A Personal Essay to Apply for a Career in Finland
Writing: Milla Tuokkola
Illustration: Vilma Siiki
It’s the autumn of 2008 and I’ve just started my last year of high school in Helsinki, Finland. I’ve never been that academically gifted. I know that with my less than perfect grasp on Finnish grammar and reluctance to study for several months full-time for the entry exams means that I won’t get accepted into a Finnish university. Applying for an arts degree would mean submitting a large portfolio of work samples, and a three day entry exam consisting of group exercises, interviews and assignments. At 18, I’m still trying to get to know myself. But I know that I don’t have it in me to do all of that. Still, the Finnish society has led me to believe that I won’t get employed unless I acquire a higher education degree. This is something that has been been repeated to me throughout my high school years.
I make a decision to apply to a university abroad. I decide to study in Britain, because I’ve always been good at English and I know that a British degree is highly valued internationally. I ask my high school’s career guidance counsellor for help with the applying process, but she has never had a student apply for a university abroad. I contact several different universities all over the UK, and request that they send me their prospectuses: glossy, thick books detailing all of the undergraduate courses they provide, their costs and entry requirements. I use third party websites to compare courses, just to make sure that I’m picking the best ones: the ones with the highest employment rates after graduation. I teach myself how to use the complicated UCAS website, an independent charity funded website through which you apply for university courses all over Britain. I even contact the Finnish embassy in London to help me with some of the questions.
I want to do script writing for film and television, because I love writing and I love TV. My Finnish creative writing teacher and my English teacher both write glowing reviews of my skill and dedication which I attach to my application, but the most important part is the personal statement essay. The personal statement essay is to convey my passion for the subject but also to share more about what I want to focus on creatively and what my future career aspirations are. Here’s a direct quote from that essay, marked 6th of November 2008: “I chose to study abroad because in Finland the field is not yet very well developed. There are also more job opportunities abroad — I still hope to return to my home country eventually, to share my passion for writing and to create television programming that people will truly enjoy.” I send my applications in. The news travels around my school quickly and in the hallway I get stopped by a teacher whose class I’ve never taken. She asks me if I’m the girl who applied to study in England. I tell her that I am. She’s very excited and proud.
It’s 2009, and I’m on my first year studying scriptwriting in Bournemouth University. It’s the only university that’s earned the right to call itself a “centre of excellence” in Media Practice in the whole of Britain (in 2009). I’m happy and I feel motivated. For the first time in my life, I’m surrounded by people who have exactly the same interests and passions as me. I have a British tuition fee loan that covers the ~£3,500 a year tuition fee costs. I won’t have to start paying back the loan until I’ve graduated and am making £20,000 per annum in my own field. I’ve also got a Finnish student loan (about 4,500€ a year at the time) that covers my living expenses (rent & utility bills) entirely. But I also receive a little under 500€ a month as a student grant, which covers groceries, travel and hobbies. My British friends can’t understand this: “What do you mean you don’t have to pay it back?” I explain that my culture highly values education and thus my government invests in me accordingly, in the form of a small student grant each month. It will allow me to focus on my studies, because I won’t have to work whilst studying to make ends meet. I have by far the most spending money out of all of my friends, and every time I buy something, I amuse my friends by saying “Thank you Finland!”
It’s the spring of 2011 and I’m finishing up the second year of my studies. Part of the degree curriculum is to do a four week work placement in my field during the summer. I want to work in Finland after graduation, so to me it’s obvious that I’ll do my placement in Finland too. I start looking for a work placement place and soon I’ve emailed every production company that I can find in Helsinki, to offer my services for free. I’ve found 22 television and film production companies. 1 of those companies writes back to me to turn me down, the remaining 21 never even reply. I send another wave of emails to everyone, because I know that persistence is key in this industry. No one replies again. I’m getting stressed and worried, because I know that this is a mandatory module that I need to pass in order to attain my degree.
It’s May 2011, just a few weeks before I’m due to return back to Finland for my summer leave, when I spot a job advertisement for television extras on the largest Finnish employment website mol.fi. “Extras” are the people who have no speaking parts on TV-shows, often seen in the background of a scene, talking and walking to make the scene look more realistic. I contact the 2nd assistant director whose contact details are listed in the advertisement and send her my CV and cover letter. I say that I’m a script writing student but that I would be more than happy to broaden my horizons if that means that I could do a work placement with them. I say that I would be willing to do script reading (writing up summaries of scripts that the company is considering producing and giving them my honest opinion on them), script editing (giving notes on how I would improve the story, fixing typos, writing joke suggestions) or just be a runner/office assistant (coffee, mailing stuff, you get the idea).
