Classroom on Wheels, Water, and Air (part 2)

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. I traveled, prepared for a midterm, presented two group projects, spent time with my host family, and played tour-guide for my parents, who visited me in Copenhagen! (Love you Mom and Dad and I’m sorry you got lost that one night and had to ask a bouncer for directions.)

Recently, I’ve felt especially grateful for the opportunity to travel to Estonia and Finland with other students in the public health program. During the week-long study tour, my core class spent time in Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland. Prior to traveling, I could kind of point out Estonia on a map and I knew that Finland had fjords, like in the movie Frozen. Apart from that, I was pretty much clueless. I knew next to nothing about their health care systems.

Academic goals of the study tour included understanding the role and function of different health organizations, observing the challenges Western-European countries face in relation to health care, and learning about Tallinn and Helsinki through exposure to their history. Highlights included visits to the Estonian Health Insurance Fund, Estonian Sexual Health Association, and the Finnish Cancer Registry.

Everyone knows past events shape future attitudes and outcomes, but that connection was glaringly evident in Estonia. Prior to gaining independence in 1991, Estonia was under the rule of the oppressive Soviet regime. Their health system has since been completely restructured, but remnants of the Soviet influence can still be seen today. Take Estonia’s abortion policies, for example. Unlike in the United States, abortions are not stigmatized and do not face strong opposition from religious groups. Estonia is considered one of the least religious countries in Europe, in part due to the Soviet-period atheist policy. Our tour guide told us churches were turned into schools, clubs, and jails.

My class stayed in a hotel within walking distance of Tallinn’s Old Town, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We ate a meal at Olde Hansa and it was hands down the most entertaining meal we’ve had on a study tour. The restaurant transported its guests back to medieval times. I carved a ham and drank beer from 0.5 liter drinking vessel. I felt as though I’d walked onto the set of Ella Enchanted.

In contrast, our Helsinki hotel was located in the middle of the shopping center. Cue malls, streets with a Parisian air, and lots of art museums. There were no fjords in sight. It was naïve to think all of Finland is ice tundra. Helsinki was modern, expensive, and extremely progressive in many of its policies.

The walking tour of Helsinki was my second favorite activity in Finland. (Jumping in a frozen lake after sitting in a blazing hot sauna – imagine your nose hairs burning – most definitely took the cake.) Our tour guide waved a colorful flag as we followed her through the streets of Helsinki. She pointed out famous landmarks and shared café recommendations.

She also talked about one of Finland’s most successful public health interventions, the maternity package. The Finnish government gives expectant mothers a box containing bodysuits, a sleeping bag, outdoor gear, bathing products, diapers, bedding, and a small mattress. Companies compete to have their products provided in the box. The gift is given regardless of income and requires only that mothers receive prenatal care. It greatly reduced infant mortality. What an ingenious way to get mothers to go to the doctor!

As the hectic pace of the last few weeks reminded me, it’s easy to get caught up in planning what should happen next. Where should we go? What should we see? Often, we’re much too busy being busy. We forget to pause. We forget to reflect. We forget how truly lucky and privileged we are to have the means to learn and travel abroad. It’s important to remember the wise words of Ralph Emerson: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

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