Border expertise by a border
In today's world, borders are significant on a multitude of levels, and they constitute an important theme of research at the University of Eastern Finland. As research and education tend to go hand in hand, autumn 2012 witnessed the launch of a new international Master's degree programme: Border Crossings – Global and Local Societies in Transition.
The Border Crossings programme seeks to give students a profound understanding of borders and bordering processes in society while looking at issues related to identity, mobilities, migration, multiculturalism, citizenship and cross-border cooperation. The programme offers a choice of two majors: human geography and sociology. Human geography majors study border crossings in a global context, while sociology majors focus on borders, society and cultural diversity.
Chloe Wells, a second year human geography major from the UK, sees the combination of the two majors as an advantage. "The benefits of having two majors in the programme include the fact that you get the input and ideas from the other. I think that really broadens the theoretical framework." Yangzi Xu, also a second year student and a sociology major from China, likewise thinks that the combination works. "The two major subjects clearly have different focuses, but I think that is only beneficial."
The University of Eastern Finland is a powerhouse in border studies, and cultural encounters, mobilities and borders constitute one of the global challenges the university seeks to find solutions for. "This is the perfect place to study borders! In addition to the Border Crossings programme, the university hosts the Karelian Institute and the VERA Centre for Russian and Border Studies. This has been a good fit for me," Wells says.
Her Master's thesis focuses on the town of Vyborg, which Finland ceded to the Soviet Union after the Winter War in 1940. "In my thesis, I study how Finns see the town and what the town means to Finnish people."
The town of Vyborg is also the focus of broader research interest at the University of Eastern Finland. "I'm really grateful to the ‘Meanings of an Urban Space, Past and Present: Cross-cultural Studies of the Town of Vyborg from the 16th to the 21st Century' project for giving me the opportunity to present my work."
She has visited Vyborg twice, and she is convinced of the importance of doing research on-site. "Actually being here on the border is so valuable. You can study and write as much as you like in theory, but to experience it in real time and in real life is really priceless."
Sociology and human geography combined
Xu is a good example of a modern-day globetrotting student. First, a Bachelor's degree in Sweden, then a Master's in Finland with an exchange period in the UK and, sometime after graduation, plans to do some voluntary work in South America. Currently, she is in the process of writing her Master's thesis.
"I just got back from China, where I was collecting data for my thesis. I am studying the situation of African immigrants doing business in Yiwu, a small city in China. My thesis is in the field of sociology, but it has elements of human geography, too."
Broad career horizons
The Border Crossings programme provides students with skills that can be used in a wide variety of future careers. "The programme's focus on borders is not narrow; instead, it gives a global awareness of international relations, politics, economics, and so on. This is a very relevant field of study, especially in today's world," Wells says.
Xu has a clear idea about her future career: "I'm interested in human resources. I'd like to work in an international company where the staff come from all over the world. The Border Crossings programme has given me plenty of intercultural competence."
A laid-back environment
Wells originally came to Finland as an au pair three and a half years ago. Her initial crush on the country has turned into a steady relationship. "I really love Finland and Joensuu. This is my home now and I'm planning on staying here. If you like outdoor life, nature and a relaxed lifestyle, Joensuu is perfect." It's not all peace and quiet, though. "The Erasmus Student Network is really active here and they welcome everyone to their events," she continues.
Xu also believes in extracurricular activities, and despite the fact that most of her time is now devoted to her thesis, she has found time to attend the university's debate club. "I like Joensuu, although sometimes it's a bit cold for my taste," she says, laughing.
Text: Maj Vuorre Photo: Varpu Heiskanen