To my dismay, I get a reply from the head of the drama department the very next day, asking me if I’d be free to come in for an interview soon. I meet her and she’s very nice to me. The only thing I can recall her asking me during the interview is if my university is considered good, and I tell her that it’s considered to be the best script writing course in Britain. She seems genuinely impressed. The rest of the time we talk about the show that I would do my placement on. They don’t have anything open in the script department, but would I be free to be a production assistant? And could I do it for 6 weeks, not just the 4 that I need to fill my course requirements? A production assistant is someone who’s a bit of a jack of all trades, making sure that everything runs smoothly on location during the shooting of the series. I’m desperate so I say yes. A little over a week before I’m due to start, I get a call from the company. They need someone to be a costume department assistant, so could I do that instead? I’m desperate. So I say yes.
It’s the autumn of 2011 I’m in a field somewhere in Sipoo, Finland, freezing and trying not to make a sound whilst the cameras are rolling. I wake up between 03:15 AM and 05:30 AM, and then I travel to a warehouse where I carry at least 12 IKEA bags full of heavy clothes and shoes down a flight of stairs into a van parked outside. I’ll have a long day, usually outside and usually raining, ironing and carrying clothes, making sure that the actors are wearing the right clothes for continuity in scenes. I get often told off by my supervisors for doing something wrong. I don’t want to complain so I won’t seem unprofessional, but I have never had any interest in working in a costume department, nor am I trained to do so. When the actors hear that I study script writing, they all jokingly tell me to remember them when I get something I’ve written commissioned. The working hours are at least 12 hours, but often go on for 16 hours a day. I get home around 7 or 8 PM and go straight to bed. For six weeks I sleep the sleep of the dead. I don’t get paid a cent for any of it.
It’s the autumn of 2012 and I graduate university with the second highest grade you can receive. The last three years have been the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life, but I feel proud and accomplished. I’ve written a feature length film and my film theory dissertation is a feminist film study about “representation of women in sex scenes in modern, mainstream cinema.” It’s the first piece of academic work I’m proud of. I move back to Helsinki to live with my mother because I’m broke. I have decided to spend the summer of 2013 living and travelling in South Korea, as a reward to myself for finishing my degree. Part of the reasoning behind my career choice was that I’m simply just not suited for a customer service job. Irregardless, I get a job in the customer service industry. I work at a cinema in Helsinki for 6 months. Everyone there will jokingly tell me that I’m technically “in the movie business.” I save up and achieve my dream of living in South Korea for a while.
It’s the autumn of 2013 and I’m back in Helsinki, living with my mother again after returning back to Finland. I have emailed all the production companies in Helsinki again, offering my services as a highly educated writer. No one replies to me. I can’t help but to notice that no jobs in my field are advertised in any of the job recruitment sites or even on the production company websites. I’m now 23 and I know myself a lot better. I know that I can’t get another customer service job without there being dire consequences to my mental health. I sign up for the Basic Unemployment Allowance provided by the Finnish government. I get assigned my own case worker: a man who doesn’t try to persuade me to get a job that isn’t in my field, a man who truly believes in my talent and who never stops supporting me during my quest to find employment. I’m truly grateful for all that he does for me. We meet every couple of months to see if he has any job openings he could show me. There’s publicist jobs, marketing jobs, advertising jobs… Nothing in script writing. Or any kind of creative writing.
It’s January 2014. My unemployment case worker has referred me to a free service provided by the city of Helsinki called Respa. It’s to aid unemployed people under 30-years-old and living in Helsinki, get employed. My caseworker at Respa is a lovely woman who I meet twice a month. Together we check that my CV is formatted correctly (it is! In fact, she says it’s one of the best CV’s she’s seen in her career) and discuss my growing anxiety and depression over the employment situation. She instructs me to make a dream map, a A3 sheet of paper where I cut out pictures and snippets of texts from magazines that represent what I want in my life for 2014. Over half of the sheet is taken over by dreams of being employed.
