From August 2019-March 2020, my family and I had the privilege of living in Finland, while I was serving as the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki. Never did I imagine myself having a Fulbright to any country of the world, much less a distinguished professor chair in Finland.
When I applied for the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies, I was a professor of political science at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. My field of specialization is primarily American politics, most especially the study of the politics of the American South. As a result, I never thought I would be competitive for a Fulbright. In 2012 though, one of my colleagues at The Citadel, who is also an American politics specialist, won a Fulbright and began to encourage me actively to apply for one too. The rest is history!
Whenever I share my Fulbright experience with others, one of the first questions I receive is “Why Finland?” The person asking that question usually does not understand that they have asked a very open-ended question that takes at least 15 minutes to answer!
The Fulbright Finland Bicentennial Chair allowed me the opportunity to teach students in the North American Studies Program at the University of Helsinki. My teaching experience in Finland helped me to ask questions and learn more about my native country from afar than I believe would have been possible otherwise. I found my students to be intellectually curious, and I had a much deeper discourse with them about various issues than had been my typical experience — before or since.
I would never have considered a Fulbright that did not allow my wife to travel with me. Though my oldest daughter was already in college, my youngest daughter had a “gap year” between high school and college, and she was able to travel with us. Without reservation, I can say that all three of us grew immensely as individuals during our 7 months in Finland.
We were able to immerse ourselves in Finnish culture in a way that a 2-3 week visit would not have allowed. My daughter even became involved in a local choir during our time in Helsinki. We were amazed at how she was able to sing with Finnish and Swedish lyrics very quickly. We all acquired a love for Sibelius’s works too.
All three of us found living in Helsinki to be a wonderful adventure. One of the liberating things living in the Bicentennial Chair apartment was that that it was so centrally located that we had no need for a car. Our friends in America have often asked how we managed without a car. In fact, we found not having a car to be a liberating experience during that time. Helsinki is a very walkable city, and the public transportation is wonderful. While we learned a bit of Finnish, we found English so “universal” that we always felt at home.
We Met Santa Claus!
As much as we enjoyed the conveniences of Helsinki, we also made a conscious effort to see other parts of Finland and were able to visit Porvoo, Turku, as well as some of the outlying suburbs to Helsinki, including both IKEA locations. We made two trips to Lapland that were magical to us in so many ways. In November 2019, we visited Rovaniemi and visited the Santa Claus Village. This was also our first foray north of the Arctic Circle—just barely. In March 2020, we spent a long weekend at Ylläs, where we were treated to enormous amounts of snow. As natives to the American South, our exposure to snow was limited at best. All three of us kept marveling at the snow, and we also had our first cross-country skiing experience.
Sadly, the pandemic forced us to return to the U.S. two months early. However, we would not trade anything for our experience in Finland. Nearly three years later, I found myself constantly encouraging students and my fellow colleagues to pursue a Fulbright. Naturally, I inevitably ask them, “Have you ever thought about Finland?” I cannot say enough about my experience in Finland. So much so, that I find myself constantly looking for reasons to return.