Never be afraid to try

It is spring time and “Women of Aalto” is busy planning our annual summer event, which will be dedicated to the topic of interesting career paths. While discussing this topic with Heta (president of Women of Aalto) and sharing our own stories, Heta noted that my story is quite an unusual one and she would like me to share it. So, here I am trying to figure out what is the best way to make a public confession on how a foreign marketing graduate ended up as a teekkari studying materials science and engineering, and being totally in love with it. Perhaps, I should simply start from the very beginning. Apologies that the story might take a while.

Ever since I was 12 years old I was telling everyone that I will be a “businesswoman”, and that I will study hard to become one. I did not quite understand that there is no such school that could teach you how to be one, and that my entrepreneurial inspiration — my father — was in fact a sea captain and an engineer by education. Entrepreneur is a character, it is a way of living. Nevertheless, at the age of 17 I made my first big decision and moved to Finland to study exactly that — “business”. Luckily, my education actually provided me with a marketing profession, and ever since I found marketing to be an extremely powerful and attractive tool. However, doing solely marketing turned out not to be exactly what I wanted from my life. Couple of years after graduation, I became self-employed as an art agent, which was an undoubtedly enriching and interesting experience, but selling art was not what I felt dedicating my life to either. I wanted to something meaningful, that can actually help -be it a cliche or not- make this world a little bit better. This is when I faced my first ever “life crisis”, being only 22 years old.

I spent about a year trying to figure out what exactly it is, that I want to dedicate my life to. I got interested in the human body, bit by bit discovering the beauty of our immune and nervous systems, and the charming complexity of cellular mechanisms. If you have never studied human physiology, read about it, it is really captivating how complex our body is. So, should I be a doctor then? Perhaps only a pathologist, as dealing with people much too often exhausts me. Yes, I am introvert marketer, funny, right? So not a doctor. Who then? At that point, I did not even dare to look at Aalto University technical school’s pages, as I always thought that mathematics and physics are, to put it mildly, not my things. I found the faculty of molecular biology in Helsinki University and decided that this is probably it: all the cells, viruses, and engineering them sounded like fun. At that point, I did not realize that the word engineering is actually the key word here.

My high school education did not provide me with required level of mathematics, or physics, or chemistry, or even biology, as I went to a “humanitarian” school. My knowledge of these subjects was rather poor, definitely not enough to participate in any entrance tests. So not a surprise, that I did not get in then to the molecular biology program, which in the end turned out to be a good thing. I realized, however, that I have to study more, much more, if I truly want to “do something with a human body”. I really wanted it. I studied chemistry and biology on my own for two years, and managed to push my level much higher. I also struggled with Finnish language and had to overcome my fear of failing with it as had happened many times before. I succeeded in reaching level C1 from an embarrassing A2 in two years, which was enough for me to be able to study in it. I still find it challenging sometimes to have those easy “day-to-day” conversations in Finnish, but at the same time I write scientific reports fluently, although it should be the other way around. In spring 2016 after one year of studies I sat the entrance exam again, and failed. I felt close to despair, but stubbornly continued. Here, I feel necessary to say that I had so much support and patience from my family, that without them I would not be able to achieve what I have achieved. They survived my stubborn desire to change my life, and I will be forever grateful.

It is autumn 2016, and I am still kicking and trying to do what I want to do. I attend courses aimed at preparing high school students for medical entrance exams, as I feel that I still need to get better at chemistry. It is hard to study on your own, and you do need help sometimes. It is when I dare for the first time to widen my options and look at the engineering entrance exams, and it turns out that I am not that stupid in mathematics after all. Perhaps, I can study math in addition to chemistry? There are 24 hours in a day after all. The decision is made, I am applying to Aalto to the program “Chemical, bio- and materials engineering”. I think that I will choose the “bio” one to continue to be a biomedical engineer, but life prepares something more interesting for me. At this point, I become so excited about how the engineering aspect of medicine actually opens so many new perspectives, that molecular biology becomes only a shadow in my life. So, I start studying math on my own, dedicating to it full days now, and attend a short preparatory math course in April in Otaniemi. This is when I fall in love with Otaniemi’s atmosphere and realize totally and forever, that this is where I belong. In May, I write the entrance tests in the Undergraduate center of Aalto university, silently dreaming that maybe I would study there.

I did not think I would get in, however. I had less chances than other exam attendees. First of all, Finnish is not my native language, regardless how well I knew it back then, it is an extremely complicated language. In addition to all that, I am no longer a “first-timer” (meaning I already have a Bachelor degree), which means that I have to get many more points than others in order to get in. Plus, let’s face it, I studied mathematics for only half a year and had to “compete” for places with some really smart kids.

But I did get in!

It was truly the best day of my life, I remember crying from happiness, realizing that all my work paid off. I was about to become a teekkari — a Finnish engineer, the greatest title I could imagine having.

Later on, I found my greatest passion — biomedical materials, and also discovered many new fascinating areas like energy materials. Along the way I became a citizen of Finland, and I feel home. So, all my dreams came true and I finally found where I belong, and this is the best feeling you can have. I am still a marketer at heart, but I am also an engineer, a woman engineer — we are not so many, and I am very proud to be one.

Teekkarilakki is the greatest gift

Oh, and I am also a “businesswoman”, apparently, I was born this way 🙂

Thank you, Women of Aalto, for this opportunity to write my story, I looked at it from a different perspective.

PS: Never be afraid to try, you will fail many times, but it will pay off in the end. Surround yourself with supportive people, you will need them when you fail, and especially when you achieve your goal. Remember the key words for your life, and let “support” be one of them. And dreams do come true.

Daria Hedberg May 15, 2018