Vappu is one of the biggest holidays in Finland. It begins on the 30th of April with university students gathering in the Market Square to wash the statue of Havis Amanda, a mermaid symbolising the rebirth of Helsinki. The elaborate ceremony finishes with students placing a cap on her head. The celebrations then continue through to the 1st of May, with the whole of Helsinki turning into a giant carnival. In the morning, workers and students alike, head to Kaivopuisto Park and Ullanlinnanmäki for a sparkling wine filled picnic that goes all day, amongst parades and other activities.
The streets and parks are full of locals wearing their high school graduation caps and university students their brightly coloured faculty overalls. This was quite the experience!
As you have probably noticed, one of the best things was simply socialising with locals. With my Finnish class mates, we would muse over relations between our countries, compare our economies, talk about the future, and just generally discuss what it was like moving through the MBA and what was next. Despite the cultural differences there definitely were a lot of similarities. I sensed a real feeling of social responsibility in my class mates – acknowledgement that they should do what they could to better their respective countries, and a hungry ambition to succeed, albeit in a very softly spoken Finnish sort of way.
The student exchange experience also goes the opposite way. Each year a large intake of students from countries around the world come to Australia. Getting to know these incoming students was also a great way to learn about other cultures.
I met Nick and Jenn, a lovely couple who were on exchange from Kellogg School of Management, during my Brand Management subject. They happened to be sitting next to me on day one. I honestly cannot recall how conversation started but I know I have friends for life.
It was interesting to hear about the differences between our programs. A major difference was the way large companies would go to Kellogg in recruitment fairs each year. The likes of Google and Facebook would swoop on top graduates. Whilst we had recruitment season at our school, it didn’t seem like anything on the scale of what happens in the US. Nick and Jenn gave me a water bottle from Kellogg as a farewell gift and I take it everywhere with me! It’s a little warped from the dishwasher but obviously means a lot to me.
Student exchange was a great way for me to wrap up my program whilst learning about different cultures and also reflecting on my own. It was definitely one of the best things I have done in my life. It has given me new perspectives and friends around the world.
What life experiences have helped shape you?
In the next edition of Racetracks to Boardrooms, I will explore whether my social life disappeared during my MBA.
About the Author
Aaron Yeak is a highly motivated professional with a passion for business, social entrepreneurship and travel. He completed his MBA at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School in 2016 and is currently writing a book about his experience. He has extensive professional experience across sports administration, event management, and management consulting, covering fitness, motor sport, retail, energy and utilities, logistics, construction and health care. Aaron believes in the global influence of this generation to create positive change and impact via social enterprise, business and the values of sport.