As a twenty-something graduate student, I never imagined teaching. The prize that I kept my eye on at that time was research, ideally in a position related to policy in some way, shape or form. At that time, as an arrogant graduate student rather myopically focused on her own research, I thought landing a teaching gig would be the worst possible outcome of all those hours and years spent as a graduate student.

Oh, the irony. Life has a way of reminding us of just how foolish we can be as young (or, even, older) idealists.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and here I am lecturing to graduate students. What’s weirder still, I love it. After three full academic years of teaching at the University of Helsinki, I cannot imagine not teaching.

Part of my enthusiasm for teaching lies within the topics I teach: academic writing, conference presentations and presentations in general, and grant writing, along with a few other transferrable skills courses. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have incredible mentors, professors-turned-friends who I still rely on for their wisdom and guidance, even if I don’t constantly pester them or hover in their doorways. The lessons they taught me years ago remain with me even now, and often echo in my own lectures. I can only hope that I do these incredible minds and kind souls justice. Because they shaped me in so many ways and helped me to become a more dedicated member of the academic community I now feel duty-bound to serve.

As exhausting as the academic calendar is and as much as I look forward to summer and winter breaks, being an instructor never ceases to provide further inspiration and immeasurable rewards. This most likely reflects the immense privilege it is to guide the pool of students that grace my classrooms. These brilliant, dedicated individuals, wise beyond their years, amaze me. They are, quite simply and, as one professor referred to me, indefatigable. As I sift through my inbox sending reviews and feedback to those who worked incredibly hard throughout whichever course they took with me, some of these bright young minds provide feedback to me. I welcome these moments because they help me do better in future. But, this, this I wasn’t expecting and it has moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe:

…. [O]ne thing that I found particularly inspiring was that you seemed to let your personality bubble through your professional instructor role. I have noticed that especially women often somehow suppress or flatten their personality when acting in an expert position, which is maybe because they are afraid of not to be taken seriously otherwise. I don’t want to end up falling into this pit, so I also want to thank you for showing an empowering example that it is possible to be a professional without burying yourself under a role.

For whatever reason, this feedback from an incredibly bright young student represents one of the most powerful indicators that I’m doing what I should be doing. What I was intended to do. And, perhaps, something I’m truly good at. If my classroom example encourages young women scholars to be themselves regardless of stereotypes and expectations, all the better.

Indeed. As a graduate student, as a young career professional and later as a mid-career professional, I didn’t always feel sufficiently empowered to be me. Perhaps the greatest gift this gig has offered me is a way to find my own voice and to apply that voice to providing guidance to others. Without consciously realising it, my own voice appears more genuine and more authentic than it’s ever been before. And, oddly, more confident.

I love my job. Truly. But, this personal metamorphosis was so entirely unintended, yet I completely welcome it. And, can only hope that it continues. At the very least, I hope my own metamorphosis allows others to transform as well…




When words are all we have

A fellow expat who lives in the Netherlands has a mighty blog. Whilst I don’t read it as often as I’d like, I find it incredibly refreshing and equally real.

She recently visited Poland, making that most gruesome of all journeys to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rather than simply share the link to her latest entry, I’m posting it here. I hope this gives it more weight than a mere shared link will. Because it is truly something that should be read slowly and carefully. And, perhaps as many times as can be stomached.

On most days, I believe in our collective ability as a species to do good. To extend kindness to those in need. To rise above whatever challenges we face as individuals and as members of various groups and demonstrate that we are not monsters. But, history reminds us of how truly awful we can be. And, we mustn’t forget. We absolutely positively mustn’t allow ourselves to fall prey to fear and hate and difference and commit the most vile offences we can commit against one another ever again.

Thank you, Farrah, for bearing witness. I don’t know how you wrote this piece, but I’m glad you did. Words fail me, so I’ll simply borrow from you…

The following stats are taken directly from her piece and taken from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial:

Note: The following facts are taken directly from The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Guidebook that I purchased on site in Auschwitz and from the placards outside of the respective blocks. I have photographs of the plackards where I took this information. 

Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1, 300,000 people to Auschwitz:

  • 1, 100,000 Jews
  • 140,000-150,000 Poles
  • 23,000 Roma (Gypsies)
  • 15,000 Soviet POWs
  • 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups

1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz, approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.

