My personal lifelong learning history – 10 vivid memories from the age of 7 to 70
Early years as the eldest child of a small-scale farmer family taught me to work hard, take responsibility and learn by doing. I remember how in the summertime on our small farm in Eastern Finland, North Karelia, bordering Soviet Union, we sometimes got up around 4AM and went to the fields to harvest crops before the day got too hot. I was 7 years old when I single-handedly made lunch not only for the family but also to workers helping in the field. I heated the stove by wood, picked potatoes in the potato field and made brown sauce to accompany them. To me the brown sauce looked boring, so I brought spring onion from the garden and cut it into the sauce. My mother was furious that I had put ‘grass’ in the food. However, the workers liked it! This was in the summer of 1957, almost 20 years before the North Karelia Project and my own health promotion career; I introduced green vegetables to the diet!
On the first day of my first four years of our village school, I walked the 4km trip home when a neighbor asked jokingly: ‘Where do you come from?’ I grudgingly replied: ‘I had to go to school’. The neighbor continued asking what I want to become when I grow up. I answered: ‘I want to have a Master’s degree’. The neighbor often told this story in the years to come.
At the age of 10 I wanted to apply for the middle school, which was situated 20+ km from our village, with only one bus leaving at 6AM from the village and returning at 6PM. There was a two-day entry exam to this school. My father, who in principle supported my studying, said that I was too young to live away from home, and on the other hand, he wanted to save money for my school and accommodation costs so that I could start the school the year after. But I could not wait, so I escaped one morning and took the bus to attend the school entry the exam. When returning home in the evening, I was afraid my father would not let me go back on the second exam day. Well, he was totally silent and did not look happy, but he let me go back the second day.
The last years of my high school were my rebellion years. Once a student (in my mind without a good reason) had been condemned to sit after school as a punishment; I arranged a solidarity sitting of the whole class to support that student. I also applied for an exemption from the religion lessons but attended them anyway and wrote my exam answers from the perspectives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam etc in addition to the Cristian ones. I am still grateful to the teacher, who let me do it and rewarded me with good grades even if I deviated from the norm. I think this teacher made a big difference in my identity development. In May last year, 50 years after I finished high school, I publicly thanked this teacher.
The political turbulence sweeping universities in the early 1970’s in Helsinki did not attract me; instead, I used my time in the student association, collecting tasks from a kitchen helper to a go-go dancer and newsletter editor. I tried to fill my time with tasks so that I would not miss my fiancée too much; he studied in Switzerland and we could meet every few months only. Maybe also having two children during these study years had something to do with my low interest in politics.
I really disappointed my professor at the end of my psychology studies when I told him I was moving to Saudi Arabia. He said he had put his hope in me to lift the psychology research in Finland. I told that it would only be a year to two. In the end, it was 5+ years and I really fell out of the academic system and working life in Finland. On the other hand, I learned of many other things, including intercultural issues, some Arabic language and understanding a lot about the Gulf region and politics there. I also had my third child during this period. 37 years later this experience carried on to an education export project in Saudi Arabia!
It really was a challenge to catch up with the academic work when back in Finland and at the same time as having my fourth child, too. I took some psychometric course two-three times, not because I did not pass the exams, but because I liked to bring complicate problems to be solved in the seminars. I worked in a NGO and in the university hospital. I learned that being a senior and even when I worked in a research institute, my pursuit of a PhD using working time was not really appreciated; I was requested to take time off to finalize the thesis at the age of 46. After that I got a grant and left for the Netherlands to do a post doc year. I was curious and wanted to learn something new, which was an emerging research theme then: genomics. In the end, I finalized another degree (DSc) in the Netherlands at the age of 50.
After my studies in the Netherlands, I felt that I really could not use my new knowledge in my old institute in Finland. This pushed me back to the Netherlands into an international research project. Short after, I moved to Denmark to start in a professor position. Establishing an active research unit took several years and international research projects kept my interest in international collaboration active.
While in Denmark, my old Saudi experience was a bridge to an education export project of 5+ years in Saudi Arabia, training female BSc students in health sciences. The work continued (and still does so) with adult education, a capacity building in higher education project in Tunisia. From my eternal ambition to learn I advanced to supporting others in learning throughout their lives!
Today through EduRes Consulting I can finally apply the knowledge and knowhow from the whole lifetime learning starting from a small farmer village in Eastern Finland to international collaboration and training. What I have learned is not only from school and university education. I have learned at least as much from my own farmer roots and rural background; from living and working in different countries and cultures; from bringing up four children, and sitting next to my father’s bed and writing his memoirs; and last but not least, leaving the established university environment and starting a new business back in my home country, living again in the country side.
Now at the age of 70 (14th Sept 2020), I have made a full circle and I continue the spiral of my lifelong learning journey. Rolling stones do not gather moss…..
Arja R Aro