Post-Semester Thoughts

Hey guys, girls and others,

time for one last post. As I promised in the last one, I’ll give you my views on this whole thing and try to make it useful for those of you considering an exchange in Michigan (and convince those who aren’t). Here goes.

Looking back at the semester in Ann Arbor, I would heartily recommend it to anyone even slightly interested America – and there are many reasons to be interested: The people you work and study with are success-driven and entrepreneurial, America is still very influential in global trade and especially the financial industry, most of the top business schools are there (Ross consistently ranks around 20th in the world), the culture values success, individual freedoms and national pride (whether this is entirely a good thing is open to debate) and the country is extremely diverse both culturally and geographically. Ann Arbor might be a small college town, but that’s exactly why it’s such a great place to go to college! The Wolverine spirit is strong and almost everything is accessible without a car, a rarity in America. A2 is also close to many interesting cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Toronto and both Spirit and Delta fly directly from Detroit to almost everywhere, so the travel opportunities are there.

Now that the semester is over, I’ll give you my views on the courses to help with picking the right ones. Remember, one UofM credit equals two ECTS, so 15 credits is what Aalto requires.

Fin 320 Real Estate Fundamentals

This one was good, Prof Allen’s stories about his real estate career were motivational and the course had a solid content. As I wrote already in the introduction, a lot of work for 1.5 credits. We pulled a 16-hour all-nighter to finish the final group assignment. Though I said Prof Allen’s stories were interesting, his way of teaching wasn’t the most entertaining. He was really helpful and enthusiastic about getting his students started in real estate, connecting interested students with his business associates and even outright hiring some as far as I understand! Having said that, I would say take the course if you’re actually interested in going into real estate finance (we have a lot of those companies in Finland), but I’ll hold back my recommendation on this one.

Fin 321 Commercial Real Estate Finance

Quite similar concepts to Fin 320, but approaches real estate from a commercial developer’s point of view. Fin 320 is not a prerequisite for taking this course, even if taking it first helps understand the basic concepts. Taught by Steve Morris, another real estate guru with a lot of experience. Like Prof Allen, his presentation style was hard to follow and not too interesting. He had similarly great stories from his career though, and unlike Prof Allen invited a lot of guest speakers (most Ross alumni) to speak during the course. Similarly to Prof Allen, he helps his students connect with the real estate business world. Still, I recommend you to skip this one unless you’re really into real estate. Slightly lighter workload than Fin 320, 1.5 credits.

TO 411 Support with Excel

Overall a solid course. If you’ve used Excel a lot before, you can take it easy during the first month or so of the course. It gets interesting toward the end and I learned a lot of interesting stuff during the second half of the semester. Hila Etzion is a good and enthusiastic teacher and as a plus doesn’t do cold calling. Her assignments and exams have traditionally been much easier than Sanjeev Kumar’s, who also lectures the course. Two weekly assignments, one done during class and one outside, relatively easy three credits. Still recommend it after four months.

TO 414 Advanced Analytics for Management Consulting

The best and by far the most difficult course I took. Lots of work and late nights, but I didn’t mind because it always felt interesting and meaningful. Plus, programming skills aren’t going to get less important in the future. Sanjeev turned out to be quite flexible with assignments and willing to work with students on the deadlines. Oh, and he likes “seeing the fear in the students’ eyes” during exams. I recommend this one if you’re willing to put in effort during the exchange. Difficult three credits, but worth it.

Fin/TO 428 FinTech Innovations

A really interesting course. Andrew’s part was all about the new blockchain and peer-to-peer financing stuff. He went really deep into how these things work, so I went from not knowing what a blockchain is to knowing quite a lot about what’s going on in fintech. Bob’s part was more mathematical and had less to do with modern innovations and more with established financial modeling, such as the Fama-French three factor model. He did introduce us to some new models, though it would have been a better fit for an econometrics course. This course is very new, taught only for the second time during Winter 2018 and probably going to change considerably over the following years. Really easy, with Bob even telling the class before the last assignment that they’re giving out As unless you really screw up (and most didn’t). A really interesting course requiring minimal effort, though the assignments did give trouble to non-finance students. I recommend taking this one if available, three credits doesn’t get much easier.

PUBPOL 423 – Political Campaign Strategies

The wildcard pick ended up being really interesting! Knowing very little about the American political system, it was hard to keep up with the discussion during classes. The assignments were easily doable though, since they didn’t require going into the deeply technical stuff and I think Rusty accounted for my European-ness in grading. The final assignment, a political campaign plan, required a technical part but I was allowed to write it about Finnish politics. Overall a really interesting course and the one that gave me my best grade (A+, top of the class!). I warmly recommend this one, but only if you’re really interested in (American) politics. If you’re not, well, you wouldn’t consider this anyway.

