“Finland is the first country outside of Latvia where I have lived,” smiles Austris Štāls as I ask him if he has lived in the United States. He speaks English with a clear American accent.
“My friend from the US also said that I sound American,” Štāls laughs.
Štāls is a member of the board of the Student Union of the Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. He is in charge of international affairs on the board - and its first and only international member.
Štāls wanted to go study abroad as soon as he finished upper secondary school. “My motivation was to show my siblings and outdo them,” Štāls grins.
Štāls says that he had no idea what to expect before moving to Finland. “Well, I expected snow, but the winters are cold in Latvia, too.”
Štāls came to Finland for the first time to take Haaga-Helia’s entrance exam.
He chose Finland and Haaga-Helia, because the university of applied sciences offered a degree programme combining two of Štāls’s passions, business and computers. “I had also heard good things about the Finnish education system.”
Štāls has loved his time in Finland. He claims to enjoy Finnish weather, especially in winter. “And I love Finnish people. They are not as passive as people say. They might not approach you, but they will talk to you if you talk to them,” Štāls adds, with a laugh.
Štāls says that he ended up on the Student Union board because he had too much free time and wanted to use it constructively. Now he says that he loves his job. The board forms a close-knit group, and they are passionate about their work.
Štāls is a busy man. His phone rings a couple of times during the interview.
Štāls is organizing the big International Day event for Haaga-Helia. The theme is international skills in the workplace. “The event is meant for anyone interested in international themes, it is not just for international students.”
Almost everyone has international links, notes Štāls. A student only has to take a look at their classmate, who is likely to have been an exchange student or to have interned abroad - or is an international student.
The event, to be held in November, will boast a variety of lectures, workshops and stands for different businesses and organizations. “We want to make the event even bigger and better than before. We have been able to get Haaga-Helia to invest financially in the event,” Štāls says.
Usually the board’s event coordinator is responsible for organizing events, but Štāls is responsible for International Day. “I am excited and proud of the event. It is going to be awesome!”
Language is a challenge
Štāls is the only non-Finnish member of the board of Haaga Helia’s Student Union. The student union itself has thousands of members, many of whom are international students.
Language sometimes poses problems. “It can be difficult if everyone in a group speaks Finnish. It takes guts to ask everyone to switch to English just so one person can participate,” says Štāls.
Štāls has taken courses in Finnish, but says that his skills in the language are pretty passive. “Sometimes I have to say ‘sorry, I do not speak Finnish’,” he says with a smile. “I am still single, so I do not have a Finnish girlfriend to motivate me to use the language,” he adds, grinning.
Štāls thinks that language is a major reason why so few international students participate in student unions. He says that the situation is changing, though. “There are a lot of international students, and they need to be represented in student unions,” he emphasizes.
"Europass is a great tool"
In theory, Štāls has about one year left of his studies, but for many student union actives, their studies tend to take a bit longer than usual.
Before moving to Finland, Štāls’s plans were clear. He planned to return to Latvia after graduation and start his own business. Now his plans are more open ended. He might stay in Finland, return to Latvia, or move somewhere else completely.
Štāls believes that a major benefit of working on the Student Union board is the huge number of contacts he has made. He meets a lot of people in his job. “I am sure this will be useful in looking for work in the future. If I just stay in touch with my contacts, I will have many opportunities.”
Whatever direction Štāls decides to take in his career, Europass will help him do it. Štāls has been using Europass for several years for job applications, and whenever he has needed a CV. Štāls was introduced to Europass in upper secondary school in Latvia. In economics class, the students practiced compiling a good CV.
Nowadays, Štāls has his Europass CV in the cloud, so he can edit it as needed wherever he is. “Europass is an excellent tool”, he says.
Text: Juha Rudanko