Cultures don’t meet, people do: an exchange period told through three reflections

welcome to Finland

First, some questions answered 

Where: The University of Jyväskylä in Jyväskylä, Finland 

Wait…where: About three hours by train north of Helsinki 

Was it cold and dark: Yes

Did you learn any Finnish: A little bit (I am especially good at saying “En puhu suomea” or “I don’t speak Finnish”) 

sun setting above apartment buildings at 2:29 PM

Löyly, Avanto, and Sisu. 

Sauna culture was something I looked forward to exploring while in Jyväskylä and I was pleased to learn that Kortephoja, my student living complex, boasted a proud five saunas. It is also important to clarify that the correct pronunciation is sow-na, because the Finns know best. Learning about Finnish sauna culture meant embracing löyly, the steam that rises off the rocks in the sauna when water is splashed on them, and avanto, the practice of dipping into a hole in the ice.

a hole in the ice waiting for a sauna-goer

Taking multiple sauna turns a week meant time for long conversations with friends. More adventurous sauna experiences included running into the Arctic Ocean in Norway while a Finnish bus driver yelled at me to put me head fully under the water; this gets one closer to the Finnish concept of sisu. Sisu is comprised of determination, grit, and resilience and is said to express the Finnish national character. Choosing an exchange experience in college means choosing to embrace sisu (and saunas, if one finds themself in Finland). 

Are you the one who needs a violin?

After my first day of classes I plodded through the dark, the sun set at 3:30, without an instrument, my violin was safe at home in Montana, towards the music building, a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. Groups of musicians have a certain buzz about them, and that night was no exception. Timpani drums were tuned, a saxophonist played a scale, and rosin was applied to bows as I quietly stood in the corner and observed. As the symphony tuned, a trombonist emerged beside me and asked, “are you the one who needs a violin?” I was offered her grandfather’s violin for me to borrow. I lovingly nicknamed the violin ‘Pavo’, after violin’s original owner, and slipped into my spot in the second violins.

say hello to Pavo

As the only exchange student in Sinfis, the student symphony, I found it refreshing to be around only Finnish students. Works by Grieg, Mendelssohn, Bizet, and Saint-Saëns were the soundtrack for those three-hour Monday evening practices. The rehearsals were conducted all in Finnish, but I quickly learned “yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä” (one, two, three, four) as the count to begin as a symphony. My ever-patient stand partner, Rita, spent hours leaning over to me and whispering what measure number we were rehearsing each time the conductor offered a direction. While our final concert was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those hours spent making music remain some of the ones I am proudest I spent during my exchange. 


Because my roommates and I had the largest apartment, it was decided that we would host brunch. Miriam and I pulled out the desks from our room to make the dining room table longer. Shannon took muffins out from the oven while her ‘brunch’ playlist played out of her phone. Sienna stood ready at the door to hop in the dangerously small elevator and let our friends into our building.

a bounty from some creative exchange students

About once every two weeks this was our ritual. Gathering for a meal with friends from Spain, France, Hong Kong, Madagascar, and Russia meant lots of food, conversation, and laughter. Our earnest interest in building lasting friendships was born out of these meals together and has continued since. In late March when the composition of our study abroad experience was altered due to the global pandemic – this group of friends rallied in an impressive way. When universities called some of us home, others showed up to clean the entire apartment top to bottom while we packed. Our last hodge-podge meal all together was composed of only desserts and food we had purchased in an attempt to use up our food stipend for that month (can’t let good euros go to waste). Though I spent half the amount of months I had planned to with this friend group, we’ve stayed connected: reminding each other of inside jokes, bi-weekly zoom calls, and plans to see each other have kept the spirit of our brunches very alive.  

our kitchen before our last meal together

Cultures don’t meet, people do 

With a focus on the global theme of culture and politics I tried to construct my schedule at the University of Jyväskylä around these large concepts. As a Communication Studies major I had never previously studied intercultural communication. The University of Jyväskylä specializes in instruction and research in this field. I took multiple courses with an underlying focus on intercultural communication. My main take away from these courses, and my time outside of the classroom in and around Jyväskylä, was an awareness of the simplifications we tend to make when we take about intercultural communication.