 

So that’s it. Done. Over. Complete. The End. I hope you had fun reading my blog, if not please consider I’ve never done this before. I hope you found this helpful and that I managed to inspire you to go to America, or at least to participate in an exchange program anywhere. It is a really rewarding and eye-opening experience that you will never forget. Not many will get another chance to move to another country for such a lengthy period of time without taking a job abroad. Even though you’re studying, there’s still so much more free time than you would have in American working life. Go on, do it and if my blog left anything unclear (as I’m sure it did), don’t hesitate to contact me. Make a comment in any of the posts or if you’re an Aalto student, ask for my e-mail from the university.

And most importantly……………………… GO BLUE!!!

 

Touring America’s largest football stadium with fellow exchange students was a fitting sendoff – Go Blue!

 

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Second Half of the Semester

Hey all,

whew, it’s been a long time since my last post! Time flies, et cetera.

The second half of the semester went a lot like the first one – quickly – just with a lot more work. The full-length courses (at least the ones I took) tend to have most of the assignments toward the end, so things escalated quickly after Spring Break.

The course Real Estate Fundamentals ended before Spring Break and was replaced in my curriculum by the more commercial-focused Commercial Real Estate Finance. Though they occupy the same space in the curriculum, they are completely separate courses taught by different professors. Steve Morris is, like Peter Allen who taught the previous course, also a very experienced real estate investor with a long history in the industry. The course was different in that the assignments consisted of several mini-cases where we applied concepts discussed during the lectures, a “case competition” where the group had to optimize a real estate investment portfolio with predetermined investment and financing options (the reward was either 10 extra points to the final exam or 100 dollars paid by *gasp* the professor from his own pocket!) and finally a open-excel final exam. I don’t know if this is a thing at Ross, but both these 1.5-credit courses had quite a heavy workload per credit. The course had good contents, but prof Morris’ presentation isn’t the most entertaining.

In addition to the new course, the deadlines on the Advanced Analytics programming course started rolling in. There are two large group projects, both after Spring Break. The weekly assignments themselves are work-intensive, but the group projects definitely made this the heaviest course I took! We analyzed data about New York City’s Citibike system (very similar to Helsinki’s Alepa bicycles) to find the most travelled routes, imbalances between departures and arrivals at the stations and trip lengths to optimize bicycle inventory management, transport and maintenance. Really difficult with my negligible programming background, but also very interesting! I’ve found a lot of new respect for the R language here.

Some more traveling

Though I said the second half was more intensive, I did manage to squeeze in a few weekends in different cities…

The week after Spring Break I took the legendary Greyhound bus to Chicago (five-hour trip, they’re better than their reputation) to meet some friends who flew over from Finland for the weekend. Based on an extended weekend, I think Chicago’s a lot like a smaller and nicer New York. I’d say it’s my favorite American city so far – sorry all the guys from NY! The architecture is beautiful, people seem to go about their business at a slightly slower Midwestern pace and it’s right on Lake Michigan – you can easily walk from downtown to the beach. Definitely worth (re-)visiting. It’s nice.

The Bean in Millenium Park

 

 

A week after that we rented a car with some friends and drove to Toronto, Canada. We stopped by Niagara Falls (goes without saying) to see one of the country’s most famous attractions. They really are magnificent, but I guess you can’t help being underwhelmed after all the hype they get. Worth visiting definitely, but don’t expect pure natural beauty; they’ve constructed quite an amusement park on the Canadian side with casinos, Madame Tussaud’s and what not.

That’s a lot of water

Toronto itself was a nice city with an enjoyable nightlife, good restaurants and very friendly people. They say Canada is more culturally diverse than USA because people there tend to hang on to their native cultures more than immigrants to the USA, who are often more keen to become American. I think you could really see this in Toronto, where you have more clearly defined ethnic areas within the city and for example the restaurants in Little Italy were faithfully Italian, not American with an Italian twist as is often the case in USA. Apart from food, we saw a baseball game (Blue Jays vs Yankees, the home team won with a grand slam), Hockey Hall of Fame (naturally, being a Finnish-Czech travel party) the CN Tower (one of the seven Wonders of the Modern World) and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. All worth checking out.

CN Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere

After Canada it was time for the Final Grind. Even with all the assignments over the length of the courses there was a lot of material to go over before the final exams. All the libraries and study halls on campus were full pretty much from 9am to midnight, so you can tell Americans work more than Europeans already in University! Partying was almost completely on hiatus, which doesn’t really happen outside the finals week. I would say that the average difficulty level of my exams was slightly lower than in Aalto, though you have to remember exchange students only take electives that tend to be easier than core courses. Having a lot of assignments spread out over the length of the courses helped a lot, in the Advanced Analytics exam I literally copied most of the work from my assignment files and didn’t have to study at all for the Support with Excel exam.

After the finals it was time for one last trip before returning home. After taking care of all the housekeeping items (cancel mobile plan, empty US bank account, pay Umich bills… there’s a surprising amount of stuff associated with a four-month stay) we flew to Los Angeles for nine days of sunshine after the long Michigan winter.

