In the last three years, Laurea UAS has expanded its multiculturalism and international expertise by creating tailor-made programs for students arriving from China. Students who complete this program will leave Laurea with a Finnish university degree.
To begin this degree the students take part in entrance exams in China and apply for the preparatory studies. During the preparatory studies, qualified students move to Finland. After passing the preparatory studies, they continue with their degree program. So far, all the degree programs have been either in nursing or social services.
Moving from the other side of the world to study in Finland
Many of the students move to Finland with their family members. Everything is new for them, the country, way of living, culture and language. It takes incredible courage for students to leave home with their families. For all the arriving student groups Laurea UAS has arranged a student trainee to help them and their family members during their integration phase. These trainees have also been Laurea UAS students – nursing or social services students. A contract of employment has been made for three months and has qualified as a paid internship. The internship role is to be a “support person” for the arriving study groups from China.
The job description of the support person includes supporting and assisting in the integration phase, which is for the first three months of the immigrant students’ arrival to Finland. The support person’s responsibilities include reception at the airport upon the student’s arrival in Finland, helping with the official immigration process, planning activities for the students and teaching about the Finnish culture. In addition to supporting students, the responsibilities include supporting the integration of the students’ families. (Janatuinen 2021.) Spouses’ and children’s integration is a very important part of the integration and well-being of the whole family. (Kestävän väestönkehityksen Suomi 2020, 22.)
Now that Laurea UAS has had several study groups from China, it is very important to evaluate how the immigrant students felt about the support they received and how trainees felt the internship succeeded. Graduated social services student Janette Janatuinen, who was also support person herself, made a study of this issue for her thesis. This article is based on Janatuinen (2021) thesis Experiences of Support Persons and Immigrant Students: Integration Work at the University of Applied Sciences. Janatuinen’ s co-author in this article is Sanna Partamies. Partamies is a Development Manager who works with international tailor-made groups. She was also the recipient of Janatuinen ‘s thesis.
Why is support staff important?
Moving from one culture to another is not easy. Different challenges are encountered in the new country, such as learning a new language, adapting to the education system and understanding the cultural habits and practices of social interaction. The immigrants must redefine their own identity and place. There are many factors that enforce immigration. These are called “pushing” and “pulling” factors; pushing factors make a person leave their home county, while pulling factors attract people to move into a certain country. Main pushing and pulling factors are social and political factors, demographic and economic factors and environmental factors. (Maahanmuuton syyt – mikä saa ihmiset lähtemään kodeistaan? 2020.)
Significant cultural differences between the individual and the community must also be noted. In Finland, like in other Western countries, we live in an individual-centered culture. An individual-centered culture emphasizes individual aspirations, experiences and thoughts. While in communal cultures, such as China, the importance of family and community is emphasized more. The transition between these cultures is extremely challenging. It requires a lot from both the immigrant and the host country. (Taajamo & Puukari 2007,13-14.)
When immigrants move to a new country, it is important that they integrate. Integration means that the immigrants acquire knowledge and skills that they need in the new society. Integration can be promoted in several places and services, such as schools, leisure activities and workplaces; however, municipalities have the main responsibility for the implementation of integration. Immigrant’s needs and issues should be taken into consideration individually in order for a successful integration (Osallisena Suomessa 2010, 18.) Finland also has laws that promote and support integration and the opportunity for immigrants to be a part Finnish society equally. (Laki kotoutumisen edistämisestä 1386/2010.)
In addition to integration, participation is an important factor for immigrant’s well-being. The Finnish Social and Health Ministry defines participation as being a part of something, being able to make an impact on self and to take part on own wellbeing. (Osallisuuden edistäminen 2020.) Finnish institute for health and welfare defines participation as everyones’ right and access to health services, education, work, income, home, and social relationships. (Kotoutuminen ja osallisuus 2021.)
According to Kärkkäinen (2019) education can support integration. Education brings opportunities to meet people, learn from the locals and create a feeling of equality and belonging with the other students. Interacting with locals is important in order to learn about the new country and it increases chances to get support with things that are harder for an immigrant. (Kärkkäinen 2019.) Finnish higher education institutions can be said to have succeeded in their internationalization strategies, as the share of international students in the student population of Finnish higher education institutions is at the same level as in other EU countries. After graduation, more than 60 percent of foreign students who have completed their degree in Finland still live in Finland. (Työllistyminen on osa maahanmuuttajien kotoutumista 2020.)