One of my most impactful instructors at the University of Jyväskylä took a critical view on commonly held beliefs about intercultural communication and borrowed a subtitle from a book by Hoffman and Verdooren to remind her students that “cultures don’t meet, people do.” This lesson was solidified around a table constructed out of desks, while rehearsing music I understood in a language I did not, and in a cedar plank sauna in the Artic Circle. 

My Experience with Open Aid Alliance

My GLI theme is public and global health. I worked with the Open Aid Alliance to achieve this theme. The Open Aid Alliance is based out of Missoula Montana and they are committed to serving the people of Missoula who suffer from substance abuse disorders and/or have STIs. COVID drastically affected my experience, instead of working in an office in Missoula we had to resort to an online environment. Unfortunately because of this I have no photos of my experience. Because of that change I worked out of my hometown of Billings Montana. With working from home I wasn’t put into a new environment in the traditional way. Instead I was introduced to different people and different ways of life by way of webinars and articles. With the various perspectives and lives I was introduced to it changed how I look at the issue of substance abuse and how it is treated as of now. Also it made me look at my own bias and background. This experience taught me not to take things for face value and that you never know what someone is going through. A lot of the webinars and articles I was introduced to challenged the American culture towards people with substance abuse disorders. To be completely honest this experience has changed my perspective not only on my theme and challenge it changed how I look at modern health care. I saw so many people not being treated correctly or not being treated at all. It also introduced me to subgroups of people I wasn’t aware of and their challenges and whether or not they are getting the help they need. With this experience being online I had to be my own boss. I pushed myself everyday to put out the best products I can. I also had to insert myself on various projects. Since I was the first person to do an online internship with the Open Aid Alliance, my drive and motivation was a big component to what made this internship so successful. Some of the questions that came out of my experience were about our current healthcare model. How do we better serve people who need it? How have I not heard of these issues earlier? I realize that this is a complicated issue but we need to make some drastic changes so people can get the help they need. One of my final questions was: How is the United States so far behind?

This experience has changed my life and I am extremely thankful for the opportunity. I would like to thank the GLI program not only for the scholarship that made this possible, but for helping me find an experience that best fit my interests. I would also like to thank Amanda Reese at Open Aid Alliance, she could’ve just cancelled my internship but instead she worked with me to find a way to make it work. And finally I would like to thank Kevin Hood at the University of Montana. He helped me figure out the details that made this internship work. I know that a lot of this internship was self motivated but with out the team of people that helped me navigate this experience it wouldn’t have been possible

If you would like to see some of the projects I did during this internship attached is a blog I created for the experience. Along with some of the projects posted on my blog I would say that the most memorable project was creating an educational tool for high school students to learn about harm reduction.

Thank you all for the expirence

-Drake Leonard

A Pomegranate Paradise

I wasn’t sure what to expect from living in Granada, Spain. My preconceptions included beautiful beaches right outside the city, a huge palace right next to campus, and live music everywhere. I thought maybe there would be pomegranate trees everywhere, since Granada translates to pomegranate. It turns out, the beaches were farther away than I thought, and the giant palace was about two miles away from the Cartuja campus on the hill. There were no pomegranate trees, but pomegranates were printed on everything and they were sculpted in metal everywhere. Granada ended up throwing me lots of surprises and was not a place that I could have dreamed up.

It had it all. Big city, traffic, hiking, beautiful hills and night lights, a river, art shops, and the picturesque Albaicin, which is full of narrow cobblestone streets and white buildings. It had orange trees, fruit stands, statues, and protests, and an entire district full of beautiful, high-end stores. One area of town was entirely Moroccan. The blend of happenings in the city was amazing.