Our Steed for California

Los Angeles was an interesting city, not least because it was more like a collection of different towns (well, it actually is) with distinct cultures from the upscale Beverly Hills to the rougher, weed-smelling Venice. It’s also hilariously car-dependent and it’s not at all feasible to visit the city without a car even as a tourist. We rented a convertible Mustang (of course) from a P2P rental service called Turo (like AirBnB for cars) for an unbelievably affordable price to get around. Gasoline seems to be much more expensive in California than in most other states, though obviously still much cheaper than in Europe. Like in New York, there’s something to see and do for everyone (I lost count of how many museums we visited) and the fact that Hollywood is the cradle of modern movie industry means there are a lot of landmarks recognizable from movies.

It’s really spread out – barely any skyscrapers here

After LA we made a day trip to San Diego by the Mexican border, around 200km from LA. Often called the birthplace of California, it is a lot smaller city than LA and at the same time calmer and more approachable. We saw the USS Midway museum (San Diego has a longstanding association with the US Navy), Coronado island (a high-end beach resort), La Jolla populated by the upper class (and sea lions) and the Mexican old town, El Centro. The nightlife in Gaslight District seemed active, so I think we should have allocated more than one day for the visit.

Seaside San Diego skyline, as seen from the deck of USS Midway

The final stretch of our journey was the looooong drive through the Nevada desert to Las Vegas. Before hitting the town we detoured to the Hoover Dam, the largest concrete structure in America and a popular filming spot for movies. It was a cool sight to see and we took a partial tour of the inside of the dam as well (missed the full tour as it was sold out for the day). I’ve never been as hot as in there, temperatures were around 36c in the shade! The Nevada-Arizona border runs through the Colorado river, so we also took the opportunity to visit Arizona, just because. The dam is worth visiting if you’re in the area, but I wouldn’t go there just to see it – after all it’s just a dam. The dam does create one of the largest man-made lakes in the world though, so if we got there earlier there would have been good spots for swimming and other marine sports – we saw a lot of boats and jet skis.

They said we could take all the dam pictures we wanted

So finally, Las Vegas. Almost everyone’s seen the movies and yes, it is just as over-the-top as you think! I think it is best described as a celebration of excess, be it money, food, alcohol or any other decadent stuff – if you can imagine it, it’s in there. In the end we didn’t have time to hit any casinos (nor would we have been interested in gambling), but we did walk past several free open-air concerts. The only bar we visited was in the famous Stratosphere tower, the one with amusement park attractions at the top. Other than that we just walked the Strip and looked at all the absurd casino buildings we’ve seen in movies (Fontana di Trevi to Tour Eiffel in 10 minutes? Done it.). I have to say Vegas was not at all my kind of place and my travel companion thought the same. The people visiting Vegas do seem to be mainly less-educated, worse-dressed and worse-behaved than average. Definitely the place to be for someone who loves gambling, though.

The Stratosphere Tower – Sky Lounge extremely overpriced, but I guess you should do it once

So, in the end we drove over 2000km in nine days and barely made the drive back to LA in time! Sitting down in the plane from LA to Detroit, I started realizing this was it. After landing in Detroit, all I had time to do was go back to Ann Arbor for my bags, hand over the house keys to a roommate, finally eat breakfast in Ann Arbor’s most famous restaurant/deli, Zingermann’s Delicatessen (good, slightly exotic Jewish food) and head back to the airport again. After four months, it was hard to comprehend that the time had come to fly back home. Never have four months passed so quickly in my life!

Now I’m finally getting over the jetlag, so it’s time to give my final thoughts on this whole experience. In the next and final post I’ll give you my review of the courses I took, the University of Michigan and the exchange experience in general; I’m hoping those of you planning to apply find it helpful.

Until next post,

Niklas

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Spring Break and The Midterms

Hi again,

finally have time to get back to the blog. Things have been hectic since Spring Break!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Ross mid-term exams take place around Spring Break. Most are before to let students relax during the break, but the only exam I had was actually on the first week after. The exam was for the Support with Excel course and it turned out to be more challenging than expected! Not difficult as such, but with a strict time limit.

In addition to the Support with Excel mid-term, we also had a huge team project for Advanced Analytics during the same week, which kind of acted as an exam. Very challenging, just as the rest of the course, but also a very good learning experience. Both these “Technology & Operations” courses have proven to be very educational and interesting. Being ‘fluent’ with Excel and knowing at least some programming is a must-have skill for most businesspeople these days regardless of specialization, so I still highly recommend these courses for everyone coming here.

The elective courses exchange students take here are apparently not the most challenging courses at Ross, so the core course midterms must be pretty tough. Students here do “grind” more for them than the average student back home.

Anyway, enough about school. Between the two ‘halves’ of the semester there is the high point of the year, SPRING BREAK!!!

