*Adapted from a speech delivered at the International Student Graduation Reception at the New School on May 19th, 2011
It has been almost two years since I left my home country, Finland, and arrived at the John F. Kennedy airport to begin a new, exciting adventure here in New York City. On one hand, it feels like that was only yesterday, and for the life of me I cannot figure out where the past two years disappeared, but at the same time New York has become a home to me. Right now, imagining a life somewhere else feels strange and in a way, scary.
I came here to study in the Graduate Program in International Affairs, which I am now about to graduate from with a Master of Arts Degree. After living here for two years, and studying at the New School, I feel that I have mastered international affairs in more ways than just in the academic sense of the term – a life in New York is, essentially, one big international affair on its own. Every corner of the world is represented in this city, and the New School as a university exposes us students to people from all over the world, which makes the experience so much richer. Especially for someone studying international affairs, being able to meet and talk with people from different countries, cultures and backgrounds is absolutely invaluable, and adds to the experience on so many levels. That, to me, has been one of the greatest things about this experience – I am not only finishing this chapter in my life with a brand new Master’s degree, but also with new friends from countries such as Canada, Greece, Turkey, Colombia, Denmark, Brazil, Spain, Netherlands, Honduras, United Kingdom, Croatia and many others, and I have no doubt in my mind that just as my degree will last through time, so will the friendships I have made here. It is almost like having a new, wonderful, global family that has carried and supported me throughout this experience and that will continue to be a part of my life from now on, no matter where I end up living in.
I came to New York from a country of 5 million people. Let’s put this in perspective – that is approximately the population of Brooklyn and Queens combined. My home town, the place I have spend the most of my life in, has about 20,000 people – about one third of the population of Park Slope, the neighborhood I have lived in since I moved here. For many of us international students, and for many American students moving to New York from smaller cities, this city at a first glance is overwhelming, crowded, noisy, scary, strange, chaotic and in general maybe too much to handle. I vividly remember standing in front of a fridge in a small bodega, attempting to purchase a beverage, and feeling utterly confused and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices I was confronted with. To a girl from a small town in Finland, used to having to only make the choice between coke and pepsi, the amount of choices and options available here in New York, and in America in general, was mind-boggling. The vast number of choices also extended to the academic part of my life, as for every day of the week, there would be at least ten different events, talks, conferences and panel discussions on topics that all interested me, and in the beginning I of course attempted to make it to all of them. Eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that even in New York, the week only has seven days, and a day only has 24 hours, and that sometimes it is actually a good idea to sleep and rest as well. It took some time to get used to the rhythm of the city and find my own pace in the midst of all that is going on here, but eventually we all find a way to deal with New York and the wonderful craziness that defines this city.
This is an exciting time for many of us. We are about to graduate, and need to figure out what the next step in our lives will be. Some will stay here in the US and maybe in New York to do a year of optional practical training or academic training, some will return to their home countries, and some, like myself, have managed to get pulled into this country more permanently. When I arrived here two years ago, part of the reason I chose to continue my studies in America was the fact that I had an American boyfriend, who had stuck it out with me through freezing Finnish winters and it seemed like my turn to follow him for a change. Eventually, that boyfriend turned into my fiancé, and soon he will be my husband. With that, America will become more to me than a country I merely came to study in for two years – America will become another home. I have no idea where me and my husband will eventually decide to settle in, since both of us are fairly mobile people who have the habit of traveling more than we stay put, but I do know that New York has become a home for me, and while I miss Finland, my family and my friends there, I don’t feel like a foreigner here anymore. Turns out, New York isn’t quite as scary, chaotic and overwhelming as it initially seemed to be. Even though it seemed impossible to learn how to manage a life in this city, somehow everything eventually fell into place and started to make sense. I remember wanting to kill everyone who told me “What do you mean you are lost? Manhattan is a grid! It is so easy to figure out!” – because, to me, it wasn’t. “Up”, “down”, “south” or “north” meant nothing to me when I was standing on a street corner somewhere in the middle of buildings that are so high they define gravity and physics. Taking the train to the right direction was also extremely challenging, and I cannot count the times I ended up in Brooklyn when trying to get from Union Square to somewhere in mid-town. Since then, I have learned a lot – the grid of Manhattan makes sense to me now, “up” and “down” have become valid directions, and I know which way to take the train. I also know that ending up in Brooklyn when attempting to go to mid-town might have been an act of divine intervention, since going to mid-town is never, ever a good idea, no matter what you are going there for. The city teaches you a lot, once you spend a bit of time here.
Now, one part of the adventure in New York City is coming to an end. It has been an amazing two years, and even though I can’t help but feel a little bit sad about the fact that this chapter is now over, I am also excited to see what lies ahead. I wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time in NYC, because I do feel there is a lot more this city could teach me and show me – but then again, there are many corners of the world left to explore, and staying put has never been something I am that good at. What I do know is that though my native home continues to be Finland, my family now extends throughout every possible corner of this world – and that, if anything, is priceless.