The student years are a time for learning from mistakes. Independence, finding your own direction in life, and meeting new people inevitably leads to situations where there are no right answers. When that happens, the only option is to make your choice and see what happens. This is where the spontaneity and wild side of student culture springs from. “Let’s have a laugh,” someone suggests, and before you know it, a merry band of revellers is heaving a sofa onto the roof just to see what happens next. However, as too many of us know, what happens next is not always very instructive.
There are times when I’m not really sitting at my desk at all. Instead, in my mind I’m being hoisted several metres above the ground; the chain my chair is suspended from feels cold in my hands, the crane lifting me creaks, and I let out a scream, because I’m afraid of heights. A May Day breeze blows through the Market Square in central Helsinkim and a crowd of ten thousand waits for us to continue the long tradition of dropping a secondary school graduation cap onto the head of the Havis Amanda statue. And just as often when I study, there are moments when I imagine myself sitting in a windowless conference room. The air is stuffy, and I have reams of documents in front of me that I had to wade through and summarise for the people present. I have to tell them about the racist harassment I have experienced. I must be prepared to explain to them why this is something they should care about, as we don’t have any written procedures for dealing with such problems. After all, there’s no discrimination here, is there.
No matter where I am, these moments keep coming back to me. Throughout my student years, I learned a lesson a day about a whole lot of things: how to get by on a shoestring budget, how to pass exams, how to let it all hang out, how to small talk, how to tough talk, and how to advocate for the causes I believe in. And I also learned about things that needed to be unlearned, and about things that needed facing up to, publicly and without beating around the bush. Those times taught me things I’d hoped I’d never have to learn.
But faced with these ugly realities, it’s been heartening to see how boldly the student movement has responded. For example, the student movement saw the wisdom of having contact people at their events to whom incidents of harassment could be reported. They showed the same wisdom and resolve in joining the campaign to bring about genuine changes to stamp out racism. One lesson learned in this regard is that those who have suffered harassment deserve a sincere apology from those responsible, who then need to make amends. Changes like this involve not only learning from mistakes but also making a commitment to do better in future. And all this has happened very, very quickly. What would have been unthinkable when I began at university are now the topics of mainstream debate – and that’s within a period of just six years. That’s an astonishing pace.
For every individual, learning should be what they want it to be, not what others want. What it needs to be. It should involve freedom and euphoria, challenges, discomfort, and choices. It is up to the student movement to ensure that every student in their own community has these opportunities. It requires constant critical reflection on one’s own attitudes and actions, and above all the strength and stamina to stand your ground amid the endless paperwork and wrangling that real, lasting change requires. Every failure, every overlooked incident of harassment reinforces a culture in which only certain kinds of people can get the most out of their student years.
There are no heroic stories of having endured harassment – these ordeals create only memories that you would rather leave behind. But an alternative reality is always possible, as long as you never give up fighting for it.
And giving up the fight is something we sincerely hope the student movement we hold dear will ever do.
Sami activist, SYL alumni