After the two months of hard studying, a week of leisure in America’s biggest city was just what I needed. My significant other met me at JFK from where we got a ride to our hotel, the brand-new Row NYC (https://www.rownyc.com/) a block away from Times Square!

The hotel was trendy and youthful, which was reflected in the customer base. Automated check-in and check-out along with a high-quality in-house food market made our stay convenient, would go again!

For first-time visitors, shopping for a hotel in New York can be infuriating. Unlike in Europe where hotels have to advertise the final price, in America there are no such regulations and thus the hotels can add in all sorts of their own fees. Every hotel does this to some extent in New York and they all have their own varying fees which really gave me gray hair. I counted at least six different fees on top of the base price for our hotel: value added tax (as in everything in America), New York State sales tax, New York City sales tax, New York City hotel room occupancy tax, NYC Javits Center fee, and Row NYC facilities fee. To be fair only one of those is the hotel’s own fee, but it was easily the largest chunk of extra money. Can’t really fault Row NYC for that, since it’s the local custom and you don’t get customers by advertising higher prices than rivals. Still, New York could do something about those five different taxes.

Having never been to New York, I had my mind blown by the sheer size and hustle ‘n’ bustle of the City! Even though we were going somewhere all the time, it still felt like we had only just scratched the surface. We did a lot of the typical touristy stuff including visiting the 9/11 memorial museum and the Statue of Liberty (both recommended), queued to a few of the more popular diners for breakfast (pancakes with bacon, eggs and sausage doused in maple syrup? So good!) and even got a helicopter ride around Manhattan!

We took the Manhattan helicopter tour with Helicopter Flight Services (https://heliny.com/). The pilot was cool and knew the city very well, so we got a good narration to go with the sights! It was an amazing experience, though of course not cheap (nothing in NYC is).

On the last evening we went to see The Lion King on Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. It was just as good as the reviews said and I’ve never seen a show that well executed, the props almost seemed like magic at times! A word of warning for those new to Broadway shows: Always go to the show’s official website to see who the official ticket vendor is. I almost got tricked into buying tickets from a reseller with exorbitant service fees (if you google “Lion King Broadway” you’re more likely to find a certain reseller than the official ticket vendor). The official retailer fees are supposed to be less than $10, not $50!

After the show we had late-night dinner in an Italian restaurant on New York’s semi-famous Restaurant Row (a stretch of West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues) in Hell’s Kitchen, one block from our hotel. The Row hosts many high-quality restaurants from Japanese to Louisiana cuisine, so you could easily eat something different there every day over a week’s stay.

There was a lot to do in NYC and there would be equally much left for multiple week-long vacations. Apart from the tourist attractions, it’s easy to spend time just walking around the city in nice weather, looking around and visiting different shops along the way. With there being over three million more people in New York City alone than in Finland, you can imagine there are shops and entertainment for every possible niche interest. And then there are the other four boroughs…

So, that was New York. Or so I thought… One of the winter’s worst storms hit the East Coast in the morning of our departure. I already got a bad feeling when the inter-terminal Airtrain in JFK was out of service due to the weather. Around 3000 flights taking of from the East Coast were cancelled, my flight sadly among them. Luckily, the significant other got home as Finnair was able to take off. I, on the other hand, ended up experiencing a night on the airport floor as all hotels and rental cars nearby were reserved. Not a pleasant experience, but an experience nonetheless, I guess.

Despite lasting one day longer than planned, Spring Break was awesome and definitely the highlight of the semester so far. Now it’s back to the grind and towards the end of the semester. Can’t believe it’s the halfway point already!

 

Until next time,

Niklas

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Seeing the States

Howdy, last post before Spring Break! Since the last post was long and mostly about studying, here’s another about purely recreational activities.

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Indianapolis, Capital of the State of Indiana

 

 

Four of us rented a car (from Budget) and drove to Indiana during our second weekend here. The trip was my idea because, as anyone in my family knows, I’m crazy about cars and wanted to see the world’s most famous race track, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The drive from Ann Arbor to Indianapolis takes around 4½ hours. I was the only 25+ in our group, so I took on the driving duties (rental agencies really hate young drivers here). Driving in the USA isn’t much different from Finland, long stretches of straight Highways and Interstates with mostly fields between cities just like back home. Only difference is the amount of people doing stupid sh…things on the roads, a testament to America’s lenient Driver’s License regulations. Gas is cheap by European standards (around 0.48€/litre), the cars use a lot of it and (optional but highly recommended) insurance often doubles the price of a car rental, so it’s only slightly cheaper here than in Europe.

So anyway, the Speedway. Unfortunately there was too much snow to take a tour of the track, but we managed to visit the Hall of Fame museum constructed inside the track’s circle (it’s a big track). Might have to come back for the 500 some day…

The Indy Hall of Fame and a Czech tourist.

