Jessica Sinikoski: Events must have room for a little magic

In the ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, Head of Strategic Events Jessica Sinikoski talks about Aalto University's academic traditions and her thoughts around the festivities for the upcoming conferment of doctoral degrees, as well as her life as a national team athlete.
Jessica Sinikoski, photo by Heli Sorjonen
Jessica Sinikoski's photos: Heli Sorjonen, Aalto University

You organised your first conferment of degrees already back in January 2007 and a horse was part of the celebrations. What happened?

At the University of Art and Design at the time, the idea was to have a memorable procession before the graduation ceremony instead of the traditional conferment service. The Latin name for this academic tradition, ‘promotio’, dates to the verb ‘promovere’ referring to promoting or moving forward. So, there is this idea of a rite of passage behind the conferment of degrees.

The audience was sitting in the auditorium of Media Centre Lume watching on the screen as professors, doctors and masters walked in the procession. It was an experience created by the students, with, for example, Opera ballet dancer Sami Saikkonen descending from the ceiling and the cello being played under a shower of rose petals. Indeed, a horse was part of a field setting as a symbol of the freedom that will derive after graduation – how doctors and masters can gambol in the academic meadows after the graduation.

The procession ended directly on the stage of the conferment ceremony in front of the audience, where the more traditional festivities began.

Jessisa Sinikoski, photo by Heli Sorjonen.

For 13 years now, you have been creating and developing Aalto's academic traditions. How do you describe the journey?

Each of the three founding schools already had traditions for their conferment of degrees and other academic events in their back pocket when Aalto University was established, while many other event traditions we have created together from pretty much nothing.

In the schools of technology, doctoral conferment of degrees is celebrated every year, while the School of Business has its festivities every five years and the School of Arts, Design and Architecture every six years. 

It has been great to help the disciplines find the right kind of Aalto flavour for their conferment tradition. Each time the event has looked a bit different, and tradition only becomes tradition if it’s repeated. But I would like to see even more dialogue between the unique traditions of our different fields. That way we could learn from each other.

What specific wishes do you have for future conferments?

When I listen to students, they feel Aalto is one university regardless of the field of study. That is why I would like to see us have one common conferment of degrees ceremony. That is my dream. 

Another option would be to make the cycles of the Schools of Business, and Arts, Design and Architecture a bit shorter, so that every student would have the opportunity to follow the school's conferment arrangements while still studying, and our international students could more easily participate in this unique celebration. Finland and Sweden are among the few countries where this academic tradition has remained intact since the Middle Ages. For me, the conferment of the schools of technology in June 2023 will be my twelfth.

My third wish is to have an academic procession through the campus during the ceremonial conferment festivities.

Tell us more stories about your work?

I started working at the newly founded Aalto a week after Midsummer – the time when Finland practically closes for the summer. At the same time my supervisor left for China! I was working in the basement of the then Design Factory and had two months to create Aalto University's first ever opening ceremony. But first I had to define what could be a way to celebrate in Aalto and be able to connect all the three campuses.

Events speak to all the senses. My mission is to communicate what Aalto sounds, looks, smells, tastes and feels like, make the message tangible. As we are very close to nature in Otaniemi, the experience should have a bit of tree needles and soil in it, but it should also represent innovation, creativity and social impact.

The red thread in my professional career – I'm a literary scholar and translator by first education – is that no one notices a translator or event producer if the translation is accurate, or the event goes smoothly. But heaven help us if the translator or producer hasn't done their job well. You need ninja training for this job!

What is it like to walk in Jessica Sinikoski's shoes?

My shoes must be comfortable because the production process of an event is long, and I'm involved in multiple projects simultaneously. I pay attention to details, but at the same time I think about how they relate to the big picture. It's important for me to be able to see far – to see the destination – all the time.

My shoe size is quite big as I have a lot of tacit knowledge. Luckily, I have many shoes! I can also change shoes with my team members depending on the situation. All my team members work in pairs. In unexpected situations, someone always knows what's going on. 

Jessica Sinikoski, photo by Heli Sorjonen

You're competing in powerlifting. Has powerlifting taught you anything specific that you can use in your work?

I compete in classic bench press. In other words, I lay on my back on the bench and lift weights to the pace set by the judge. I've only been powerlifting for two years. My record is now 95 kg, but at the European Championships in August I'll be lifting more!

I often tell my coach that I need a lot of time for warm-ups. It's the same at work: I try to work steadily and systematically towards a goal. Too many dashes will only grow the risk of fatigue or injury.

In the spring of 2022, when the post-Covid era dawned, all the events that had been postponed for two years became due at the same time, in addition to the other event productions on the schedule. We did the same number of events in four months as we normally do in a year. Before that, we had been working remotely and learning the transition to online events and, with the same effort, had to pivot once more to take over the hybrid model. 

My body reacted strongly to this workload. It was a good reminder. One needs be able to prioritise, recover, and to take a breath. Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is to take a coffee break – besides, caffeine also improves muscle strength!

When is your stride light, and when do your steps become heavy?

The day after an event, it feels like walking half a meter in the air. I feel same after a successful sport performance. There is a rush of endorphins in the air.

The event production process is long and no matter how carefully you plan an event, you always must leave room for some magic and encounters that you cannot control. You never know who will meet, what will happen when they go home, what they will pass on to others and what the consequences of a multidisciplinary encounter might be!

The most challenging phase is perhaps one month before the event. Changes can be made, but they will have a big impact on the entire event production. If you change the position of even one domino, the purpose can be left unfinished, spread out, or go in the wrong direction. That's Pandora's box.

However, in both work and sports, a stern face won't get you anywhere. We should meet challenging situations with a positive attitude. In both competition and event situations, we must also be able to make decisions quickly. And you should also enjoy the ride, as it is the journey that gives you the fuel to keep going.

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Academic events cover the entire academic year from Aalto Day One all the way to the Ceremony Week with the graduation party and ceremonial conferments. Tenured professors' Installation Talks and public defences spread throughout the academic year.

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Aalto University Graduation Party celebration in 2018. Photo by Aalto University / Heli Sorjonen

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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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