She was instantly recognizable as an exchange student. It wasn’t her red hair or her unusual dotted red shirt that made her stand out—it was the pocket translation dictionary that she held in her hand.
I met Helka on school registration day for my final year of high school. Apart from family trips to Mexico and the United States, I had never really met anyone who wasn’t Canadian before. I envied my friend Angela because her grandmother was British (which, for a born and bred northern Albertan, seemed very exotic) and asked my friend Mike endless questions about his time in Germany. So when I saw Helka struggling to thumb through the pages of her Finnish-English dictionary, I knew I had to meet her. That same afternoon, I called her host family and asked her to coffee.
The questions came quick and fast. I wanted to know anything and everything about Finland. But the first question was, by far, the most memorable. “So what language do you speak in Finland, anyway?” I asked Helka. “Spanish, right?” The fact that Helka was willing to humour me instantly solidified what would become a pivotal relationship in my life.
Born half a world apart, Helka and I had a lot in common. Seinäjoki, her hometown, was comparable in size to Cold Lake. She instantly understood the dynamics of our small northern town—much like I had grown up in Cold Lake my entire life, she had grown up in Seinäjoki her entire life. Helka and I were also both interested in traveling, politics and music. So when she asked me to sign up for a multimedia class with her, I instantly agreed. I knew it would be a challenge—she was still far from fluent in English, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to learn more about her and explore our mutual interests.
We became partners in writing, filming and editing weekly segments for a cable news show. It may have only been a local news network, but the positive feedback we received from the network producer made me start to realize that there were two key things that I wanted in a career—the opportunity to explore and experience different cultures, and the opportunity to share those experiences.
More than a full year after we first met, I boarded a plane, and met Helka in Berlin. We spent two months traveling through Eastern Europe together, before returning to Finland for her high school graduation. During Helka’s time in Canada, she had became very close with my family, so I was eager to meet hers—I wasn’t even daunted by the fact that neither of her parents spoke English. Soon, the very same worn pocket dictionary that Helka used during her time in Canada became dog-eared from my own page turning. It was challenging at times, but the relationships I formed and the experiences I had during my short time in Finland only solidified my desire to travel more extensively.
And much like my interest in Finnish culture, Helka has also remained a fixture in my life—in 2005, she joined my family on a sailing trip in British Columbia. And last summer, nearly five years to the day since we first met, her boyfriend Touko came to stay with me in Toronto. Helka and I still share our common interests as well—while I currently work for Youth Challenge International, Helka and Touko now reside in London, where Helka is studying international development with a focus on youth.
For me, Finland wasn’t just the start of my love of international affairs—it was also the start of a lifelong affair with learning more and with exploring the unique distinctions each culture has to offer.
-Jessica Lockhart, International Programs Coordinator