The museum was a petrolhead’s dream, with the winning cars from most Indy 500 races lined up, from 1960s to this day. As an extra, they happened to have a special exhibition of the Camaro Pace Cars from all the eras. I think we spent around two hours in the museum. Warning: Wandering into the gift shops can get expensive…

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The Indy 500 winners.

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A happy gearhead.

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Some of the Indy Legends.

After the Speedway we headed into the city. Indianapolis is one of those Midwest cities that doesn’t get mentioned very often, I’d think not many tourists come here other than for the races. The city seems nice and friendly, though most places were closed as we arrived quite late during the weekend. We visited the Indiana War Memorial, dedicated to soldiers and sailors that have fallen in America’s wars. It was a long climb to the top, but the view was worth it!

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Indiana War Memorial

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After the Memorial we managed to quickly visit the Circle Centre Mall. It’s pretty well equipped, though we only grabbed some (average) fast food and got in the car back to AA. As I said, Indianapolis is a nice city, but a few hours were really enough.

 

A week after Indiana we took the Detroit Connector (http://detroitconnector.umich.edu/) to Detroit (duh) to see the 2018 North American International Auto Show. It’s been my dream to attend for many years, so was great to finally make it!

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NAIAS 2018 at Detroit’s Cobo Center

The exhibition area itself was only slightly larger than our Messukeskus, yet the amount of cars from different manufacturers was mind-boggling! Both European and Asian automakers were present, but I of course spent most of the time checking out the American metal. Took around three hours here, after which we went to check out the Motor City. Tasted a Coney Dog (hot dog with savory meat sauce, a Detroit specialty) at Lafayette Coney Island, one of the most popular places for Coney in the Big D. Tasty!

It was cool to just walk around and see the sights. Detroit has clearly been getting better since it’s downfall in the last Financial Crisis, although many run-down buildings and abandoned construction sites can still be found even in the downtown. There’s a lot more homeless people on the streets than in other places I’ve seen, so Detroit’s renaissance hasn’t yet reached everyone.

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Spirit of Detroit

We visited GM Headquarters at The Renaissance Center on the riverfront. Most of GM’s present range was on display, along with some classics and a whole lot of memorabilia from over the years. I feel they could do even more with the building, currently the exhibition floor is populated by fast food chains and a Marriot hotel takes much of the space. It’s still a formidable HQ and worth visiting if you’re in the neighborhood, although their gift shop wasn’t good enough to separate me from my money.

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GM Renaissance Center at night.

As Detroit is a huge city and we were moving on foot, most of our time went to NAIAS and the RenCen. While walking around looking for the Opera House, we stumbled upon…

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Hard Rock Cafe Detroit!

Since we were in Detroit Rock City, of course we had to go in! The HRC finished our night nicely, the good service and cold beers were just what we needed to rest our feet after the long day. They had a cool KISS-themed wall, too.

 

Finally, we took advantage of Ross’ extended weekends and took a four-day trip to New Orleans, Louisiana for the legendary Mardi Gras. We flew with Spirit airlines (https://www.spirit.com/Default.aspx), (probably) the cheapest and least reliable airline in the US. They’re notorious for cancelled and delayed flights, but we got lucky and everything went well both ways, and for cheap!

It was quite a shock to go from the freezing temperatures of Michigan to under the palm trees of +20c Louisiana. A positive one, though! The six of us checked in to a nice AirBnB close to the French Quarter (the most significant area for tourists in NOLA), where most of the parades took place.

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Typical French Quarter architechture.

New Orleans comes across as a very different from most American cities, mostly due to the well-preserved Spanish/French creole architechture and gourmet. Louisiana has it’s own style of cuisine, mostly seafood and stews called ‘Gumbo’. Make sure to try beignets, a french-style delicacy almost always made to order. You should definitely try as many dishes as you can and stay away from the big chains!

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Gumbo @ Gumbo Ya-Ya  by Mississippi river in the French Quarter.

New Orleans’ nightlife was something else! We spent a lot of time and money to review the establishments around Bourbon and Frenchmen Streets for future generations. The streets were packed, everyone was in a festive mood and, unlike in most of the US where open container laws forbid public drinking, in the French Quarter it’s OK to walk around the streets with a drink in your hand! Hopping from bar to bar and finding something to eat in between was easy and most places don’t mind if you bring in a drink from the outside.

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Bourbon Street is legendary (and worthy of its reputation).

New Orleans has been called the birthplace of Jazz, so visiting a few clubs was a must. Fritzel’s European Jazz Bar was the best, in my opinion. They have their own house band, who are awesome, the place is cozy and wben the band is playing usually packed. We got lucky and found a seat, so stayed for a whole set. Maison was another quality club with live music (on Frenchmen St). They’re more of a dancing place, where Fritzel’s is a more classic sit down and relax kind of place.