Giving voice to survivors of sexual assault

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College TownMissoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You’d have to be living under a rock this year to avoid stories of entitled, young male athletes sexually assaulting young women and serving little or no jail time for such crimes.

Missoula, Montana may not be unique in the number of young women who are vilified or simply not believed when they step forward naming their assailants. Jon Krakauer gives those young women who’ve survived rape a powerful voice, one we should all listen and respond to.

Whatever we are teaching young men, it shouldn’t be that they can get away with rape. From prosecutors to communities, we all have a responsibility to clearly and definitively say, ‘this is not okay’. Perhaps, we’ve woken up in the wake of cases like Brock Turner’s outrageously light sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman. Judging by the reactions and words of his father — diminishing rape to a mere ‘20 minutes of action‘ — as well as some of the reactions and character assassinations all too common in Missoula and elsewhere, we have a long way to go.

Whilst Krakauer pens a particularly difficult book to read given the understandably horrendous descriptions and details throughout, it’s an incredibly important read. We need to listen to those who come forward after being sexually assaulted. We need to approach their assaults from a place of belief and seeking truth and justice rather than giving their attackers the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, the shame and guilt and fear each woman experienced in the immediate aftermath of their living nightmares will never heal. They will never find peace.

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Phenomenal Women (Day 66: Proekt 365)

Day 66: Proekt 365 International Women's Day

Day 66: Proekt 365
International Women’s Day

The 8th of March is International Women’s Day. During my time in Russia, it was a time of year when all of the men and most women celebrated the ladies in their lives. Men showered women with flowers and raised their glasses to toast the fabulousness that is women. Women, much like every other day, celebrated and supported one another, but with just a bit more sense of sisterhood and infinitely more booze.

As a woman and as a feminist, I’d rather not just have one day when the work, worth, beauty and burdens faced by all women are given the spotlight. I’d rather we applaud ourselves and are celebrated every day. I’d rather we were equally rewarded, equally valued and equally represented in all aspects of life and in every corner. I’d rather we worked towards righting the injustices and eliminating the gender-specific barriers which make life more difficult for women every single day until they were a distant memory.

Still, the fact that I’m admittedly privileged is not lost on me—my husband is a feminist (and at times more so than I am!), I live in a society which places great value on the work of women domestically and beyond the home and I am afforded specific protections which prohibit discrimination against me based solely on my private parts. These are all great things, and for them I am grateful.

That isn’t the case for all women. Far, far too many women. And, not just those who live in lesser developed places, but also women who live in my own society. Whether it is allowing women and girls to attend school, work outside the home, drive, vote, voice their opinions, marry whom they love / wish, choose when and under what conditions to have children or when and with whom to have sex, every day should be an opportunity to make gender equity and justice a reality. For all women. Because all women are of value. All women are beautiful. And, all women should be celebrated. In all our diversity.

On this International Women’s Day, the words of the brilliant Maya Angelou come to mind. Whilst recognising and grieving for the difficulties and outright horrific conditions in which some women are forced to live, I am mindful today (and everyday) of just how amazing women are. Here’s to all of the truly phenomenal women in the world, particularly those who have enriched my life so, so much.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya Angelou, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ from And Still I Rise. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.

Day 36: Proekt 365 (My girlfriends)

Day 36: Proekt 365 To all my Thelmas & Louises

Day 36: Proekt 365
To all my Thelmas & Louises

No film captures the bond of friendship and ‘family’ I feel towards my closest girlfriends more than Thelma and LouiseSteel Magnolias comes very close, but can also just as easily apply to some of my very best guy friends as well. (In fact, there is one particular friend for whom that film fits better…but, I digress.) There is something specifically about Thelma and Louise as individuals and the journey they share which reflects just what I would do and how far I’d go for my sisters—the sisters I may not share a last name with, but with whom I share a very deep and real bond.

Today was all about sharing moments with some of my ‘sistahs’ in Helsinki. I didn’t get to see all of those I’d like to have (you know who you are and it will happen soon, damnit!), but I saw more than I’d expected to when I walked out the door this afternoon. That’s fine by me.

