A Johor native finds success in the hospitality sector after taking on a non-traditional route at a university in Finland.
RAISED by her grandmother in a small kampung, entrepreneur Evon Söderlund (pic, above) is a proud example of Finland’s vocational system.
At age 19, the dancer left Johor Baru to explore what Europe had to offer.
Laughing at her naivety then, she shares how she had expected to be hired even without a solid education and zero knowledge of foreign languages.
Her life changed after she got married and went on to study hospitality management at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki.
“I struggled. When I moved to Finland, I begged for a job at the Malaysian Embassy. I just sobbed because I was so desperate for an opportunity and the ambassador at the time gave me one. I will never forget his kindness.”
After two years, she left her secretarial job to study.
Most Asians she met were either cleaners or servers and she was adamant to do better. She wanted to be an entrepreneur.
“My husband Jussi and I wondered why there were no fun event venues like our karaoke outlets in Finland.
“It was a business opportunity I wanted to pursue so that’s how I ended up at Haaga-Helia. I got a second chance at making something of myself because education here is free,” she says.
After her graduation in 2012, Huone, an award-winning events hotel offering space, food and entertainment facilities, was born.
She credits her stubborn streak for the many accolades received.
“I am very stubborn – that’s my secret. You must have a clear vision of what you want and live in tomorrow, not today.
“After I graduated, I wanted to start my business but the financial crisis hit and no bank wanted to loan me money.
“Jussi and I sold our home and emptied our bank accounts. And here we are now.”
Calling her study experience a “good cultural shock”, she advises Malaysians not to be cliquish if they want to study abroad as it’s important to reach out and make friends.
“There’s no hierarchy. Educators are very approachable but it was weird calling them by name, which is the local culture.
“Students are not competitive with each other here. It’s about achieving success as a team,” she shares.
In 1985, Finnish education was ranked alongside Malaysia and Peru, Haaga-Helia managing director Lars Eltvik says.
He feels that Finland’s advancement was because of a flexible education system (see graphic).
He says Haaga-Helia, present in some 20 countries including China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, was not keen on “just doing consultancy work and writing reports” because the transfer of knowledge and joint development of the education system requires at least five years.
Eltvik says there are no quick fixes but the right foundation could speed up a country’s progress.
Flexibility advances individuals, he says, adding that to promote vocational education, quality teacher training and a strong primary and secondary education system must complement a flexible regulatory framework.
Eltvik says in Finland, vocational and academic education are equally valued by parents and society.
And, students can easily change their career paths because education is free and flexible.
Commenting on the Malaysian scenario where vocational education is often dismissed as a second-class field because of its non-academic nature and the belief that the vocational track is only for those who are financially deprived, he says the situation was similar to Latin America.
In Chile, however, the perception is changing. When parents see their vocationally-trained kids do well, they’ll encourage the other kids to pursue the same career path. Change must happen at the family level, Eltvik adds.
“A national campaign to have hairstylists and other vocational professionals as telenovela heroes has helped to increase the ‘cool factor’ of vocational education in Latin America,” he says, adding that Finland’s vocational teachers must have an academic degree, at least three years’ work experience and pedagogical qualification.
“Pedagogy studies are mandatory because it lets the teachers detect and facilitate the individual learning styles of each student. Teaching is a craft,” he says, believing that the connect between home and school is a crucial element to successful learning.
About 1,000 of Haaga-Helia’s 10,000 students are foreigners.
Eltvik says the university is focused on exporting education, specifically in the area of teacher training and vocational studies.
There is a disconnect with what universities are offering and what the industry needs, he observes.
The goal is to improve teachers and bridge the gap between educational institutions and the workplace, he says.
“We don’t export the Finnish education system as is – we translate and adapt it to suit the local scenario of countries we are working with.”
Haaga-Helia (export of Finnish higher education) programme manager Pasi Halmari says the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 is good.
The higher education blueprint, aimed at nurturing well-rounded individuals capable of taking up jobs in any high-income economy, must however be properly implemented, he says. Teacher training is key, he adds.
“We must invest in people to succeed.”
The Ministry of Education and Culture is very open to international collaborations on all levels especially in the fields of higher education, research and vocational teacher training, its permanent secretary Anita Lehikoinen says.
As an ageing nation, Finland wants to attract foreign talents, she says.
Extra Government funding is given to universities that attract foreigners, she says, adding that a new culture of start-up companies driven by fresh graduates is emerging. Education for foreigners is free but students must pay for their own living expenses in Finland.
“Whether we should continue to provide free education for those outside the European Union is something that will probably be a point of debate in the near future,” she adds.
The ministry’s Centre for International Mobility (CIMO) will launch a new international mobility and co-operation programme next year after its North-South-South and Higher Education Institutions Institutional Cooperation Instrument programmes end this year. For details, log on to www.cimo.fi/english. This is the second and final segment on Education in Finland.