The parades themselves were unbelievable and really need to be seen in person. They are going on from January forward, though most are concentrated on the first two weeks of February. The best time to visit is the second weekend of February, though we were there on the first and still had a good time! The parades are almost always huge, though not all have the huge constructions. Most schools in the area had their own shows and the biggest ones are organized by local enthusiast (and everyone is a Mardi Gras enthusiast in the Big Easy). The International Krewe of Chewbacchus had 900 participants and took way over an hour to pass our spot in all of its Star Wars, Harry Potter and Space Viking (etc.) glory!

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They really go all out for the parades!

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Psst… there’s actually a lot to see there.

Finally, atypical of an American city, there are a couple of shopping malls inside the city itself. I grabbed some Mardi Gras souvenirs and visited an outlet mall, The Riverwalk Collection (https://www.riverwalkneworleans.com/). Worth dropping by if that’s your thing, walking distance from the river side of the French Quarter.

New Orleans was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve seen in the US yet. I highly recommend visiting for anyone who’s into partying, festivities, jazz or just architecture and exotic cuisine. I will probably be revisiting the Big Easy in the future, either during Mardi Gras or not.

 

So, an exchange semester in the US is not all studying. Going to places is a huge part of the experience, though it does require lots of hard work to clear the weekends of school work. Being such a huge and diverse country, USA is a great exchange destination for someone who wants both a top-notch school and an exciting environment.

That’s it folks, I’m off to New York City for Spring Break (yup, more travelling). I’ll be writing about it and the mid-term season when I get back, see you then!

Best,

Niklas

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First month in the US

Hey all, it’s been a while again!

Now that I’ve been here for a month it’s time to get to the topic about actually studying in the USA. Let’s start with getting here, however.

I flew here on New Year’s Day via Amsterdam (a very nice airport) with KLM/Delta Airlines. Both did a good job with friendly service, arrived on time and didn’t lose my luggage. I counted a very American three warm meals on Delta’s ~9-hour flight from Amsterdam to Detroit!

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Flying over Greenland – halfway there!

The airport bureaucracy in Detroit went very quickly despite the long line (they take your fingerprints and ask a few questions before luggage pick-up). If you have a connecting flight in Europe you need to get your boarding pass stamped before going to the (US-bound flights’) gate.

There are multiple options for getting to Ann Arbor from the Detroit airport. One of the most popular options is the Michigan Flyer (http://www.michiganflyer.com/) which is what I and many of my friends here used. They operate at ~1.5 hours intervals and one-way ride costs $12. There are also other shuttles and of course the Uber/Taxi option.

Since I arrived on January 1st when nothing is open and none of my housemates were home (nobody spends holidays in Ann Arbor, apparently) I ended up staying in a local motel, the University Inn (https://universityinnannarbor.com/) for the first night. A delightful surprise with big and quite clean rooms and even breakfast included in the price. It’s the kind of motel you see in all classic American road movies and I can recommend it to anyone looking for a good no-frills place to sleep in.

The 2nd day was spent getting the keys to the house I subleased a room from (three minutes walk from the Ross building), settling in and buying all kinds of miscellaneous items I couldn’t bring from home (nope, standard Euro-sized bed linens aren’t compatible with America). Americans have just a little different ways of doing the everyday stuff which can make you feel a little stupid at first!

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The Ross School of Business building on the U-M campus.

Despite school officially starting on January 3rd there are basically no classes on the first week. The school starts with an orientation day where they give you your M-card (a very valuable equivalent to the Finnish student I.D. with which you can ride the local buses and use the huge 4-floor Intramural Sports building for free, enter the libraries after midnight and even withdraw money from the ATM with a local bank account) and stamp your I-20 immigration documents. Getting the I-20 stamped and enrolling in at least 12 credits worth of courses (Aalto requires 15 anyway) is crucial for maintaining your immigrant status, so make sure to get these done!

The first orientation day is the only mandatory school activity on the first week, which really surprised me. We had an optional US culture workshop day where we explored many of the stereotypes about Americans (most of them are true and yes, you can eat chips for lunch) and familiarized ourselves with the campus area in the -24c Michigan winter! As you’d expect there are parties and other activities organized almost every night before the classes start. It can feel quite lonely during the first few days before you get to know people so I highly recommend going, good times!

The actual classes started on our 2nd week here. Most exchange students will be on waitlists for many courses due to University of Michigan’s course enrollment system being very unfriendly to exchange students1, so generally your class schedule will change during the first few weeks.

Studying at Ross is quite different from Aalto. Most courses feature a lot of material you are supposed to read before each class and many professors ‘cold call’ students with questions about it, so skipping the readings is not advised; activity points are a large part of the grade and you can also be removed from the course for missing classes (usually 3+ times).

There are generally fewer class hours and more homework than in Aalto and it’s not uncommon for the study rooms to be packed with students until after midnight, including weekends! The professors also host ‘office hours’ where you are expected to show up at least a few times to ask about assignments or just do small talk. Cold calling and expecting appearances on office hours varies by professor however, and so far I haven’t been to any. Regardless of the course there is a lot of discussion during classes, the professors put effort into learning each student’s name and powerpoint presentations play a very minor role.

