Public Health Perspectives in Finland and Estonia

Name: Melinda Dang

Type of Project: Education Abroad

1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.
Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.

For my STEP Signature Project, I participated in the Public Health Perspectives: Finland and Estonia education abroad program that took place from May 18th to June 1st, 2018. I explored these two countries’ health initiatives, health challenges, education systems, unique cultures, and rich histories. By traveling to six cities within Finland and Estonia, visiting various museums, and going to cultural landmarks, I gained a more comprehensive understanding of both nations.

The class took a group photo in front of the Helsinki Cathedral. What a striking shot.

2. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?
Write one or two paragraphs to describe the change or transformation that took place.

Having never traveled internationally before, I was unfamiliar with Europe and especially Eastern Europe. Finland and Estonia are countries I have heard of, but lacked knowledge about. Visiting these two countries expanded my knowledge of their history and health outcomes. Throughout the experience, I was curious and attentive, and I journaled each day to help me reflect on the day’s activities and what I learned. I aimed to be like a sponge and absorb all the information and sights, sounds, and senses around me. I especially enjoyed the excursion to the Finnish Institute for Health & Welfare, where I gained insight into current research and health challenges in Finland. I observed school lunches in a Finnish university and high school, and in both countries, I noticed cigarette sales and eating practices. This all informed me on how Americans can improve our own health outcomes. We can use more reusable utensils, offer more fresh food in schools and elsewhere, and make our cities healthier by having wide sidewalks and bike paths so that people can increase their physical activity.

Students actually want to eat their lunches in Finland; healthy, fresh options are offered!

I tested my capabilities of traveling internationally and independently. I explored on my own a few times, including taking flights alone, which all the more enhanced my self-efficacy skills. By booking my own flight and perusing tourist brochures to plan what to do during my free time, I learned about preparing for travel. Flexibility was a skill I often employed, whether it was adjusting to the extended amount of daylight abroad or the different style of bathrooms in Europe. In addition, I became familiar with taking various forms of transportation: ferries, trams, trains, taxis, and buses, so now I feel more confident in traveling. I engaged in intercultural exchange with tour guides, students, and everyday people; we shared our life stories and found commonalities and contrasts. This allowed me to strengthen my networking and interpersonal skills. Because of my experiences abroad, I evaluate my life and the rest of the world in a different light, and through different lenses.

3. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?
Write three or four paragraphs describing the key aspects of your experiences completing the project that led to this change.

Interacting with not only my peers but also the people I encountered in Finland and Estonia contributed to my transformation into a more globally-aware Buckeye. I realized the vast interconnectedness among humans and the extent of America’s cultural influence; I saw McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants as well as Deadpool 2, Solo, and Black Panther showings. At Keuruu High School in Finland, student artwork showed references to TV shows like Adventure Time and Spongebob. The students discussed aspects of their daily life with us, including movies, Netflix, and memes. They even prepared presentations for us about Finnish cuisine, holidays, values, and music. I am grateful that they openly welcomed us. I learned that they ride bikes or scooters to school; they do not lock up their bikes because nobody steals items. It is no wonder that Finland is ranked as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. These conversations were enriching because I got first-hand narratives from people.

Sometimes I was approached by store clerks who began speaking in Estonian, and I was bemused that they thought I would understand; I only knew “Thank you” and “Hello.” When I received a manicure from a woman who only spoke Estonian, we still communicated through hand gestures. I never found myself frustrated when communicating with people; I just remained open-minded and respectful. Having patience and composure regardless of where I am will get me far.

With my group, I participated in a myriad of events and activities. I developed relationships with my peers by exploring these unfamiliar areas together and sharing insights into health issues for our class assignments. We went into grocery stores to see how cigarettes were sold and we walked around towns to evaluate how walkable the cities were. We stayed a few days in cottages at a farm in rural Petajavesi, Finland, where we had an authentic sauna experience to better understand the significance of saunas in Finnish culture. We went to museums to learn about the history of Estonia and how people lived centuries ago. We also went to a science center, an U.S. Embassy, and three college campuses.

Another facet of my transformation was that I strengthened my responsibility and money management skills. With countless opportunities to shop, I exerted self-control and strategically bought souvenirs for close to 20 people, and I was still under budget at the end of the program. I was fully funded for my STEP Project because I fervently applied to multiple scholarships and received some assistance from friends and family. I learned of how much effort and planning goes into study abroad. The entirety of this STEP project was a learning experience for me, and I aim to study abroad in the future to continue learning more about the world.

4. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?
Write 1-2 paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.

The transformative experience of studying abroad is significant to me in multiple ways. First, it fulfilled a personal goal of mine to travel. I enjoy learning about cultures, and this opportunity allowed me to study different walks of life. Secondly, as a budding public health professional, this study abroad experience encouraged me to blossom even more. I learned about how both Finland and Estonia designed cities to be sustainable and more people-friendly. Traffic lights and signs work well and are clearly marked. In Estonia, speed limits are even painted on streets. Both countries have tighter regulations on cigarette packaging and more graphic, emotion-evoking warning labels than on America’s cigarettes. From my observations, it is clear to me that Finland and Estonia invest more into their communities and are more concerned for the welfare of their people.

Our in-country homework assignments allowed me to analyze issues at home and abroad and synthesize them into Instagram posts, which I created using graphic design tools. By posting my homework online, I am communicating this health information with the rest of my network and beyond. Furthermore, I see social media as an essential tool for reaching populations, spreading awareness about health, and influencing behavior change. In the future, I hope to include this aspect of health communication and social media marketing into my career. In addition, I want to work hands-on with communities to improve their health. With a strong understanding of what it is like to live in those communities, I can effectively influence change so that people have access to transportation, healthy food, and more.

*** I encourage you to read my two-part blog post on my main Honors & Scholars e-portfolio page, where I describe my travels in greater detail. The link to my page is:

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