Students who noticed posters for WesFinns last fall may have wondered about the mastermind behind the project of bringing Finnish culture to campus. Heidi Hirvonen ’15, the founder of the currently-defunct WesFinns, is one of a few Finnish students on campus. She recently received a scholarship from the Finlandia Foundation National (FFN), which awards 25 scholarships every year to college students with involvement in Finnish culture.
FFN Trustee and member of the scholarship committee Jacqueline Harjula explained the foundation’s mission.
“It’s a philanthropic organization run by volunteers,” Harjula said. “We have an endowment out of which we provide scholarships…. The mission is to sustain both Finnish-American culture in the U.S. and the ancestral ties with Finland by raising funds for grants, scholarships, initiating national programs, and networking with local chapters.”
In addition to providing scholarships, FFN, which is based in Pasadena, California, also supports performances and lectures, language, and music camps, as well as projects that relate to Finnish heritage and culture. The foundation, founded in 1953, originally only granted music scholarships, as one of its patrons was renowned Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
“It evolved into scholarships for students that were studying that were from Finland or the U.S.,” Harjula said. “They didn’t have to be studying Finnish topics, but we hope that they would have some connection to the Finnish community in addition to their studies.”
Students applying for the scholarship must be enrolled in their sophomore year by the time it is awarded, must be citizens of Finland or the United States, and must be full-time students at an accredited university.
“We look at the grades; we look at other rewards they’ve received, what community activities they’ve been involved in, if they have been involved in a Finnish or Finnish-American group,” Harjula said. “Just a well-rounded person that has some connection to the Finnish heritage or culture.”
Adjunct Instructor in Arabic Abderrahman Aissa, who wrote Hirvonen a letter of recommendation for the scholarship, noted her qualification for the award.
“It was for people who are involved with making people aware of Finnish heritage and Finnish culture, and it’s only given to people who have really demonstrated that they are capable and they are very involved,” Aissa said. “Heidi was definitely somebody that fit that portrait.”
Hirvonen, who was born in the United States, has dual citizenship in Finland and America. Her parents were both born in Finland and moved to California in 1990. They wound up managing the Finnish American Heritage Center (FAHA) in Sonoma.
“I grew up speaking English and Finnish in the home, kind of learning English while my parents were learning English,” Hirvonen said. “I ended up spending most of my youth growing up at this heritage center in Sonoma. They’re not the managers anymore, but my mom and I still live five minutes away from FAHA…. They have all sorts of cultural events. It definitely was a huge part of me growing up.”
FAHA, as a nonprofit organization, has received grants from FFN. Due to her family’s involvement, Hirvonen was always aware of the foundation and its work.
“We would always receive the Finlandia Foundation newsletters,” she said. “Once you become a sophomore in college, that’s when you can apply for this scholarship. I’d kind of always had that on my horizon.”
She noted that due to Finland’s relatively small size and population, there are not many scholarships for Finnish students.
“It’s probably just a testament to how small the Finnish community is that the Finlandia Foundation is the only foundation that’s funding Finnish students to study Finnish culture and language,” Hirvonen said.
Though the FFN scholarship does not dictate what students should do with the money, Harjula said that the foundation does hope that students receiving the scholarship will go on to bring a little bit of Finland to their own communities.
“Our purpose [is] to promote Finnish culture and heritage, and we hope these people will be somehow involved in that bold mission,” Harjula said. “We value our heritage, and we hope to have the young people continue to learn about their roots.”
It was in this same spirit that Hirvonen founded WesFinns last fall, but she did not find quite as many fellow Finns on campus as she had hoped.
“There was only one other Finnish student that I found,” Hirvonen said. “I’m sure there were more, but Finns tend be really shy and not talkative; it’s a bit of a stereotype amongst Finnish people. [WesFinns] was one thing that I tried to do to kind of foster that kind of Finnish community that I was really missing, because it’s where I grew up at home.”
Aissa, who has taught Hirvonen in Arabic since she began at the University, was aware of her efforts to seek out other Finns on campus.
“I would check in on her—ask, ‘How is it going?’—because it was hard to find people who were Finnish,” Aissa said. “But she did find a few who wanted to be Finnish.”
Hirvonen expressed her hope that eventually the Finns on campus will find one another.
“I’m sure there’s a secret Finnish community here that just hasn’t been united yet,” she said. “Hopefully someday.”