Most courses have a mid-term exam just before the Spring Break and final exams at the end of the semester. However the elective courses that exchange students mostly take often replace exams with case projects and I only have one course with mid- and final exams. I will revisit the subject after Spring Break.

To sum it up: the courses themselves present a lot more work than Aalto, though the difficulty level is generally lower; expect to participate in conversation during classes; don’t assume just because you don’t have classes you can party and travel all the time; in the end the grades don’t translate to Aalto (purely pass/fail), so how much weight you place on acing the exams and getting activity points is up to you.

Finally, Ross offers many ways to form the curriculum for your exchange semester, whether you want to add diversity to your major/minor or try something completely different – the amount of available courses is immense. I chose something in the middle – here’s a quick review of my selection.

FIN 320 – Real Estate Fundamentals

A course on real estate finance taught by Peter Allen, a local real estate developer with decades of experience. Even though centered in the US real estate market and regulation, I feel the course is interesting and very useful for exchange students as well – the fundamentals are quite similar all over the world. This course really made me consider getting into real estate investing, at least as a hobby. It is a huge amount of work for a 1.5 local credit course though and the only one I’ve spent full nights on. Regardless I do not regret taking this course. Side note: Peter holds his office hours in the neighbouring Pizza House restaurant after class. As a 1.5 credit course this one ends before Spring Break, after which it is built upon by the follow-up course…

FIN 321 – Commercial Real Estate Finance

Lectured by another real estate professional – more on this after Spring Break

TO 411 – Support with Excel

An Excel course taught by (among others) Hila Etzion. A very useful course for anyone who needs Excel in their work (everyone does, right?) and is not super proficient in it, this one goes deeper than the one in Aalto. Even as a relatively experienced user I’m still picking up new and useful things, though the difficulty level is not very high. Altogether I’m happy with the course, it’s nice to have a lighter one among the heavy stuff.

TO 414 – Advanced Analytics

An R programming course focused on data analytics, taught by Sanjeev Kumar. In addition to Sanjeev being an awesome professor and all-around good guy, the course is tremendously useful for anyone working with large amounts of data. The course starts with the basics and then ramps up really quickly, so it is suitable for both experienced and inexperienced programmers  (if you’ve never touched R, you will need to study on your own before the course, but it is in no way impossible to do). As a Finance major, a must-have course for me and probably the most useful out of all my courses here. The workload is on the heavier end, though.

TO 428 – FinTech Innovations

A new course lectured only for the 2nd time, FinTech Innovations provides a comprehensive look into the world of modern Financial Technology, including blockchain, cryptography, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and many other applications of the technology like mobile payment systems. It is lectured mainly by Andrew Wu, a young and very enthusiastic former ‘flash trader’ with an impressive resume. Some later courses will be lectured by Bob Dittmar. This is another very contemporary and useful course, especially for someone like me who didn’t even know what a blockchain is before coming to the class. At least for now, very light workload.

PUBPOL 423 – Political Campaign Strategies

My foray into “the other side”, PUBPOL 423 is a course from U of M’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. This very interesting course is taught by Rusty Hills, the current Director of Public Affairs for the Michigan Attorney General. Rusty has spent almost two decades in politics and it shows in the classroom: he has an incredible amount of insight to share about public policy and campaigning and is very passionate about it. This is the most conversational class I have and you should be interested enough to keep up with the daily US news to be able to participate in the discussion. Not necessarily the most useful class for an exchange student (though for anyone wanting to go into politics, Rusty’s teachings generally hold for all parliamentary democracies), but so very interesting. The Public Policy students are also quite different from the Business School students, which is intriguing. Medium-to-high workload.

So that’s my agenda for these four months. In addition to classes there is a huge amount of different student clubs you can join like Consulting clubs, Investment Clubs, Craft Beer Clubs and so on…

Whew, that was one long post! Congratulations if you made it this far. That’s it about studying for now, next time I will write about the trips I have made here, as well as more about cultural activities.

Thank you for reading, until next time!

Niklas

 

1Basically you are given points to “bid” to secure your place on a course before the actual registration period, but as an exchange student you can only bid on courses with no pre-requisite courses. After the bidding system closes you enroll on first-come-first-served basis and the most popular courses will of course be full (since Ross students have completed prerequisites and can bid). After the course bidding closes, you can enroll on courses with pre-requisites by e-mailing the instructors and asking for permission to enroll (normal procedure in Ross, include your Aalto credit transcript in the e-mail).

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How to go on exchange

Hey everyone,

I was supposed to write this much sooner but things have been crazy busy out here! However, as promised, here’s finally a general guide to the application process in Aalto University.

The process begins in January when exchange destinations are published for the next academic year. I recall you have around three weeks to decide where and when (Fall/Spring) to apply to. The results are announced in the beginning of March, after which there is a follow-up application period for any unfilled spots.