In the few stolen moments I scheduled for some quality time with my girlfriends, my plan was initially for a late lunch with one friend who is currently house-bound due to an unfortunate pasta accident. We were delightfully joined by another friend who is moving on far too soon to another country — the awful part about being an expat, but one we all deal with in whatever way we can. At this point, any chance we get to schedule quick meet ups and a few more moments of face-to-face bonding are very welcome. Before heading home, I decided to try to squeeze in a quick cup of tea to catch up with yet another girlfriend I’d not seen in a while. And, then, there was the random running in to yet another girlfriend at the supermarket whose been on my mind and I’d not seen lately.

Basically, it was all about the ladies today.

I’m very fortunate. In every place I’ve lived, I’ve met and been lucky enough to get to know and become close friends with some truly extraordinary women, most of whom are still in my life today. Despite many years and miles separating us, I’m quite confident that we’d easily pick up right where we left off the last time we saw one another given our all-too-infrequent communiques these days.

But, here in Helsinki, perhaps more so than in any other moment in my life, I feel downright blessed by the closeness and extent of what I’ve come to view as my sisterhood of girlfriends. All of the women I know and love here are incredibly talented, smart, witty and truly special in one way or another. They are as varied as women everywhere are, and each has taught me something important at key moments. We’ve been through some shit together as each of us has had to deal with life’s more challenging aspects on various occasions. And, I can only hope to be there for them a fraction as much as they’ve been there for me.

I don’t have my own picture from today. How could I pick just one instant to capture given the many moments of joy these girlfriends of mine provided? So, I’m borrowing Thelma and Louise, partially because I love this particular image so much, but also because I want all of those women who I’m lucky enough to call my friends to know that I’d do just about anything for them.

Good. Bad. Near. Far. New. Old. And everything in between, y’all bring more to my world than I’ll ever deserve and infinitely more than I ever expected. I love ya, sistahs! This post is for you.

Day 25: Proekt 365 (Here’s to Finland’s Maternity Box)

Day 25: Proekt 365 Here's to Finland the the Maternity Box)

Day 25: Proekt 365
Here’s to Finland’s Maternity Box

Finland’s approach to ensuring its citizens and residents live a quality life and have equitable access to such a life from the youngest of ages impresses me. Today, whilst having lunch with a few expat friends, one of whom has an adorable baby girl who was born here, I was reminded of just how early that focus begins. If you have never heard of the Finland Maternity Box, look it up. I’ve marveled about this briefly before, but today I was particularly impressed with it for whatever reason.

Last year as the world awaited the birth of one prince or princess in particular, news focused briefly on the brilliance of the Maternity Box. For more than 75 years, Finnish mothers-to-be have received these boxes, which contain an impressive collection of clothes, toys, personal hygiene items for baby’s first bath (and for Mom), outerwear and various other necessities for newborn babies. All of the items are packed neatly into a decent-sized cardboard box, which can also be used as a baby bed — the package also includes all of the items for baby’s first bed, including a mattress that ingenuously fits snugly in the box.

Mothers can also opt to get cash. But, the loot which comes in the box far exceeds in value the cash disbursements (€140 as of 2013). So, most of the moms I know opted for the loot. I would! The picture above is an item my friend received in her Maternity Box when she was expecting her daughter. Not only is it as cute as her precious little girl, but her daughter LOVES the little bug and kept herself quite busy playing with it when she wasn’t concentrating so completely on being cute. Who wouldn’t love that bug?!

It’s impressive. Mighty impressive really when you consider the reasons behind and history surrounding the Finnish Maternity Box. Their distribution is designed to give all children born in Finland an equal start in life — regardless of socio-economic background, geographic location, family composition or cultural heritage. Every child born in Finland is entitled to receive the box (or cash equivalent) with just one condition placed on its receipt. Mothers wishing to receive the box must have visited an OB-GYN clinic by the fourth month of her pregnancy. In the late 1930s when the boxes were originally distributed to the poorest families, infant mortality in Finland was quite high (65 per 1000 births). Once the programme was expanded for all women and families in the 1940s and then following reforms to ensure all residents in Finland had equal access to all types of healthcare, infant mortality dropped and fewer complications were reported. Now, infant mortality is negligible.

