What About Studying in Sweden?

The City of Gothenburg

The fun of studying abroad is that no single experience is the same. My previous student experience in Japan and the UK seemed in part irrelevant in preparing me for Sweden. What they did give me was a set of characteristics through which I could compare my new experience with, and that is what I set out to do today.

So, how is Sweden (or more precisely universities in Sweden) different?

Program Structure

Ever since I started elementary school at 6, I had always been used to taking several classes throughout a semester. It became most extreme during high school years as I struggled to revise and/or cram all the knowledge of a mix of unrelated courses before exam day. But those days are long gone, and here in Sweden I have the privilege of doing rolling courses for the first time! For my Master’s program in Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg (GU), I only need to take two courses per semester, one after another. A course often runs for 7 weeks, and I am in fact nearing the end of my first one. One interesting observation is that Swedish universities (and companies) rely heavily on week numbers as a reference to time: I started my program on week 36, now is week 41 and my take-home exam will be published on week 43. The fact that I only take one course at a time means that I can channel my attention to a specific matter or a set of supporting themes. It helps with assignments and final exams; it also helps with deepening and widening knowledge on specific issues.

Another feature of program structure worth mentioning is the focus on student-led seminars. We often have around 6 hours of lecture and 2 hours of seminar a week. Seminars often complement and conclude a week’s theme. They provide a platform for questions and debates on the issues that were put forward by lectures and reading materials. What I find intriguing about these discussions is how different people interpret the same inputs differently as a result of their personal experience, knowledge and interests. Seminars also allow for the learning opportunities among peers, and learning that takes place in such casual, interactive and constructive settings tends to stick around quite effortlessly in my experience.

The Tradition of Akademisk Kvart (Academic Quarter)

Before coming to Sweden, I was told that Swedes like to be on time. Really, precisely, on time. This means that if I come early for a meeting with someone, I can be seen as a pain in the ass because people have other business to tend to and my presence might make them rush things or feel bad. This might or might not be the case depending on the situation, but I had been low-key told off by a staff at the Swedish Embassy for coming in ahead of time, so I had reasons to believe it. And believing that, I dutifully arrived to my first class at around 10 when it was supposed to start. I waited and waited alongside fellow classmates, or strangers if you may, who seemed equally baffled as to why the door remained locked and the teacher was nowhere in sight. At 10:07, he came with no apology for being late (?). At 10:15, the lecture started. They have always started 15 minutes later than the specified time ever since.

I came home that day with the contradiction between the quarter gap and punctual Swedes haunting my mind. I turned to my Swedish boyfriend — who had spent 5 and a half years in university — for an answer. From what he told me, I came to believe that there was no such thing as quarter gap. But it soon turned out that there is, at least here in Gothenburg.

The origin of akademisk kvart is hard to pinpoint, but the tradition started back in the day when people still needed to do without the convenience of watches and phones. The only method of time keeping then was the ringing of the church bell, thus universities allowed 15 minutes after the bell rang at a full hour for students to walk to classes. The tradition survives til this day in some older Swedish universities even as churches have lost their importance in society and time reveals itself at the slightest touch of the fingertip.

Second Chances

Two courses and three months after I first wrote this piece, I have come to appreciate another feature of the Swedish higher education system: the possibility of retaking course assessments. Starting an education in a new country on a higher level of education where one has little anticipation of how one is to be assessed can be straining on the mind. It is even more so when good academic performance is a necessary condition to protect one’s visa status, along with the added (self-inflicting) pressure to perform well in school which has been burned into the mind since a young age. In fact, my first short written assignment was, in my evaluation, a disaster. It was a weak pass — a dent in my confidence — yet it turned out be just the lesson I needed to know where I failed and avoid doing so the next times. But even if I had not passed the assignment that time, I would still have another chance to re-submit my assignment after learning from my mistakes.

