The one event which changed my perception of Estonians

People playing games outside.
Fun activities with the crowd. Photo credit: Gerlin Gil

Weeks back I got an email inviting me for the Summer University 2021 – an event organised by the Federation of Estonian Student Unions (EÜL). I was to attend in my capacity as the President of the Association of African Students, Estonia (AASE). I was excited about the opportunity to travel to another part of Estonia, but I wasn’t looking forward to much networking with native Estonians, as my previous attempts have failed rather woefully. (Long story short: When I moved into my dorm space in last November, I was eager to make friends and tried picking up conversations with random strangers. I was particularly looking out for Estonian students, but discovered soon that most Estonians are not into small talk.)

The Summer University event was to be held for two days from 21–22 August at Voore Guest house in Jõgeva County. The Tallinn contingent of student representatives set out from Tallinn for the 2 hrs 30 mins journey. I and one other African student representative were received at the park by the Project Manager, and other than the occasional eye contact and polite nod, the journey was a quiet one for me, just as I expected – but this perception would soon be shattered by the affairs of the following 48 hours.

As mentioned at the beginning, the event was organized by EÜL, which is an umbrella organisation of students whose aim is to stand for the rights, needs, and interests of students at the national level and to support student unions in carrying out their work. The Summer University was very timely, as it addressed several topics that have bedeviled our various associations. Some notable issues and highlights of the event include the following:

  1. A discussion session on discrimination of international students and how student councils should react;
  2. A workshop on mental health without borders presented by Kristel Jakobson;
  3. Presentation on the situation of international students by the representative of Eero Loonurm – Mari Liis Jakobson;
  4. Deliberations on how to help students and chat about the way forward; and
  5. A presentation by representatives of Integratsiooni Sihtasutus (The Integration Foundation) on multicultural society.

AASE made a case for the struggles of African students (especially new students), notably visa applications, accommodation, opportunities in the job market, and integration into the society, and at the end of the first day, it was clear to me that although international students have peculiar struggles, there are many challenges faced by all students, including Estonians.

I was shocked when (during the event) I had people walk up to me to pick up conversations. I was lucky to be paired in a room with an Estonian student who is probably the most energetic soul I’ve met since moving to Estonia November last year. He was versatile and told me the history behind everything. 

Group photo of the participants.
Participants of the Summer University 2021. Image credit: Gerlin Gil

We had fun field activities, and in no time I had found a basis for conversation with students interested in geopolitics and my home country, with a brilliant chap working in an awesome startup, recommendations for where to find suitable internships, and suggestions on how best to learn the Estonian language. We spent most of the late evening at the sauna and playing games, and I think I picked up more Estonian words in one evening than I have in my last six months of trying to learn at home. I took one valuable lesson home: Estonians are not difficult people provided you are willing to identify areas of mutual interest and are prepared to meet them halfway… in the sauna. 😊 So if you haven’t found a “common language” with Estonians, please don’t lose hope; rather, be ready for surprises.

The Summer University was a part of EÜL’s project, “Growing Ties: Student Democracy in a Transnational Era”, which is supported by Mondo, the European Commission, the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Estonian Ministry of Culture, and the National Foundation of Civil Society (KÜSK).

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