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HKU – Dealing With Culture Shock


Despite generous student allowances in Finland, Timo Henrik Heinonen decided to study in Hong Kong.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has received a great deal of positive media coverage in recent years, from being ranked Asia’s top university to training world-class researchers and community leaders. However, there is much more to studying at HKU than this flattering image reveals.

Choosing A University
Although I did pay attention to the reputation of different schools when I was looking for a suitable university,  I was also considering the tuition fees and accommodation costs as well as the location of the school. As a native of Finland, there was a strong inclination for me to stay in my home country for university studies. In addition to being accustomed to the culture and education system, the generous student allowance from the local government for all ­university students compelled me. Nevertheless, I chose to forgo all that and move to this side of the world for my further education.

I eventually chose HKU for several reasons. First, I wanted to experience something new, something out of the ­ordinary. While many of my classmates decided to pursue a degree in the more traditional places for higher education, such as the UK or the US, I was ready to think out of the box. Having said this, I understood the value of a diploma from an internationally recognised institution, and was also confined by the fact that I could only choose among programmes taught in English. With all these issues in mind, HKU made it to the top of my list. The final decision was made even easier by a generous entrance scholarship offered by the University.

Getting Through University Life
One should be ready for a culture shock when moving overseas to study. First, ­getting used to a new city, culture and way of life takes time and energy. It was comforting to see that HKU does not leave students alone to cope with the change. The University aims to provide housing for all first-year international students.

In addition to residential halls there are also shared flats and subsidies for students renting a place on their own. Having learnt about the vibrant hall culture of HKU, I opted for a student hall. If you were asked to describe hall life in a single word, it would most probably be brother- or sisterhood. For an international student, hall provides a safe haven from unfamiliar surroundings and hall-mates easily become a family away from home.

While it may be tempting to stay in the comfort of your hall, the only ­definite way to get over the culture shock is to ­become familiar with your new home city. Luckily enough, very few cities are more welcoming to foreigners than Hong Kong. Although somewhat of a cliché, the old ‘east meets west’ slogan holds true. While many expats do not feel the need to learn Cantonese or explore local culture, HKU students are encouraged to do so. For ­example, the University organises a student buddy for all international freshmen and offers a variety of orientation activities for its student body.

The second type of culture shock has to deal with the transition from ­secondary school to university. All of a sudden there is no fixed timetable and nobody to check your homework or monitor your ­progress on a daily basis. In other words, you ­become in charge of your own life. While some people love this freedom straight away, others find it puzzling. Either way, university is a stepping stone to the ‘real world’ where you have to manage your life on your own. In order to make the transition as smooth as possible, different faculties hand out checklists to monitor your progress and each student is provided with a personal academic adviser.

Getting Outside The Classroom
While classroom learning comprises an important component of university life, it may not be the most memorable part. Rather, traditional course work only gives students the tools they need in real life circumstances. In order for students to adapt their technical skills and theoretical knowledge to different situations, HKU provides an array of outside ­classroom learning schemes, such as field trips, ­internships and service projects. Some of these ­programmes are credit-bearing while others are organised on a voluntary basis. Different faculties also increasingly require students to join an exchange programme or to take an overseas internship as a part of their graduation requirements.

These international study opportunities played a major role in my undergraduate life. Probably the most memorable part of my university experience was joining a truly eye-opening summer internship programme in Ghana, West Africa, where I taught English and social studies in a rural primary school for two months.

During my studies, I also had the ­opportunity to meet students from other leading universities in the world through the Harvard College in Asia Programme (HCAP) in the United States and the HKU Worldwide Student Exchange Programme at Peking University.

Looking Into The Future
My three years as an undergraduate student at HKU flew by in the blink of an eye. The University provided me with what I was expecting for, namely world-class education in an international setting. In addition, I got much more than that, including a new family of hall and classmates, unparalleled experiences around the globe and memories that will last a ­lifetime. My experience as an undergraduate student together with the prestige of the University and the quality of its research programmes made it easy for me to decide to stay at HKU for a postgraduate degree as well.

University Of Hongkong
Age: 20
Attained: BSS (HK) 2011
Now: Reading MPhil in Social Sciences 2012
From: Ressu Upper Secondary School, Helsinki, Finland