Dimitrios Gkoutzounis: After the first month I decided I don’t wanna leave

In this ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, Erasmus student Dimitrios Gkoutzounis shares how he feels about the exchange studies and the student life in Otaniemi. He plans on extending his stay in Finland for as long as possible.
Photo by Dimitrios Gkoutzounis.
Photos: Dimitrios Gkoutzounis, interview: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne.

What was your path to Aalto?

My home university is in Greece. I wanted to do the exchange and started searching for Erasmus opportunities. I wanted to have the best option academically, but I didn’t think about the student life that much. I was quite familiar with the Finnish education system and how innovative it is. It was Aalto or nothing, and one very big reason is that many of the courses are taught in English.

I study electrical and computer engineering, and I’m specializing in automation and robotics. At Aalto, I’ve studied robotics, digital and optimal control, information security, machine learning, embedded systems as well as speech recognition.

At first, my intention was to come to Aalto for half a year. I wasn’t even considering a longer period. But after the first month I decided I don’t wanna leave. This is the place to study.

Photo by Dimitrios Gkoutzounis

What was the first semester in Aalto like?

When I took the first train on my first day in Finland, I was thinking how everything is different. It’s organized and arranged, everything is there for a reason and it also works. And when I came to the university, I immediately noticed the difference with the Southern European universities. The amount of money and effort that is invested in the universities shows that the people care about the buildings, infrastructures and environments.

It has been very interesting to see how much work and care has also been put into making us, the exchange students, feel welcome and join the community. I was very unfamiliar with something like the orientation week and all the activities and lectures, where they told us useful things, like how the university works. It made me feel like I’m not on my own to figure everything out.

I quickly realized that after the lectures ended in the afternoon, I wanted to stay on campus for as long as possible. In Greece it was the opposite – I couldn’t wait for the lectures to finish to be able to go home. In Otaniemi, I usually go to the learning centre or to some random place to study, and I also see other people everywhere studying. Otaniemi campus is like a city.

I decided I must do whatever it takes to be able to do my thesis in Aalto. I thought it would be smart to have some collaboration between my home university and Aalto.

I managed to find a professor, Dominik Baumann, and I’ll be doing my thesis in his group. He has a new lab in Aalto, and he teaches the course digital and optimal control. I’m very excited. We have already discussed the project with him and his PhD student, who will be my advisor. I can’t wait to start. My supervisor in Greece will also be involved, but the actual work and the research will be done in Aalto. The aim of the thesis is trying to provide some level of certainty in order to make the multi-agent system stable. It’s a complex and challenging robotics experiment, involving e.g., two robotic arms.

What do you think of the teekkari (i.e., tech student) culture?

The first time I saw the overalls, I was shocked. It was in one of the meetings with the Erasmus coordinator last spring. I was like what’s this and why are they wearing those overalls? She explained us about the guilds, student culture and everything.

When I came to Otaniemi, it was the orientation week, and everyone was wearing the overalls. It was unusual – you would never see something like that in Greece. Soon my feelings were that this is very cool. There are different guilds and groups having their own style. And with badges you can personalize your overalls. And in magical ways, new students join the culture year after year.

Teekkari culture is also open for international students, and you can get the feeling even if you will stay only for four months. You can even order the overall for yourself. I missed the order, but I do have over 40 badges already. It’s so nice – you can have badges from different places, and for me, it will be a very nice thing to take back home. All those badges are from different trips, events or companies.

Photo by Dimitrios Gkoutzounis

Can you share a story about the student life?

I took part in a trip to Lapland that was organized by Erasmus Student Network (ESN). The trip was interesting and unforgettable. We were seven days in Kilpisjärvi and Tromsø. We saw the Northern lights, and the experience was life changing. We went swimming in the sea after the sauna. Beforehand, I would not have imagined staying 15 to 20 minutes in the sauna with 85 to 90 degrees, getting all sweaty, and then going out to minus 10 degrees, running barefoot in the snow and swimming in the cold sea.

How do you feel about darkness?

Beforehand, I was a bit worried, because I’m coming from Greece, a very sunny and warm country. I knew it’s going to be very dark and cold, and I was thinking how I’m going to manage with it. But I realized that I’ll quickly adapt to it. The beauty of Finland is that it’s dark, cold and snowy.

I have a bigger workload and more of a student life here than in my home university. The last thing I’m going to think is if it’s dark outside. And since the lightning is good everywhere, it always feels safe.

What is it like to walk in your shoes?

I have a full schedule with my university obligations, and then I’m getting some rest to be ready for the next day. I repeat it every day, and after the evaluation weeks I usually take a longer break for myself. I usually go for a trip. I have a very balanced life, and I’m very motivated with my goals.

I usually spend my free time with my girlfriend. We’re watching a movie together for instance. I might also go for a walk, shopping or see different places. I’m trying to make the most out of this experience.

What are your future plans?

I’m starting to consider doing a PhD instead of working in the industry. I’m also thinking of doing an internship in Aalto.

It means I’m trying to find as many opportunities as possible to stay in Finland even though I really like the summer in Greece.

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Walk in my shoes

Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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