The university as a model of multiculturalism

People from over 90 countries work at the University of Oulu We have an incredible variety of cultures, ideologies, nationalities, languages and religions. One might think that there is a considerable risk of conflicts.

However, observations concerning the community have shown that there is relatively little harassment and bullying. The international members of the community do not stand out when it comes to problems, neither as offenders nor as victims. Based on a short discussion, this view of the current situation is shared by the Specialist of Social Affairs of the Student Union, the University Chaplain, the study psychologist and Human Resource Director. The situation being as good as it is, one cannot help thinking whether the surrounding society could learn something from the university when it comes to the well-being of communities and our amiability towards each other.

In John Ruskin’s words, education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt. In consideration of this, university education has little to do with being civilised. For the most part, universities offer learning, and education of the heart comes earlier in our lives. Of course, we also aim to foster and enhance education of the heart at the university in many ways. It is certain that there are members in our community whose experiences in their childhood and youth, for example, have not given them a strong foundation to build on. A healthy, equal and accepting community is particularly important for these persons, giving them an opportunity to build their future as full and accepted members of society.

In terms of an individual’s success in the community, I would like to highlight the following qualities: the ability to communicate and listen; the ability to be compassionate and understand the situations of other people; the ability to experience new things and have the right attitude about it; the ability to express one’s own wishes and needs; the ability to experience human relationships as meaningful; and the ability to control extreme emotional reactions. All of these can be enhanced through good examples and the right kind of life experience.

For many reasons, it is important to ensure that each individual is able to interact with their environment. This way, the individual learns to act in the community, feels part of it and becomes its significant member. The individual both gives to the community and takes from it. In order to become a successful member of the community, the individual must be able to master, for example, the basic skills mentioned above and accept the common rules. The role of the university is, where possible, to ensure the development of basic skills by means of communication, for example, and step in whenever rules are broken. We are constantly monitoring the development of the situation and communicating actively and in a pre-emptive manner. 10-20 cases involving harassment and bullying come to our attention each year, which is a small number in a community of more than 15,000 people. Of these instances, few result in any major investigations or consequences.

The community sets its own standards, which are strongly connected to the majority culture. Minority cultures must be able to adapt to living peacefully alongside the majority culture, but they must also be given the opportunity to practise their own culture. It is natural that being in a foreign culture involves, at first and at worst, struggles or constant reassessment of one’s own values. To make life easier, it is important to enhance interaction between minority cultures as well. This provides peer support to those who are struggling to adapt to the majority culture. The University of Oulu provides, for example, facilities for personal religious worship for various religions, although missionary work is forbidden on the campus for the sake of freedom of religion and worship.

The Tellus facility has become the focal point of cultural encounters at the University of Oulu. Even in the evening, the facility is filled with members of our community. You can easily observe how many members of the international community are present. The facility surely provides a place where the feeling of togetherness and equality is pervasive. The easiest way for us to get along with each other is through practice. Furthermore, the culture of talking and highlighting issues is enhanced while spending time with one’s peers. Many events involving cultural encounters are arranged as well. Of these events, I would like to highlight interreligious dialogue and the annual Festival of Cultures in Tellus, a theme party related to cultures and collaboration.

We owe so much to our international community because they have enabled us to provide skills and competencies, developed through international environment and multicultural experiences, even for students who, for any reason, are unable to attend a study period abroad. It has also been proven that multicultural communities are highly productive due to their creativity and diverse ways of thinking. The community’s multiculturalism, diversity and collaborative abilities are some of the essential basic features of our university.

Jouko Niinimäki
Rector of the University of Oulu

This speech was held on 28th of February at the Value Forum Kartalla organized by Oulu diocese

Last updated: 1.3.2019

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