The Alhambra palace from la Mirador de San Miguel.

My GLI experience abroad took me to this beautiful place. My global theme is Public and Global Health, and as part of my experience I took a class called Antropologia de la Salud, or Anthropology of Health. This class focused on health disparities in both Spain and around the world, between different demographics of people, as well as different types of attention and medicine practices in various cultures. This gave me really good insight on how medical attention systems differ around the world and gave me the opportunity to really delve into health disparities. It also further proved just how much work the American health care system needs, given that it is completely unaffordable and unattainable for so many Americans to even receive care.

In Granada, there are a few different programs that as an exchange student you may enroll in. Two of them are taught in English, are off-campus, and are mostly Americans who want to learn Spanish. The third option is the one I chose, which was to directly enroll into the main University of Granada and take the same classes that the local Spanish students take, alongside them.

What this choice meant for me is that I had to quickly adapt to the language, accent, and slang to succeed. It was incredibly challenging, but it pushed me to listen closely, be a good student, and improve my fluency, which was my reason for choosing Spain in the first place.

I’ve studied Spanish for a long time and am a Spanish minor at UM, but part of the learning curve during this culture immersion was finding out that the dialect in southern Spain is difficult for even native Spanish speakers to understand. I picked up on a lot of differences between the central/southern American Spanish that I had studied and the Andalucian dialect, and learned from my Spanish friends that I apparently “talk like a gangster.”

I’d say that being forced to focus so heavily on my communication is a skill that translates really well into leadership. Not only was the language a focus area for me, but a lack of understanding made me use nonverbal cues a lot more and find alternative ways to express myself or ask for clarification. These are essential leadership skills, because as a leader you have to understand what is happening with your team on a deeper level than simply what is said – you have to read into what is left unsaid. It’s also important to really listen and be able to develop an effective response as a leader, which are two objectives that require more effort when becoming fluent in another language.

A view of Granada.

There were lots of culture differences between Montana and Granada. The biggest adjustment for me was probably the schedule. Spaniards stay out late every night of the week, and often they don’t even leave the house until midnight and then stay out until seven am. For several hours in the afternoon, everything is closed for siesta. Another big difference for me was social, as people here at home are much more willing to have a conversation with a stranger. In Spain, people aren’t as chatty with someone who isn’t part of their group. The culture obviously goes much deeper than these basic functional level differences, and I got the privilege of learning a lot about the history of Spain and how it has affected its people.

I took a History of Modern Spain class that focused on the last three centuries and gave me a lot of insight into the instability and politics that have shaped the country. I learned how big of an impact the recent dictatorship had on the way that present-day Spanish society functions, and especially how it affects women and education. I also learned a lot about Spanish culture from the friends I made there who are from Spain. Some things I was shocked to learn. For example, my friend Lucia explained to me that it’s actually rude to ask somebody what their job is, because the Spanish completely separate their work lives and personal lives, unlike Americans. If you do ask, it could be interpreted as you trying to find out how much money they make to take advantage of them.

Though I had to leave suddenly and early due to COVID-19, by the end of my experience I had picked up on a lot of these cultural nuances, and Granada felt like a second home to me. I was left with more questions though. Since I left so early, I didn’t get to do or see a lot of the things I had planned on. The palace I talked about earlier, the Alhambra, is a huge part of Granada’s history. I had booked tickets for about two weeks after I had to go home. I also only got to travel out of Granada three times: once for a hike, once to Cordoba, and once to Bordeaux, France. I would love to return to travel around the rest of Spain and visit the beaches, the islands, and cities like Sevilla and Barcelona.

I ran into a herd of longhorn cattle blocking the trail on my hike.

So, I bid Granada a “see you later,” and hope that one day I get to return to revisit these unanswered questions and my pomegranate paradise. I’m so grateful that I got this opportunity to explore, learn, and better myself through GLI.

-Haylie Peacock