Exchange from Finland and Poland amidst pandemic

From+top+left%3A+Sofia+Westling%2C+Deborah+Wilson-Allam%2C+Nataliia+Chugaievska%2C+Anna+Kuzmych

From top left: Sofia Westling, Deborah Wilson-Allam, Nataliia Chugaievska, Anna Kuzmych

Isabella Hudziak, Special Assignments Reporter

On Monday, March 1, the PioTalk hosted by Executive Director of International Education Deborah Wilson-Allam highlighted three exchange students from Europe that currently attend Utica College. The talk, aptly titled “Classmates from Across the Atlantic,” opened the exchange of students to community questions and a platform to share their own experiences.

PioTalks are open discussion panels hosted by the Committee of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Collaborative that spotlight certain topics and individuals within Utica College’s community.

The process for exchange students has been adjusted to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions. Exchange students, who may come for a semester or two, come from Utica College’s partner universities or through the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program. The partner schools interchange information at the beginning of each year including the number of slots available, the additions to applications, and other information which included the Utica College COVID-19 pledge.

“We get nominations for students and we look at credentials, transcripts, levels of English and personal statements,” Wilson-Allam said. “We approve all of that and send back a message to get in contact with the students themselves. We work with them overseas with a couple of Zoom meetings to talk about what to expect and what to bring with you. We did a little bit more of that to tell them what they needed to know in terms of quarantine and rules that would be expected on campus.”

At the beginning of the process, exchange students meet with Wilson-Allam for a personal meeting to discuss goals, hopes for the semester, and fears. The Department of International Education hosts several check-in meetings for the exchange students and directs them to services on campus. When the semester comes to a close, students sit down with Wilson-Allam for a lengthier session to reflect and discuss what the experience can bring to their future and provide feedback on the college’s program.

Senior Sofia Westling is from Åbo Akademi University in Finland. Swedish is her first language and one of her hobbies is winter swimming and going to a sauna. She is an accounting major who took a criminal justice class online during Utica College’s Fall 2020 semester.

“I think it was very exciting,” Westling said. “The topic itself was so new to me and it all was like being here. I got to develop my language skills, especially writing in English. It gave me a sneak peek about what my status will be like in the spring.”

Both Anna Kuzmych and Nataliia Chugaievska are on exchange from Jagiellonian University in Poland but originate from Ukraine. Utica College has sent and received faculty from Jagiellonian University, but this is the first time students are being exchanged.

Kuzmych, who is in her last year of earning a master’s degree, enjoys learning new languages and is taking a Spanish class at Utica College along with her business and finance courses.

Chugaievska studied economics in Poland after already dabbling in management and law in her hometown. She enjoys ice skating and has done work as a photographer.

“I am in the last year of my master’s degree,” Kuzmych said. “It’s my last chance to travel like a student and to participate in an exchange program. Even the Coronavirus didn’t stop me from coming to the United States and I am really happy to come here because back in Poland, all classes are remote. But here we have chances to have classes in person and it’s better for me.”

All three students arrived in early January. Before classes were conducted online for the first week of the spring semester and the first day of classes pushed forward, the exchange students were quarantining on UC’s campus. Since there were looser regulations in Finland for testing requirements and the rate of expense, Westling quarantined for ten days while Kuzmych and Chugaievska were only required to quarantine for four.

The trip from Ukraine to New York State was hectic for the exchange students. In addition to missing their first flight due to document requirements, Chugaievska and Kuzmych required a letter from Wilson-Allam confirming that they were in the exchange program to Utica College.

When asked what the most substantial difference between European schooling and American college life, the exchange students agreed that the amount of homework was peculiar.

“In Poland, we have, for example, one project for one semester and exams. No midterm exams, no quizzes or homework,” Kuzmych said. “But here, when we come home after classes, we have to set two hours to do all the homework.

Chugaievska understands the necessity of homework, especially in terms for understanding course concepts.

“Here we also have games, different quizzes and group projects,” Chugaievska said. “It’s so different for us, but also we understand that it’s good, because when we have practice we learn about the subject and we have the possibility to know more things. So far, it’s something unusual, but we try to do our best and have good marks!”

In Finland, the cafeterias have fewer options than the cafeteria at Utica College. The exchange students also noted that the demeanor of people in America is much more open than in Europe.

“People are very social here,” Westling said. “It’s easy to find new friends and people to talk to and hang out with. In Finland, people are shyer and reserved before they get to know a person.”

During the PioTalk, Wilson-Allam asked the students if there were any fun facts about their mother countries that they wanted more Americans to know. 

Facts from Finland included: that Finland is considered the happiest country in the world, school tuition is free, there is a sauna in the Helsinki Burger King and that an alumnus from Ábo Akademi University helped design the game Angry Birds.

The students from Ukraine clarified that the country is independent of Russia and that tuition fees are free along with Poland. Kuzmych also noted that a majority of Ukrainian dishes are composed of meat products.

Typically, exchange students are able to attend excursions around Utica College to get a taste of American culture. Due to COVID-19 restrictions in place, the process has been more difficult.

“We did one excursion with masks and social distancing at the Oneida Nation Cultural Center and Casino,” Wilson-Allam said. “They loved going there. Apparently, gambling is illegal all over Ukraine, so they have never been able to see something like that before.”

Utica College typically has four to five exchange students per semester. These students come from partner schools such as Kansai Gaidai University in Japan, Lingnan University in Hong Kong and Ábo Akademi University in Finland. For next fall, there have already been six applications from the Utica College student body to study abroad.

“There was definitely a loss,” said Wilson-Allam on the topic of COVID-19 impacting international student exchange. “However, I think it’s going to more than bounce back because we’ve already received several applications.”

Wilson-Allam, who began working at Utica College in 2014 and became the executive director of international education in 2017, studied abroad in Greece during her college years. She attended graduate school in Cairo, Egypt, and taught there for six years.

“Seeing how people think differently and prioritize differently, there are some things that we are not aware of in our own culture until we go away,” said Wilson-Allam about her experience abroad. “A lot of Americans I find, and I think I thought this too before I went abroad, really think ‘we don’t have a culture’ but we do, it’s just like a fish swimming in the water that you don’t see because you’re completely surrounded by it.”

Utica College currently does not have any students abroad due to health concerns. March 1 was the deadline for study abroad applications to be eligible for additional scholarships. Applications will still be accepted and meetings are encouraged.

“Go on the website and contact either Stacy Phelps or me to talk about what would work for you,” Wilson-Allam said. “Semester abroad doesn’t work for everybody but we have other options as well. I would love to see more UC students doing it.”