How was the study executed?
After three years of tailor-made education in Laurea, there was a need for a study to research the satisfaction of the students with the support person program. A thesis was produced by a support person, who interviewed 3 other former support persons and 3 immigrant students that had received support. The purpose of the thesis was to find how a support person can help immigrant students’ integration and participation. The goal was to find out how the support persons and immigrant students experienced the significance of the support persons’ work. The recipient of the thesis was Laurea University of Applied Sciences. (Janatuinen 2021).
The research questions of the thesis were:
- In what ways did the support person advance the immigrant student’s integration and participation?
- How was the support persons’ work found significant?
A qualitative method was applied in the study. The research material was collected through semi-structured individual interviews which were conducted as individual interviews. The interviews were held and recorded on Zoom, except for one, that was done by email. The collected material was analyzed using content analysis. All the participants were women, and they were either social services or nursing students. Immigrant students had future plans to stay to live and work in Finland after graduation. The employment relationships of support staff have been occurring at Laurea since 2019. It is therefore important to note that for some interviewees, there could already be time passed since their experience.
Experiences of support persons and immigrant students
The results showed that the main factors for helping integration and participation were guidance, peer support and co-operation. All interviewees mentioned guidance, which was needed in daily life, official process of immigration and with Finnish culture.
Five out of six interviewees mentioned peer support. This result came out as a feeling of the immigrant students being friends with the support person and vice versa. These interviewees mentioned that it was important to receive and give support from student to student. In all of the interviews co-operation was also mentioned. Co-operation included things such as daily trips, activities and going to different important services, like the bank and the immigration office together.
“The students needed a lot of help with different kinds of things, for example using the sauna, where to buy clothes, about Finnish culture and buying groceries.”
Both the immigrant students and the support persons found the offered support significant. Based on the material collected, the participants stated the most significant impacts were the ability to learn from the support person, the feeling of safety created by the support person and the foundation the support person helped build to advance integration.
All the interviewees found the support persons’ work to deliver a significant base for the immigrant student´s integration. Also, moving to Finland without having a support person was considered a lot harder. The interviewees guessed, that without the support person the immigrant students would have faced more problems in all kinds of areas.
“Having a support person was very important for my integration. Everything that she helped me with, was easier for me to manage.”
The ability to learn included learning about the cultural differences and practicalities through the support person. The feeling of safety created by the support person came out when the immigrant students explained how much more secure they felt arriving to Finland knowing that there was someone waiting to help them with their issues. This feeling was described by using the words safety and warmth.
“Like I said, I cannot imagine arriving to Finland without no one waiting for me at the airport alone with my daughter and all the luggage. All I had, was the address to my apartment. I didn’t know how to get there. I would have been so lost. Knowing my support person was at the airport waiting for us, it made me feel safe.”
The support persons described the created feeling of safety by explaining how their work included being available most of the time and making sure that they offer help with all kinds of issues.
“Teachers were not available all the time, when we, support people were available pretty much most of the time. I’m sure that made a difference to how much we could help and support them in all kinds of issues.”
Most valuable results – what can we do next?
Results show that guidance and co-operation are important for a successful integration. The results support Finland’s participation development plan where the vision is to make integration effective for immigrants with guidance and counseling. (Participated in Finland 2010, 18.)
The peer support experienced by support workers and immigrant students was perceived as a factor in promoting both integration and participation. Support persons and immigrant students felt mutual equality from studying at the same polytechnic. Both the immigrant students and support persons highlighted the importance to receive help from another student’s perspective.
It is safe to say that both the immigrant students and the support persons were satisfied with the provided support and its ability to help integration. The main conclusions are that the support work carried out in helping integration and participation is versatile. It also creates a good foundation for integration. Throughout the support period, the immigrant students advanced in their learning and felt safer.
The findings of the thesis will be used to develop the support services in Laurea UAS. Laurea UAS finds some of the results very important in order to develop the support persons work description and to make the immigrant student´s integration even smoother in the future. The feeling of safety created by the support person is something that has raised interest for a further development topic. It is important for Laurea UAS to understand how early and in what ways the immigrant students should receive support in order to feel as safe as possible when arriving to Finland.