Finlandia University President Philip Johnson

Finlandia University is the only university in the United States founded by Finns. This school of 700 students sits on top of the country. It is located in Hancock, Michigan, the northernmost city in the continental United States. Students come to this small liberal arts college to study business, nursing and art design.

FU started as Suomi College in 1896  by Finnish immigrants. Classes were then taught in Finnish which did not go over well with students who, upon graduation, were unprepared to the American ways and terminologies. Thus, the teaching language was promptly changed into English. It took another hundred years to change the school’s somewhat confusing name.

Suomi College "Old Main" 1900-1906 (Library of Congress)

“Suomi College was a two-year school, but it became a four-year college in 1996. As the first four-year students graduated in 1999, the name of the school was changed to Finlandia University,” Executive vice president Duane Aho explains.

“People ask if we make vodka here,” he says with a chuckle. “We do, however, sell a lot of merchandise with the FU-logo.”

From its inception the school been affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

“Early on they started to create a system where pastors would be trained for the Suomi synod. It was a main stream Lutheran body that consisted of Finnish speaking people. So, the college was a seminary as well as a school until 1959,” he observes.

FU is still tied to the Lutheran faith.

“It is still affiliated with Evangelical Lutheran Church, but the university is quite independent from the church. There are aspects of the Lutheran faith in our curriculum. We teach religious courses; we have a chapel on campus, and a chaplain who counsels students, but it’s kind of peripheral to the university.”

Some religious schools in the United States are known to impose restrictions on their students – some even discriminate against certain segments of the population such as the gay, lesbian and transgendered people. FU does not do that. It welcomes people of all colors, races, sexual orientations, nationalities, creeds or non-creeds alike in its ranks.

One of the strongest fields at FU is nursing.

“It is taught at the College of Health Sciences. The healthcare industry in America is very much in need of nurses, and our nursing curriculum is very strong. One can also study to be a Physical Therapist Assistant or major in Radiology, and even study to be a medical assistant. We have an almost 100% job placement rate. Once they graduate, they will have jobs waiting for them – if they are willing to move even four hours from here.”

The school attracts students that are into sports.

Finlandia University student-athletes Jim Brey (left) and Reece Anderson

“We offer 14 athletic sports, eight for females, six for males, including ice hockey and basketball. Last year one of the players in our men’s basketball team was from Finland. The team is called the Finlandia Lions. Also in our men’s ice hockey team one of our goalies was from Finland”, Duane Aho explains. “In fact, on any given semester, 8-12 students from Finland are enrolled at FU. The scenery is very similar to that of Finland,” he adds.

“If you are from Finland and looking for something different, you are probably not going to find it here. We are very much like Finland. So, there is a commonality here. There are a number of Finnish faculty members. And even though we are remote, we are very much a part of the larger American scene. This area is very much known for accommodating people. People are very receptive of people from other countries,” Aho says with a smile. (This reporter can attest to it that the people of the Upper Peninsula indeed are very friendly, outgoing, and helpful)

Picturesque Hancock, Michigan

Most students at FU are naturally American.

“Half of our students are local from the four county areas. Many of the other students are drawn here because they want to play a particular sport. There are two young ladies here from California. I sought them out and asked them how they hear about Finlandia. They said, “well, we googled art and design and women’s hockey and Finlandia came up as a match.” So, they ended up enrolling here.”

The president of FU, Philip Johnson, has a PhD in Theology. His roots however are not from Finland but another Nordic country.

“I am a hundred percent Norwegian, married a quarter Finn and I milk it for all its worth,” Johnson laughs.

Finlandia University President Philip Johnson

“At FU we have two schools and two colleges: International School of Business and International School of Art and Design, and colleges of Health Sciences, Arts and Sciences.”

The school collaborates with Finnish schools.

“We have agreements of exchange of faculty and students with 12 institutions of higher learning in Finland. The Finnish students come to our business school as part of programs that supplement their studies in Finland. We usually have 8 to 12 students. They come for a semester or a year and then return.”

The tuition at FU is 19,500 dollars a year. However, the students from Finland do not have to open their wallets that wide. All they have to pay is room and board at the resident hall, which costs 6,000 dollars a semester.

Finnish-born Leena Vänni worked as an intern at the university's newspaper Finnish-American Reporter

“We subsidize their education. We take pride in that. Our Finnish students bring contemporary Finland to campus which is very nice. These students embody the youth culture. They also mingle well with other students and participate in sports. It’s been a good fit.”

Executive Vice President Duane Aho and Art Design Professor Phyllis Fredendall

Lutheran principles are upheld in the curriculum and campus ethos.

“This is not a bible college. We don’t require chapel service. In the tradition of Lutheran higher education, we value free inquiry, we are not dogmatic, religious background is not required. We value diversity and spirituality.”

Philip Johnson talks at length about the ‘servant – leadership model’ in place at the school.

“The servant-leadership model embraces Lutheran tradition that is centered on the idea of vocation. Not in the sense of a technical trade but vocation in the sense of calling. In the sense, that everybody has a role to play – what is that for you, what is your place”, Johnson remarks as he looks the reporter straight in the eye.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula is famous for its unsurpassed natural beauty

Michigan's Peninsula is famous for its unsurpassed natural beauty

“We want FU students explore that, their place in the world. Servant-leadership, the Lutheran tradition and liberal arts commitment here at FU – that’s the constellation of commitments that bring us to this place. We don’t just develop the students’ gray matter – we also want our students to develop as full human beings, Philip Johnson summarizes.”

Business student Reece Anderson, 20, has just finished exercising at the gym. Reece is a home town boy and his family background is half Finnish.

“I’ll be a junior next year. I’m studying business administration and I have a minor in sports management and marketing. I play hockey in the school team Finlandia Lions,” he says.

Ice hockey takes up what little spare time Reece has aside from studies. The team travels to hockey matches in their own school bus.

We usually leave in the morning, the day before the game and travel 3 – 11 hours. You sit on the bus, get there, check in your hotel, wake up next day and play games. We usually play two games and then head back”, he adds.

For Reece, enrolling at FU was also a practical choice.

“It’s a local college. If you graduate from Hancock high school, you get a scholarship to study here.”

Typical school days are busy.

“Usually I have a couple of classes a day. I live off campus a mile away with my parents. I have an older brother and sister. I just wake up and drive here. If it’s hockey season, I wake up early and go to practice, come home and take a nap, eat and go to school for the rest of the day.”

Hancock, Michigan

Hancock, Michigan

He is happy with FU.

“It’s a small school, so you get to know your teachers well. They help you out a lot,” he notes.

Indeed, this writer saw one of the professors on campus dressed informally in a t-shirt and suspenders. Reece’s future plans are still pending.

“I might go to grad school after I’m done here, once I figure out exactly what I want to do. It will probably be something in business.”

Jim Brey, 23, is also a business major, sports minor and belongs to the same hockey team with Reece.

“In early October we will have an outdoor ice rink. Our first game is October 15th. Before that we practice at Michigan Tech in Houghton (the neighboring city). They have artificial ice,”  Jim explains.

His future career path is well laid out.

“I hope to try out for hockey teams, maybe get on a hockey team, play there for a few years and then maybe work in that organization with my degree in business and sports management.”

The most important thing Finlandia University has taught him:

“Be true to yourself, really. Get your work done. Don’t take anything for granted. Live every day to its fullest.”

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