Infant mortality over time has dropped incredibly in Finland

Infant mortality over time has dropped incredibly in Finland

The contents of the box are brilliant. Items are gender neutral (so that they are suitable for boys and girls) and are now chosen for their sensitivity to the environment. They are also durable and not cheaply made or designed. Many of the items in the box would be prohibitively expensive for the poorest families. Snow suits alone are incredibly pricy despite their necessity given the length and depths of winter we experience here in Finland. The contents even include baby’s first books. Yet, every mother is entitled to the box. And, every child can start life out with the same basic necessities. Well done, Finland. Very well done.

It doesn’t at all surprise me that Finland is ranked top in terms of where its best to be a mother. When you get a box like this to welcome your little bundle of joy, how could it not be pretty fab for moms? It should be. And, I’m delighted to live in a country that takes its newest and youngest residents so seriously, and which helps out its moms in the process.

Come on, Texas. Really?

I’ve written before about my connection to that most unique state, Texas. Today’s post sadly isn’t one which fills me with state pride.

Since seeing the tragic news a few days ago about Marlise Munoz, a 33-year-old brain dead woman who is forcibly being kept alive to serve, quite bluntly, as an incubator, has me speechless. Ms Munoz by all accounts is unable to live without full life support and will not recover. Her husband and parents want to take her off of life support and have wished to do so since learning that there is no brain stem activity. She herself had previously said that she did not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state. So, why is she now on life support against the wishes of her family and her own living will?

She was 14-weeks pregnant when she collapsed.

In Texas, life-sustaining treatment can not be withdrawn or withheld from a pregnant woman regardless of how far along she is in her pregnancy. As of 2012, similar strict laws surrounding end-of-life care for pregnant women existed in 12 states in the US, according to a 2012 study by the Centre for Women Policy Studies. (These states are Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.) Thus, even if an advance directive exists stipulating that a woman does not wish to remain on life support if she is considered brain dead, the state has the right to keep her on life-sustaining support if she is pregnant. Her wishes for a dignified death are unimportant and she is essentially rendered an incubator. This is precisely what has happened to Ms Munoz.

Had she been further along in her pregnancy, I might find this more understandable. But, she was still in her first trimester when she was classified as ‘legally’ dead. She suffered from a lack of oxygen for an extended period of time, which most likely also affected the foetus. But, nevermind that.

What really gets me is the medical bills. Since it is the hospital’s decision to keep Ms Munoz on life support , you would think that the costs would fall on the administration. No. The bills will ultimately go to her family. With an average cost of US$4004 per day, already the bill is quite steep (~US$170 000 already at least). And, that’s just for the intensive care unit bill. But, this does not necessarily include the costs of the ambulance, emergency room and other various services and service providers, specialists, etc. undoubtedly used since she first collapsed on 26 November. All of these add to that already hefty bill and in the absence of a national healthcare system. For what?

My understanding is that, currently, the hospital is waiting until the foetus has developed further to determine if they will keep Ms Munoz on life support further and what additional actions they will take. Should tests reveal that the foetus is brain dead, what next? Who will be responsible for providing long-term care to that foetus/infant? The family? Or the hospital? Or the state of Texas?

Without delving into the pro-life / pro-choice debate, this case in particular fills me with sadness for the family of Ms Munoz, but also for Ms Munoz herself. Her dignity as a human and as a woman specifically has been diminished so greatly. She expressed her wishes to not be put on life support should she lose brain function. Her wishes have been ignored completely all for the sake of a foetus which may or may not survive to birth, and may or may not itself be brain dead.

In the words of her father, she is a ‘host’ at this point, not a woman or a mother. In cases like this, it’s hard to see that women are valued within society as anything but incubators when the rights of a foetus are placed so clearly above those of the mother. And, if we can fight so fiercely for the well-being of a foetus before it enters the world, why do we not then provide that same level of care and concern for the child it becomes?

Clearly, medical technology has advanced at an amazing rate, so much so that the ethics of our options have not completely sunk in and we have yet to philosophically ponder let alone come up with solutions / answers which work for all of us given our varied beliefs and moral compasses. Yet, I would hope that we would at the very least put the dignity of an individual, especially when spelled out when one is capable of still making such decisions, above all else.

For now, my thoughts are with the Munoz family. Suffering such a loss is bad enough. Having to relive it each and every day in such a viscous, callous and myopic way is unthinkable. May they be able to finally and definitively grieve sooner rather than later.