It’s the early summer of 2014 and I’ve just been fired. Meeting with the Respa employee bi-weekly all throughout the spring of 2014, we’ve discussed if I’d be willing to widen my scope and consider other fields of work. It seems that my depression is largely rooted in my feelings of uselessness. My Respa caseworker has found me a job opening in social media marketing and encourages me to apply for it. I get the job in February, and for the first two months I work as an unpaid “work try-out.” The company doesn’t pay me, but the unemployment services increase my unemployment support by almost 50%. In April I get hired as a full time employee, but as a young unemployed person, I qualify for an unemployment scheme through the Finnish employment services (TE-palvelut) called “Sanssi-kortti.” Through the scheme, the government pays my employer 30-60% of my monthly wages for the first 6 months, depending on my contract.
Me and the job aren’t a match made in heaven as it’s still far away from script writing. But I get to work every day and write in English, and I acquire useful skills working in social media. I like the people a lot and I feel listened to. The sense of purpose has done wonders for my self esteem. In late spring the company has to cut back on employees and I’m the first to go. I get laid off. Only, I’m on a fixed-term contract, and according to Finnish law, you cannot lay off a fixed term employee. Getting laid off would mean an immediate end to the working relationship and no further pay, but I’m entitled to a month long notice period and to be paid accordingly. I get legal counselling from my unemployment case worker, and he advises me to come into work every day until they officially fire me. When they finally do, they tell me that I don’t have to come into work anymore but they’ll still give me the pay I’m entitled to for the notice period. I’m fine with that.
It’s the autumn of 2014 and I’ve written a feature film. It’s about a woman detective with an immigrant background, living in Helsinki and trying to solve a case of a missing woman, getting romantically entangled with the woman’s husband during the case. I write a pitch for it: a 12-page document where I describe the characters, the plot, my planned schedule for finishing the script and my background as a writer. I submit it to the SES (The Finnish Film Foundation) to be considered for a scriptwriting grant. I’ve asked for 3000€ in total, and have promised to have the script in it’s final form in three months. It’s an incredibly short time to finish a feature length script but I feel motivated and passionate about the project.
I get an email back from the Film Foundation, asking me to come in for an interview. I feel so relieved that tears shoot out of my eyes, just the mere fact that someone has replied to me feels amazing. I get to the interview, I meet a woman and she tells me that she won’t be funding the project. She doesn’t think that a detective film would be realistic (I don’t point out that the Finnish Vares-franchise films are some of the highest grossing films in Finland, and all about a detective. A male detective.) She also says: “Do you even know any producers? Have you established any relationships with any production companies that you could use to get this film made once we finance it? I just wouldn’t feel comfortable backing someone who doesn’t know anyone in the industry.” The injustice is so great that I cry on my way home.
It’s been three years since I graduated. A portion of my classmates have now moved to London and have started building their careers. They’ve all gotten employed through different means: some through unpaid internships, some through plain old job advertisements, some through writing programs, some by winning script writing competitions and some by getting an agent who represents them and helps them get work. None of these things exist in Finland.
It’s New Years 2015 and I’ve made a resolution to get employed, no matter what it takes. First, I apply for a Masters Degree at the Aalto University, a division of the University of Helsinki that specialises in the arts. I reason that by doing an MA, I’ll have a chance to network in Finland, feel like my time is spent usefully and better my chances of employment. I even get to do the applications in English, a great asset to me. Since a script writing career has proven such an uphill battle, I apply to do television production. I’m organised and bilingual, and I have an understanding of the industry through my Bachelor’s degree. I work on my applications for two months straight, making the portfolio pieces that I dreaded doing back in 2008, writing a 20-page application consisting of several essays about my career goals, aspirations and myself. I drop off the applications in person. A few months later, I get an email saying that I haven’t been accepted to the next stage, the interview stage. There is no feedback available from the university.
It’s February 2015 and I’ve asked my father, a man in the entertainment industry, for his help. I never wanted to do this, because I would hate to feel like I haven’t earned something through my own merit, but through nepotism. He asks a producer on a television show that he has recently performed in, if his unemployed scriptwriter daughter could contact her and she says yes. I email her with my CV and cover letter, and to my joy she replies! She says that I sound very promising and that my details definitely stand out in a favourable way. She promises to circulate the CV within the company, to see who’s staffing writers at the moment. She ends the email with “talk to you soon!” A month passes and I don’t hear from anyone. I send her another email, polite and chipper, “Just to let her know that my employment situation still hasn’t changed, if someone needs a writer!” She doesn’t reply to me this time.
