"I’m fairly certain I left a piece of my heart in Montana."

They say you will understand why Montana is referred to as Big Sky Country once you see the skyline in this beautiful, mountainous state. And it is true, no photos or descriptions do justice to the amazing landscape I was privileged to experience during the 2-week in-person part of my program, Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSI) for Secondary School Educators. You need to experience Montana first-hand to understand. 

I was awarded the grant for the program in the spring of 2021, in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic. It soon became clear that I would not be travelling to Montana at the beginning of June but would be meeting my fellow grantees and the staff at Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center online.

This turned out to be something very special for our group, though. When we finally met in real life this May, we had known each other for a year. Friendships had been formed, international collaboration had already been done and our experience was probably very different from previous years grantees’. 

During the 2-week program we got to tour four different schools, Big Sky High School, Superior High School, Sussex School and Salish Kootenai College. We listened to interesting talks on American society and democracy, visited Flathead Indian Reservation, saw a high school musical, toured museums, volunteered at Missoula Food Bank, talked with a number of American educators, had a workshop on classroom technology and spend a day in Yellowstone National Park. During our free time we explored Missoula by bike, in awe of the changing weather – you can easily experience all four seasons in Montana in the course of a single day – enjoying what the city had to offer. Most of us also hiked up Mount Sentinel, a must for anyone visiting Missoula, to admire the views from the top of the M trail. 

I’m fairly certain I left a piece of my heart in Montana. I got to experience and learn so much. I’m very fortunate and grateful to have been given this opportunity by the Fulbright Finland Foundation and the U.S. State Department. 

Headshot of Maria Virokannas
Maria Virokannas
2020-22 Study of the U.S. Institute for Secondary School Educators, University of Montana

Maria Virokannas is English Teacher at Sibelius Upper Secondary School in Helsinki.