The Colorado College student population is fortunate to have the company of around 120 vibrant international students. Among our diverse peers, seniors Riikka Tivonen and Virpi Nieminen from Porvoo and Helsinki, Finland, respectively, were particularly drawn to the studio art program at CC.
Tivonen and Nieminen are students at the Saimaa University of Applied Sciences in Imatra and enrolled in an exchange program with CC. The two studio art majors embarked on their American voyage last January. After a great first semester, Tivonen and Nieminen both decided to return for the current fall semester.
“I came back because I really enjoyed last semester,” Nieminen said. “I enjoyed the classes I took and I loved the people I met. I liked the atmosphere of studying and doing things because outside of classes, there really is so much to do.”
Nieminen was drawn to CC because it offers and encourages interdisciplinary learning. Though an art major, she has taken a range of classes in the humanities, her favorite being the Social History of Dance and Feminist Performance with Ryan Platt.
The Saimaa University of Applied Sciences has established partner universities around the world. Tivonen wanted to spend her semester adventure in the United States, and chose Colorado over South Carolina and Georgia based on rave reviews from past exchange students.
“I was drawn to Colorado College because the head of our art department in Finland taught here for a block and I have heard many good things about CC,” Tivonen explained.
The biggest appeal for Tivonen was the block plan, which she found familiar and comfortable from her experience with block courses in Finland, which range from two to four weeks. Her exposure to the CC block plan has far surpassed her expectations.
“It has been a great experience working with peers among different majors,” she said. “In my three-dimensional art class, I got to work with mathematics and biology majors who showed me a completely different way of thinking.”
While both Tivonen and Nieminen feel they have benefited from the interdisciplinary nature of learning at CC, Nieminen emphasized how it differs from the narrowness of the curriculum at the Saimaa University.
“Back home it’s a pretty narrow focus because it’s only about art and making art,” Nieminen said. “We don’t study art history or art theory or anything else, so it’s nice to be able to focus on things outside studio that gives what we do depth.”
Her experience at Colorado College has not been confined to the classroom though. The social life at CC also differs from those of her university and home.
“When I first arrived at CC, I thought it was pretty amazing,” Nieminen explained “In Finland, studying is not a social experience the way it is here where you live in a school dormitory, or you eat at the school cafeteria, and there is not as much of a presence of school clubs. There I study, but I live my life outside of that.”
Coming from Finland, where undergraduate students range between the ages 19-35, Tivonen found the student culture here to have more of a cohesive, campus feel. In contrast to the independent student body at her home university, Tivonen thinks CC students are open and friendly.
“It was really difficult coming to this new school system and speaking English,” Tivonen said. “I didn’t know how to adapt at first since I had never been to the United States before.” Nieminen had similar apprehensions before she arrived at campus.
“Before arriving, I was afraid I wouldn’t get to know anyone or that it would be difficult to socialize and make friends, but that’s not true at all,” Nieminen said. “I didn’t really have to address my fears because everyone was so welcoming. People came to talk to me. They came knocking on my door. I had to try to not be shy about it, but I really didn’t have to do much work.”
Nieminen considered other schools in the United States and the UK; she knew she wanted to go to a university where English was the primary language. She has been speaking English since the age of nine, but feels that her time in the States improved her fluency of the language.
“I can produce the language better now,” Nieminen said. “Before, my vocabulary was already pretty good because I’ve been reading in English since I was 12, but I couldn’t really speak. I couldn’t remember the words I wanted to say, or I would stumble over my words, but now I can speak.”
Language is a primary skill they both developed, but Tivonen also emphasized the role of CC professors in her artistic growth.
“The professors here are doing a great job,” Tivonen said. “I should be home for my senior year, but it is an important experience to gain new perspectives on my art.”
While the art classes here entail more blunt and frequent critiques than the girls are used to in Finland, this subjection to peer insights has helped Tivonen further develop as an artist. Beyond having the opportunity to stack her entire course schedule with studio art classes, both Nieminen and Tivonen had the chance to visit New York City with the art department’s senior seminar outing.
“New York was overwhelming but a great once-in-a-lifetime chance to go there with the professors and see famous museums and galleries” Tivonen said. “There is so much to see in America, it is hard to tell what is really ‘American’ because there are so many ways to be ‘American’.”
For Tivonen, the most recognizable cultural difference is the level of friendliness.
“In Finland, we don’t have small talk” Tivonen said. “People are pretty straightforward so it took a while to get used to people here asking, ‘How are you?’ and not responding with my life story of all the good and bad things.”
Nieminen reiterated our campus’s friendly nature when asked to compare CC students to the Finnish students back home.
“I think in Finland, people are generally more shy and more quiet. You don’t just go and talk to strangers as much. Students here are really open and outgoing.”
Though CC is very different from her home, Nieminen said she did not really experience culture shock, except for one aspect of college life that she said she will never be able to understand.
“Beer pong, oh my god, I just don’t get it. It’s like why? Why do you throw a dirty Ping-Pong ball that rolls around the ground, the ground that people walk on with shoes on, and you throw it into a beer and you drink it? I mean, not that the beer is good to begin with, but why do you need to make it more disgusting?,” she answered without hesitation, laughing.
Though Nieminen looks at her time at CC as a positive growing experience, she found it difficult to adjust to some feelings of homesickness.
“I miss little things like going to the grocery store and knowing exactly what products you want and where they will be, or even just public transportation to the grocery store . . . I’m used to being independent and living on my own. It’s difficult to get away from campus because public transportation isn’t that good,” Nieminen said.
She also mentioned her wish that CC address the lack of available art spaces.
“If I’m not taking an art class in a specific space, I don’t really have access to any working place,” Nieminen said. “Teachers have been accommodating, which is really nice, but there’s no space where you could just go to.”
However, she believes that CC students are lucky and should be aware of the opportunities that the school creates every single day.
“Students should appreciate what they have here,” Nieminen said. “There are so many great chances to study and do different things. Also, studying is made so easy, with the access to the library and how easy it is to go around the campus. I think people appreciate it already, but it’s really different in Finland.”
While both students appreciate CC and thrive in the studio here, it is clear that they are looking forward to their return to Finland.
“I would like to graduate from CC since beginning my thesis here and meeting all of the great professors,” Tivonen said. “But it will be good to return home and gain a new perspective on my work. I have mixed feelings but I should probably go home to finish off my senior year.”
Tivonen is looking forward to returning to her family, friends, her spacious studio, and the routine Finnish sauna.
Tivonen and Nieminen will return to Finland for the holidays and their final semester at the Saimaa University. Their art will be featured in the Art Museum of Imatra, alongside the projects of roughly 30 Finnish peers.
Ming Lee Newcomb