An offer too good to miss – upper secondary school students on exchanges

Experiences Erasmus+ Erasmus+ for general education Internationalisation
Supported by the Erasmus+ programme, general upper secondary school students Sissel Granholm and Hanna Penttinen spent two unforgettable months on student exchanges. Granholm headed from Svenska Privatskolan i Uleåborg in Oulu to the French island of Réunion in autumn 2019. Penttinen from Joensuu General Upper Secondary School studied in Las Palmas, Spain in spring 2020.
Kuvituskuva opiskelijasta, jolla on kirjoja kädessä.

Granholm got interested in exchanges after taking part in a joint Erasmus + project of Svenska Privatskolan i Uleåborg and Laanila General Upper Secondary School, which also had participants from Réunion. The project provided opportunities for going out on long mobility periods. The timing of the exchange in relation to her studies and the duration of two months seemed exactly right.

– Students from Réunion, one of whom stayed in my house, told me a lot about the island, and this really fuelled my enthusiasm. I was fascinated by how different the island was, and I felt this was a good time to go, Granholm explains.

Penttinen heard about this opportunity in her Spanish course at school. She did not hesitate to submit her application to the teacher, and to her delight, she quickly learned that she could go.

– It was such a good offer that I did not have to hesitate for a single second before I applied.

Penttinen had already spent two weeks in Spain during her time in higher comprehensive school. She knew that she wanted to do Spanish in general upper secondary school, and that the exchange period would certainly improve her language proficiency.

– When you actually speak a language in the country where it is used, it is a completely different experience.

Heading for language immersion

Both young people felt that going on an exchange was a natural step. Granholm was not really nervous at all before her departure.

– On the morning I was off, I was wondering which soft toy I should take with me. That perhaps was when I realised I was actually going, Granholm laughs.

Both students had studied the language of the destination country before going on the exchange. They also received additional language coaching. Penttinen was not really nervous, either, even if her Spanish was not strong when she started off. Knowing English helped a lot, and she quickly learned Spanish.

– It’s crazy how quickly you learned the language when you needed to communicate with other students, Penttinen says.

People in the exchange school also admired Penttinen’s English skills.

– At first I spoke English to the others, and many of them were quite confused and thought that I maybe was from the United States.

Granholm also coped well with the initial period with her French proficiency. Together with another Finnish exchange student, she had a personal French tutor.

– The teacher did not speak any English. If we were having a fight, the teacher told us to argue in French.

Coding, Sustainable Future studies and sad good-byes

The exchange period was easy to integrate into upper secondary school studies.

– Two months was a nice duration for the exchange, because there was always something to do and I had time to experience all sorts of things on the island. I did not fall behind in my studies in Finland, either, which was very important for me, says Granholm.

The school allowed Granholm time for independent study, which made it possible for her to progress in her Finnish school studies if she wished. Penttinen received credits for four general upper secondary school courses for her time on the exchange.

– I thought I could do some of my own courses while out there. In the end I did not, because I wanted to focus on the assignments of my local school, hang out at the school and learn the language.

Both students participated in a wide range of activities in their exchange schools. Granholm got to try out coding, do wall climbing in PE class, help out in English classes, give presentations about Finland, paint in art classes and feature in local news and radio. Granholm mainly focused on Sustainable Future studies during her exchange.

However, she also had time to experience many other things during her stay, from paragliding to horse-riding. Penttinen also started a new hobby.

– I went surfing several times a week because I lived very close to a beach which was great for surfing. It was really cool, Penttinen says and hopes that one day she can get on that board again.

Penttinen went out on her exchange just before the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading.

– When I started off, nobody was really talking about COVID-19 yet, and I had no idea at all of any pandemic. Towards the end, I came across it more and more frequently, especially in March.

Although the situation ultimately forced Penttinen to return to Finland on a fast schedule two weeks earlier than planned and she was sorry to leave the island, she is grateful for the splendid experience.

– Yeah, I have no complaints. The host family took really good care of me, they were wonderful, Penttinen recalls.

Coming home after the exchange was also an emotional time for Granholm. Even if the daily life of an exchange student was sometimes exhausting and it was great to come back to Finland to her own family, saying goodbye to a caring host family with whom she was really close was very sad.

"I would have missed out on so much if I had not gone”

Mobility periods improve the international competence, working life skills and understanding of different perspectives and operating models of both students and other participants in the activities. The new Erasmus + programme period, which was launched in 2021, focuses increasingly on responsibility, sustainable internationalisation, inclusion and digitalisation. Penttinen and Granholm also learned a great deal and tremendously improved their language proficiency, cultural knowledge and ability to manage independently. They also learned lessons about attitudes to life in general.

– I learned to live with a more relaxed attitude, to look at life differently. Everything is not as serious as it sometimes feels, says Granholm.

She says she learned a lot about herself and is now prouder to be Finnish.

But was going on the exchange really worth it? Both Granholm and Penttinen start their answer with the same word: “Indeed.” They got so much out of the exchange.

– One day I would like to go back. I still keep in touch with the host family, and we send each other local products as Christmas gifts, says Granholm.

Penttinen also enthuses over her experience.

– I would have missed out on so much if I had not gone. I quickly got to grips with my new daily life and found many friends with whom I still talk every day. That alone was worth it. I also learned Spanish, and my host family was wonderful.

– I don’t think I could have gained these experiences anywhere else!


The Erasmus + programme funds various international mobility and cooperation projects for general education institutions and organisations. Pupils and students can go on a mobility period in any Erasmus + programme country, and the duration of the period may be anything from 30 days to as long as 12 months. In addition to long mobility periods of this type, Erasmus+ also supports shorter periods of mobility for both individuals and groups. Educational institutions can both send and receive exchange students.


Katariina Kivi