So that university would not be a club for white people

Experiences Erasmus+ for youth work European Solidarity Corps
The doors to university opened for Jenny Kasongo when she completed the Equality as Preparation preparatory course aimed at people from visible minorities and supported by the European Solidarity Corps. The project comprising preparatory courses and mentoring was created as a response to the inherited nature of education, the underrepresentation of immigrants and the structural racism at universities.
Student with laptop

When Jenny Kasongo watched students talking about their major subjects in a promotional video of the University of Helsinki, she realised that those who go to university are white Finnish people This is also revealed by the statistics. Young people with an immigrant background are significantly underrepresented at universities in comparison to their proportion in the population of Finland.

Jenny Kasongo was born in Finland in 1995 to parents who had moved from Central Africa. After having completed the Equality as Preparation preparatory course aimed at people from visible minorities and supported by the European Solidarity Corps, she was admitted to university. It was the fourth time that she applied to university. She had already been admitted to the Diaconia University of Applied Sciences but found that the studies there did not include enough theory. She wanted to study at university.

Kasongo thinks that the low number of students with an immigrant background at the highest levels of education is partly explained by the parents’ socioeconomic background. A child of parents with a university education is eight times more likely to complete university education than other Finns.

– My parents were born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where education is not free. My father completed secondary school, but my mother was not even able to finish primary school because it was too expensive, she says and continues:

– Although everyone in Finland has equal opportunities to access university education, the reality is different. Education is inherited.

However, there are also other explaining factors.

Expensive preparatory courses block the path for people with limited means

– In spite of their own educational background, both of my parents have always emphasised that getting a high education enables you to do well in life. There is also quite a lot of pressure to do well at school in many other families with an immigrant background, Jenny Kasongo says.

The Finnish language skills of most young people with an immigrant background do not differ from those of the mainstream population. Kasongo therefore thinks that education itself must have some mechanisms that create inequality. Something that makes those who look different from the mainstream population choose something else.

Kasongo’s mentor Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin, who has been involved in the Equality as Preparation project supported by the European Solidarity Corps, guesses what the problem is: 

– Racism does not depend on age or the educational background. Education just helps to conceal it better. When people think that racism has decreased, it is direct racism. There is a lot of indirect, hidden racism.

In the thinking that reflects the structural racism existing in universities, a white student is neutral, objective and produces knowledge. A dark-skinned person is assumed to be something else. Dark-skinned students at university are therefore looked at as if they are in a wrong place. They must justify what they say in situations where a white person is not required to do so. They are not assumed to be able to speak Finnish. They have to act as if they do not mind when others, even lecturers, make racist jokes or use derogatory words for a population group.

Although everyone in Finland has equal opportunities to access university education, the reality is different. Education is inherited.

– And if Islam is brought up, everyone looks at the person who is a Muslim and expects that person to speak for all Muslims and explain the reasons for their actions, Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin says.

Salleh-Hoddin came to Finland from Singapore to study for a master’s degree in social psychology and is currently completing doctoral studies at the University of Helsinki. She is one of the founding members of the Anti-Racist Forum and chairs the organisation. She is also a vice chair of the European Network Against Racism.

In addition to the fear of being picked on, another major factor affecting young people with an immigrant background is money. Preparatory courses are expensive and not everyone can afford them. However, a great majority of the students admitted to some of the degree programmes in higher education have completed an expensive preparatory course. Quoting the words of the Anti-Racist Forum: preparatory courses further marginalise groups that are already marginalised. Groups such as young people with an immigrant background, whose families statistically have a lower-than-average income.

For them, a preparatory course supported with project funding channelled from the European Solidarity Corps by EDUFI is very welcome.

Discussion about structural racism must be allowed

The preparatory course of the Anti-Racist Forum enhanced study skills to enable the participants to absorb as much information as possible from the entrance exam books. The course also improved their self-esteem.

– For example, we were made to teach to the others the content of the articles that we had read. It was a really good method because when you had to explain the matter to the others in a way that they would understand, you really had to remember it, Jenny Kasongo says.

She had also completed a preparatory course organised by Varjovalmennus, which was open to everyone. This is perhaps why she felt she benefitted more from the social side of the course organised by the Anti-Racist Forum than from the study techniques. It increased her confidence. One of the objectives of the project was to empower people from ethnic minorities to believe in themselves and act for their own benefit. 

– The atmosphere was warm and I knew that if I needed help, the coaches and the other participants would help me. Especially the last meeting helped me and gave me confidence. I was nervous about going to the entrance exam and didn't think I would be admitted. The course taught us why you should be satisfied with yourself and be confident in the exam. Entrance exams test how well the candidates can keep their thoughts together. Very many candidates know the subject matter well, but the time pressure and the other candidates in the classroom affect their performance. You should concentrate on what you are doing yourself, Kasongo says.

It has been great to be able to talk about my experiences to someone else who fully understands what I am going through.

The Equality as Preparation project did not end with the preparatory course but continued as mentoring in the autumn. Jenny Kasongo, who studies social sciences in the Faculty of Social Sciences with Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin, was able to talk about stress and go through the unpleasant feelings that structural racism evoked in her.

– It has been great to be able to talk about my experiences to someone else who fully understands what I am going through.

Jenny Kasongo was empowered to the extent that she took on the chairmanship of the Students of Colour organisation at the University of Helsinki. The organisation helps students from visible ethnic minorities, organises low-threshold events and aims to promote equality at the university through negotiations with the university’s administration.

Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin feels a need to continue the mentoring unofficially even though the project is ending. The course and the mentoring material will be made available online for everyone to use.

– I still want to use my position to help others. If find that the project was very much needed, but we would need similar long-term activities.

Equality as Preparation

  • Project type: A solidarity project of the European Solidarity Corps
  • Project coordinator: Anti-Racist Forum
  • Project period: February 2019–January 2020 
  • Partner countries: -
  • Funding: EUR 8,068 

Text: Natalia Kisnanen