Holiday Market

Dec. 11, 2023

(Far from) Home for the Holidays 

Global Learning alumni speak about their Canadian and International holiday experiences

Embarking on any global learning program is an exhilarating journey marked by cultural immersion, experiential learning and a willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone. Yet, as the holiday season approaches, students participating in exchange programs find themselves encountering a unique and enriching facet of their adventure — spending the holidays away from home. 

Enkhtsogt Ganzorig, BComm’22, came to the University of Calgary from Mongolia and experienced a holiday season quite unlike back home, while Calgarian Kathryn Bauer, BA’17, immersed herself in the culture of Helsinki, Finland, as part of an exchange. Both participated in unique international experiences facilitated through UCalgary.  

And, for both, their holiday experiences included diversity, warmth and the magic of how holiday traditions, as diverse as they are, all seem to bring people together.  

Kathryn Bauer

UCalgary Global Learning

Holidays in Helsinki 

In 2016, Bauer (she/they) embarked on a fall semester exchange program at the University of Helsinki. It was a bilingual exchange focused on a research course, where she was researching the Indigenous Sámi history and culture under the supervision of a Finnish instructor. 

Having opted to live off campus with Finnish housemates in the suburbs of Helsinki further immersed the social and cultural anthropology major in the Nordic culture. Through this lens, she was able to take in some of the unique customs that make Finnish holiday celebrations so special. 

“Everyone was super-open,” Bauer recalls, which surprised them due to Finland having a relatively guarded social culture when compared to Canada. “People respect privacy and it’s a big deal, but, somehow, with the holidays especially, that seemed to break down quickly, both with housemates and in meeting people on the street. There was a lot more of that [open] friendly atmosphere.”  

Downtown Helsinki bore a striking resemblance to the Calgary core during the holiday season, adorned with Christmas lights, trees, snow and a captivating sparkle. However, in the quieter residential neighbourhood where she resided, outdoor lighting was not as prevalent. Instead, the sight of candles illuminating the windows at night throughout the community provided a holiday warmth.  

"It was my second exchange program; my initial experience primarily revolved around meeting international students,” Bauer says. “However, this time around, I was keen on integrating more deeply into the Finnish community. I also did quite a bit of couch-surfing throughout my time there, like staying with local people while I was visiting other cities and whatnot.” 

The sights and sounds of the Finnish Christmas markets also stood out as a significant indicator heralding the arrival of the festive season, typically appearing in early December. Walking down the street, one could spot the bustling stalls set up along the way. The array of enticing smells and the vibrant atmosphere encapsulated the spirit of the holidays. 

Bauer points their housemates’ kindness and spirit of inclusion, always taking her to “quaint Christmas markets and fairs” situated in the neighbourhoods. They also introduced her to a cherished tradition involving volunteering at a primary school dedicated to children with special needs. Together, they engaged in crafting holiday-themed activities alongside the children, fostering an amazing experience. 

“I think another of my favourite memories is from early December, during the Finnish National Day,” says Bauer. “I joined the university students gathered in the cemetery after dusk for a traditional torchlit march. With the torches, we sang songs [and] placed wreaths on veterans’ graves.” 

The annual tradition sees the people of Helsinki marching to the city square for speeches to commemorate Finnish independence. Bauer was on exchange during Finland’s 99th year of independence and the celebration coincided with the start of Advent. 

“I thought it was a beautiful peaceful way to start the holiday season, and just spoke really well to the reflective nature of Finnish culture,” says Bauer. “Once the songs and marches ended, I spent the evening with my housemates in the customary ‘other half’ of the National Day, which involved watching the President’s Castle Ball on TV and eating a lot of cake!”    

Working now as an advisor for students in her current role with UCalgary International, Bauer feels a significant push to instill this same sense of “open-mindedness” in the exchange students she works with. The primary hope is they all embrace the experience of being immersed in the environment they find themselves in, rather than solely relying on their predetermined notions. While individual decision-making holds importance, the emphasis for global learning always focuses on the student to be influenced by the community they become a part of. This approach is believed to be instrumental in facilitating valuable learning experiences and fostering personal growth. 

“My role, ultimately, is quite small and just kind of shaping the student’s own interests in what they're doing,” says Bauer. “But just knowing that I was able to play like a little part in that process and help them get to finding whatever they want to do with their life, it's very rewarding. That’s the best part of what we do.” 

EG Profile Photo

Critical Mass Agency

A Diverse International Mosaic 

Amidst the flurry of snowflakes and the glow of holiday lights, Ganzorig found himself navigating the vibrant Canadian holiday spirit — but on an empty UCalgary campus. Like many international students, he was able to find family amongst friends as he gathered with other international and exchange students for big events and holiday celebrations.  

“There would be 10-15 different countries represented; everyone would gather and bring the most popular dishes and drinks from their own countries and culture,” says Ganzorig. “Everyone was included, so it seemed very diverse and, actually, very Canadian as a result.” 

Despite the geographical distance that separated him from his homeland, Ganzorig found solace in the shared warmth of new friendships and the heartwarming group hospitality of his fellow exchange students. These types of gatherings highlight the kaleidoscope of traditions that make the holidays a truly global celebration, filled with diverse customs and rituals, yet bound by the universal spirit of love and giving. 

“For a community to be built, there needs to be a common ground,” says Ganzorig. “Our common ground was that we wouldn’t be spending the holidays at home with family, so why not celebrate together as family?”  

Now a digital producer at Critical Mass, a marketing agency in Calgary, Ganzorig looks back on his time at UCalgary fondly and notes the community-building act of sharing foods amongst his international friends on campus. What may have seemed like simple meals and connection were actually fundamental steps for his development as an introvert navigating a new country.  

“Canada is really different than Mongolia in its diversity amongst residents,” says Ganzorig. “[It’s only recently] that you see a lot of couples and families from mixed cultures [in Mongolia]. The concept of blending all these cultures together for a meal or something felt unique.”   

Happy Holidays, Everyone 

The holidays act as a catalyst for unity, fostering a sense of togetherness and understanding amongst individuals from various corners of the world. They provide a unique opportunity for experiential learning, offering invaluable insights into traditions, beliefs and customs that enrich all our lives. The essence of the holidays lies not solely in the decorations, festivities or rituals, but in the shared emotions of joy, kindness and goodwill that resonate universally. They remind us that, despite our differences, we share common values and aspirations. 

Ultimately, the holidays stand as a testament to our innate human desire for connection. We are united by our shared humanity, and these celebrations offer us a chance to come together, celebrate differences and cherish the universal spirit of love, compassion and goodwill toward all. 

Every year, UCalgary welcomes more than 200 students on an exchange program, supported by a number of groups on campus and facilitated through the Global Learning office. International Student Services (ISS) provides advice and programs to support all international students as they adjust to their UCalgary studies and life in Canada. 

Global Learning is hoping to grow their study-abroad alumni community to support past, current and prospective students in finding personal, academic and professional value in their international experiences. Check out the Notable Global Learning Alumni web page for more information on alumni stories and how you can get involved!