Second chances like this are impactful, and some second chances are more so than others. Just imagine the difference between the ability to re-submit a 4000-word essay and a 500-word short analysis. It was not uncommon in my courses that people failed to submit a major final paper by the deadline due to time limit (despite having 2–3 free weeks to work on it), illness, or the most common of all, stress. We stressed about all things imaginable: how to come up with a case study that we are passionate about whose content meets a long list of qualitative and quantitative requirements; how to write something on the level of a masters course; how not to overdo the task so that we have time to do other things. We also stressed about not being able to enjoy ourselves with the unfinished task looming large, while fantasizing about an alternative present where we had worked efficiently, completed the task and now sipping on glögg and anticipating the Christmas dinner. In the end, some among us saved themselves from the misery by letting the deadline slide by, knowing that they had a second chance to fall back to. While those second chances enabled them to prioritize their mental well-being, they taught me to unlearn a basic component of my previous education. The flexible assessment system in Sweden shows how an education is not about producing an amount of work in a given amount of time, but more about how that work reflects one’s understanding of the knowledge one is taught. It is also about self-care, enjoyment and improvement. The fact that second chances come as a given without no extra costs (while in many countries, students who fail a course need to pay to take the whole course again) imply that failure is natural and not to be punished, but encouraged, because what better way to learn than from trials and errors?

Classroom Arts

My only memory of classroom arts were crayon paintings of stick figures, one-dimensional houses and simplified reality that failed to align with the artist’s intentions. I stopped seeing arts inside classrooms as soon as I left elementary school, but I never thought much about it until I started to spot arts again here at GU. I do not know how much my experience speaks for Swedish universities as a whole, but there is always some form of arts in every classroom I have entered. These are not mass-produced, copied-and-pasted pieces. Sometimes there is a vivid painting of a swimming pool with colorful water ripples and a ceiling blooming with flowers. Sometimes there are paper dots in different sizes and colors taped here and there in the room. I don’t know why they make me think of music. Perhaps it is how musical notes would look like if they had a form. Sometimes there is abstract arts: In transparent cases on the wall are thick books with a big hole in them as if a bomb had gone off in the middle. I cannot help but think that it represents the death of knowledge, which is even more intriguing given the space of exhibition. A classroom is where knowledge is passed down, not where it should pass away, shouldn’t it?

As I let my mind entertain the possible explanations for displaying destroyed books in classrooms, the benefits of having arts in a study environment become clear. Arts, or the “expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”, have always been used as an effective means to stimulate the right-brain functions. We rely heavily on the left hemisphere of the brain during the learning process as we continuously employ logic, reasoning and critical thinking to understand and reflect on information. The presence of arts hence provides important stimulus that adjust the balance. Arts also have immediate, perceivable impacts: They please your eyes, ease your stressful thoughts and trigger certain emotions.

Unisex Toilets

In Sweden, gone are the days of gender-segregated toilets. There are all sorts of arguments for it: gender inclusiveness, space conservation and reduced queuing time (mostly for women, as women tend to take longer in the loo than men). One user on a social media site also asked why people outside Sweden and Scandinavia in general make such a fuss about unisex toilets when they never question the gender-neutral toilets in their homes. Of course I understood where that comment was coming from, but it was still funny how, indeed, we are not aware that we do not hold all toilets to the same standard. The unisex toilets at school took me some time to get used to, but now they are as natural to me as sharing my bathroom with my landlady and her son at home. Men or women, we all need to take care of our needs. But what I really appreciate about the unisex toilets here is how they are built into compact units. There are often a sink, a soap dispenser, drying papers and a trash bin inside each unit so that I can clean my hands properly before going out without obsessing about the amount of germs and bacteria I would leave on the door handle.

Mecenat Student Discount

Student discounts in Sweden are centralized in one place called Mecenat, which is available as a website and a phone app. The discounts are really extensive, featuring 373 boutiques and ranging from food, clothing, textbooks and electronics to transportation tickets, phone plans and gym membership and more. Mecenat is also used as proof of one’s student status, i.e. for student monthly transportation card. I like the feature on Mecenat where people can search for discounts near their location. There is also a job section on Mecenat for gig work, though I have never tried it out. All in all, I think Mecenat is proof that being a student in Sweden comes with great benefits.

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Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen

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