At the beginning of the new academic year

Aalto University Student Union's Chair of the Board Milja Leinonen's speech at Aalto Day One.
Milja Leinonen Aalto Day Onessa 7.9.2021



Distinguished members of the Aalto community,

When I was given the opportunity to give a speech to the Aalto community at the start of the year, I must admit that I felt a bit lost at first, as the past 18 months have been disheartening for so many of us. During the pandemic, we have faced disappointments, fear and loneliness, and spent many days alone in our homes. Words of encouragement – especially those offered to young people and students – have felt hollow this year. It seems like the only thing we can trust during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic is the passage of time.

As time has marched on, we have once again reached the point where we are gathered here to celebrate the start of Aalto University’s 12th year. I am proud to be a part of a university community that is resolutely built on courage, responsibility and co-operation. These are our unwavering values that bring us together and create a space for experimentation, learning and education.

Aalto Univeristy’s biggest strength is its unique diversity of science, art, technology and economics. However, I want to emphasise  that, for students, the university is not just lecture rooms, Zoom groups or a place for getting a degree in higher education. For many students, the university forms the most important part of our psychosocial framework. Aalto is a place where we can safely try, fail, try again and practise asking for help. It is a place where we make friends, fall in love, experience disappointment and learn to deal with uncertainty. Encounters make Aalto what it is. We cannot afford to be divided into small, individual groups. Instead, we must always reach out to others and also reach for new ideas. To all new and returning students, researchers, professors and everyone else at Aalto watching the start of the year at home: I see your frustration and the pain brought about by the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, I want you to know that regardless of our differences or circumstances, all of us were, are and will be a part of the Aalto community before, during and even after the pandemic. We are here for each other.

The message I want to send to all members of the Aalto community is that I would like us to stop and think about the freedom that a new beginning brings us. I hope that we do not overlook the freedom that we have been offered , even if the radiance of revolutionary collective experiences becomes a faint glimmer and even if we still cannot embrace the flow of people on campus, unconcerned with invisible threats.

Freedom has largely been absent in our everyday lives during the past year.  In fact, this is the first time in my life that individual freedom has been restricted in Finland. However, freedom can be measured in many ways, on many scales. I know for certain that right now, as well as in the coming weeks, the campus will see hundreds of first-year students  who are experiencing a dizzying feeling of freedom. Their youth and studies are like an endless ocean  that stretches far into the horizon. The rest of us returning to study and work at the campus must also find our own measure of freedom,  although the places where we may find it might not seem obvious at first.

We must find a measure of freedom that allows us toenjoy our self-expression and to reinvent our life today and tomorrow if we so choose. The freedom to choose hobbies and studies, to not simply follow others but to live and be true to ourselves. The freedom to decide what our time as students looks like and when it is at its best. The freedom to give ourselves time and not focus solely on performing. The freedom to be gracious to ourselves and others. The freedom to choose what we bring to the Aalto community. My advice to all you new students is this: hold on to your freedom to choose the best, most fulfilling way to live your student life.

I want to wish everyone a hopeful start to the year!

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