It’s May 2015 and I’m at a mental health nurse’s office, filling out a survey to see if I have depression. I’m so stressed about my life that I’ve stopped menstruating. The nurse, a matronly woman, reads my answers out loud to me. I’ve had to rate statements on a scale of 1-5 based on how strongly I relate to them. I’ve only given one of the statements a 5, and I’m waiting for her to reach it. “I feel like I’m useless” she reads. “Oh dear… a 5! Well that’s no way to feel, is it?” She asks me, expecting a genuine answer. “You shouldn’t feel like that” she says. Not in a sense of “You shouldn’t be feeling like that, we should fix it!” but in a sense of “I’m telling you to stop feeling like that and that’s that.” According to her interpretation of the test, I’m only moderately depressed. She says she could book me a doctor’s appointment to talk about my depression further but it’s going to be at least two months before they have any appointments available, so… I say “better leave it then.”
It’s November 2015 and I’ve just moved to London, England. When I vowed to get employed this year, no matter what, I’ve finally started looking into work outside of Finland. And now I’ve gotten a place in a paid writing program for an international television channel that will allow me to work for them for six months on several different projects. They’ll teach me exactly what they look for in a writer, to ensure that I can hopefully continue employment with them once my contract is over. A little under 1000 people all around the world applied for my position, and I was the only one to get accepted. I’m relieved to have an income, I’m relieved for finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel and so, extremely, unimaginably happy for doing exactly what I love.
It’s February 2016 and I’m in Los Angeles, USA. I’m living here for three months, to work at the US office for the writing program. I feel far away from home, so I read the Finnish news sites several times a day. Lately on the news has been the failure of the Finnish version of the American topical sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. In America, it’s always been written by young, politically active scriptwriters with heavy fringe comedy backgrounds. Their writers room currently has 30 writers, 8 of whom are women. The Finnish version has 6 writers, 2 of whom are women. The youngest of the Finnish writers is 35 (excluding Hermanni Koppala whose age I can’t find online). SNL succeeds in the US because it addresses social and political issues through satire, but the key is, they address issues that are the most topical during that week. In my opinion, Aku Hirviniemi dressed as Björn Wahlroos isn’t the most topical form of comedy. Could it be that writers who are all well over 30 and have had long careers in the industry already, don’t know how to appeal to the target audience of young adults? Could it be that if the production company had taken a chance on younger writers, they would’ve found people who had something new to say about Finland? Young writers who would’ve had something to say about issues that are affecting them currently, like the recent student grant cuts? Or the employment situation?
It’s the 19th of March 2016, I’m in my apartment in Los Angeles, doing final edits on this essay before turning it over to the editor. And I’m scared. I’m having vivid visions where I’ll be considered an embittered whistle-blower, an ungrateful and whiny nobody who knows nothing about real work. I’m having trepidations of having my name attached to this essay, forever there to be readily read when a future potential employer Googles my name. I want to clear something, make sure that I’m not misunderstood: I’m not embittered. I’m disappointed.
I’m disappointed that it took me three years to get a job as a scriptwriter after graduating with a degree in script writing. I’m disappointed that I tried so hard to get a job in Finland but failed, wasting national resources in unemployment allowances, Respa-services, mental health services and in the Sanssi-kortti scheme in the process, only to end up moving away from the country that provided all of those to me for free. I’m disappointed in my culture, where we don’t value our young workforce, don’t trust entry level job applicants and don’t encourage people gifted in the arts to break into the industry. I’m disappointed that I was told that being highly educated would be enough to get me started on my career. I’m disappointed that I owe 27,215.88€ in student loans as a result.
But I still love writing, and I still love TV. I still love my people and our dark and twisted sense of humour. I love our sisu and the warmth we show each other in secret, in our small homes in yellow apartment buildings with candles on the windowsill and the scent of coffee drifting into the stairwell. For now, I have to work abroad because in Finland the field is not yet very well developed. There are more job opportunities for me abroad. I still hope to return to my home country eventually, to share my passion for writing and to create television programming that people will truly enjoy.