Most of the destination universities on the list stay the same from one year to another but the amount of spots in each university varies. Aalto is also constantly striving to establish and improve relations to other schools abroad so some new destinations are available almost every year. However, if nobody from the target destination is interested in coming to Aalto, there won’t be available spots (hence the word “exchange”). Thus much also depends on students who are encouraged to market Aalto and Finland while abroad.

If there are more applicants than spots available for a given destination, the student with the higher Study success index (ECTS * GPA / Semesters) gets the spot. This means you should realistically consider your position when you apply and unless you’re Dean’s list material, it’s probably smart to list destinations other than only the most glamorous ones (not everyone can go to the National University of Singapore, unfortunately) – you can list up to ten preferences. Most people I know (myself included) got to their number one preference, but you don’t want to set yourself up for disappointment by only listing that one favourite place. Another fact to consider is that the Fall semester is internationally the more popular exchange semester, but in Aalto most people go for the Spring semester.

Applicants are required to submit a motivational letter and CV as a part of their application. Some destinations also require language tests already in the application stage. About language tests in general, some universities require a TOEFL or IELTS English language test (which is quite expensive) or a certificate of proficiency in the destinations’ language from your language teacher/professor (common especially for many German and Spanish-speaking countries).

Some destinations require you to have relevant work experience (mostly for Master’s students who will be placed in the exchange university’s MBA programs), some require you to be above a certain age (again mostly Master’s) and one or two places even require you to get a school uniform!

If you’re applying for the Fall semester to some destinations (University of Southern California is a popular one), you may have to take and pay for the required language test after applying but before you know if you’re getting in. This is due to all universities having their own internal deadlines for applicants, some have so tight deadlines there won’t be time to take the test after the results are in. You will be made aware of these exceptions during the application.

Most universities, like the University of Michigan, however waive the formal language test requirement for students from Aalto if you have completed the English business communications course (a mandatory B.Sc course).

Your timetable after the results have been published and you know where you’re going will depend a lot depending on whether you applied to Fall or Spring. You will need to formally apply to your destination within their specific schedules and later enroll to courses. Regardless of your destination you are required to sign a learning agreement with the International Student Services at Aalto where you commit to a certain amount of ECTS (30 Aalto credits) and have them accept your course selections. Aalto is very flexible with course selections as long as you can defend them, just make sure not to take too similar courses to what you have already completed at home! Also make sure to apply for the Foundation for Business Students in Aalto University’s exchange scholarship.

Make sure to follow the university’s deadlines as they are not required to accept late applications. Fall applicants might be in a hurry, while Spring applicants such as myself will be restlessly waiting for quite a long time! The process is very well coordinated and if you follow all the instructions sent to your e-mail, there’s no need to worry about it.

Finally, a word about destinations outside Europe. It’s very easy to go to European destinations in the Erasmus program as you won’t need to worry about visas, healthcare, (often) insurance or vaccinations. In the USA at least the bureaucracy is pretty crazy, so I urge you to do everything as soon as you’re able to. University of Michigan did its best to make the process easy for me, but the Department of Homeland Security and the US Embassy don’t really concern themselves with the applicant’s convenience. For USA-goers, MAKE SURE TO RESERVE YOUR VISA INTERVIEW AS SOON AS THE FORM I-20/DS-2019 LANDS ON YOUR DOORSTEP!! You will receive the form needed to complete a visa application online and reserve the interview by UPS usually sometime in mid-November. I waited for ~a week after getting the documents before filling the application and had to wait 30 days for the interview (instead of the estimated 10 they list on their website). I had to make special arrangements to pick the visa up from the embassy (they normally mail it to you) and still almost didn’t get it in time.

That about sums it up. I’m sure I left plenty of stuff out, so if you have questions feel free ask them in the comments (although please verify the important stuff with the International Student Services).

Have a nice weekend!

Niklas

 

 

 

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Welcome to my exchange blog!

Hello everyone,

I’m Niklas, a 3rd year Finance major student at the Aalto University School of Business and I’ll be taking the Winter/Spring semester 2018 at the University of Michigan’s highly rated Stephen M. Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

As an alternative to the typical travel report required as a part of the exchange studies, Aalto gives the opportunity to write a blog during the exchange. I’ve never kept a blog before so I figured why not, right?

I will post stories about my time in Michigan (and of course in the whole North America!) here at random intervals, at the very least twice a month. I’ll begin with writing about the stuff before the actual exchange semester, including process of applying to student exchange at Aalto, the admission process at Ross and the bureaucracy associated with studying in the United States of America (there’s a lot of it).

More will follow as I get settled in (flying over on January 1st), looking forward to experiencing the US way of life!

Feel free to share this to interested parties, I will do my best to make this as informative to prospective exchange students as possible.

 

Best,

Niklas

 

 

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