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Leila Arstila: As a recent graduate, I have a whole world ahead of me

Leila Arstila has recently graduated from the Master's Programme in Computer Science. She talks about well-being, support networks, coping, and how she changed the direction of her studies in the ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview.
Leila Arstila, photo by Linda Lehtovirta
Leila Arstila had long dreamed of going to the Otakaari 1 observatory. The first thing she said at the highest point of the Undergraduate Centre was: 'It's windy at the top!' Photos by Linda Lehtovirta.

You are about to graduate from the Master's Programme in Computer Science. What is it like to walk in Leila Arstila's shoes right now?

I'd say it’s a fruitful situation. A phase in life is coming to an end. I've just returned a thesis on using deep learning to interpret web traffic. As a recent graduate, I have the whole world ahead of me. I'm getting my master’s degree from Aalto, and I feel like anything is possible. I'm really excited about what the future holds.

I don't have any future plans yet. I've tried to take this as a possibility to reflect. Now is a unique opportunity to see where life is heading. I'm making the most of it.

On the other hand, I would like to change the world for the better, and to be able to use all my skills. I would love to find a place where my strengths and values meet. The blessing and the curse of our generation is not having to think of spending the rest of your life in one workplace.

Leila Arstila, photo by Linda Lehtovirta

The studies are demanding, and I feel that people are also very demanding on themselves.

Leila Arstila

Can you share some concrete stories from your student days?

I did primary and secondary school in a row – it took a total of ten years. I was a 16-year-old nerd when I came to Aalto to study. So, I was just a kid when I moved from Kuopio to Espoo.

I lived in Otaniemi for more than six of my eight years of study. I think that my studies, the Aalto culture, the student community and Otaniemi have all shaped me into the person I am today. The most important thing along the way was becoming a member of the Student Union Board in 2019.

Working on the board was a full-time job - we were a tight team of ten. It was a sort of gap year in my life. Until then I had been moving straight forward, graduating at the beginning of that year with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. During our year on the board, we were really coached on retrospection and self-reflection and interpreting our own thoughts.

During that year I worked on the Aalto culture and student advocacy and welfare. I also understood that I am not quite in my own field, and I have the power in my own hands to determine my own life. The community gave me the skills I needed to change the direction of my life.

In 2020, I spent my second gap year at Aalto as a student, while completing the courses required for the master's programme. I also gained some work experience in the field of computer science. After that, I applied and was accepted to do the master’s degree in computer science.

I've been involved in a lot of volunteer work myself over the years, from guilds to hobby clubs. Community has always been a driving force for me. I had no friends or hobbies in Espoo, so it was natural to start building a social circle in Otaniemi. I also found a husband there.

Leila Arstila, photo by Linda Lehtovirta

I have learned to appreciate, respect, and listen to myself.

Leila Arstila

When you look back at your journey from the beginning of your studies to today, what specific lessons did you learn?

I am proud to have been an Aaltonian and an Aalto student. I feel that I’m part of a community with people in all their humanity. For me, being an Aaltonian is about acting, not being afraid of change, and having the courage to do rather than intend to do.

I have learned to appreciate, respect, and listen to myself. I've walked a rocky road in who I am and what I want, and how I do things. The enthusiasm and ambition of youth, combined with the pulse around me, have driven me into unhealthy habits. I'm glad that I'm getting a better sense of who Leila really is, what she wants, and what her limits are. I’m able to give my best when I’m the best version of myself.

What are your thoughts on student welfare right now?

When it comes to the well-being of students and the student community, the first thing is concern. I started my studies in 2015, and since then student wellbeing has gone downhill. Student grants have been cut and the university and the government are putting pressure on students to graduate on time. That's understandable, but if I had graduated in five years with a master's degree in chemical engineering, I don't know how useful it would have been to anyone.

At the University of Helsinki, for example, one in three students is exhausted. I have a diagnosis of depression and exhaustion. I have been fortunate in the sense that I have received help and access to rehabilitation psychotherapy through Finnish Student Health Service. I feel better every day now. I know that not everyone is so lucky.

The students at Aalto are very ambitious. This is one of the best universities in Finland. The studies are demanding, and I feel that people are also very demanding on themselves. The society around us puts pressure on you to perform, to succeed and to excel. Students graduate exhausted and anxious.

What do you think should be done to turn the tide?

First and foremost, we should focus on why we are in this situation and why students are under so much pressure and discomfort. The focus should be on prevention and eradication. The culture should not be that if you don't graduate in five years, you are a bad, miserable, unworthy citizen.

The university alone cannot do anything about it because the funding comes from the government. Therefore, I need to ask, could we stop thinking of students as resources and the university as a machine? Could the university be more of a platform for growth? Most students are young adults, and these are important years for human growth and development. Too much pressure cannot be good for anyone.

Leila Arstila, photo by Linda Lehtovirta

Volunteering should be better facilitated, because in the end, for many people, it is the core and heart of the university community.

Leila Arstila

Does Aalto have specific support networks for students?

I would like to give a special mention to the volunteers of the guilds for welcoming new students and tutoring and building a community. In recent years, many organizations have come up against the fact that the activities are expanding, and becoming more difficult. At the same time as larger numbers of people are being admitted to university, the hours to use the guild rooms, for example, have been restricted – and they serve as student living rooms, hangouts and meeting places. This has been justified on the grounds of security costs. But money is no measure of the work that student organisations do, for example, to arrange events and the like, and none of them receive any money in return. Volunteering should be better facilitated, because in the end, for many people, it is the core and heart of the university community.

What would you like to see happen at Aalto when someone fails or is exhausted?

The last decade has been spent on making it acceptable to say you can't cope and it's ok to go to therapy. What I would like to see in the next decade is for people to learn to recognise the steps even before you're exhausted and can't go on. A lot of people are trying to strive and be an accepted member of the community and show what they can do, to do things a little bit better than before. Then suddenly the house of cards comes tumbling down.

We could learn to listen to ourselves and be kinder to ourselves. After burning out, it's really hard to climb back up. It would be easier to stop before the fall.

In a previous interview you talked about the stereotypes that are associated with coders. One of them was that you can code in your sleep. Have you now learned to code in your sleep?

Unfortunately, yes! I was talking to a professor in a dream once. He told me something in that dream, and that gave me an idea to solve that problem. So yes, I do code in my sleep!

Interview and text: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

Meeting Linda Liukas encouraged Leila Arstila to switch to computer science - now she represented Finland in a cybersecurity competition in Austria

Leila Arstila, a Master's student at the Department of Computer Science, took part in the European Cyber Security Challenge (ECSC) in Austria 13-16 September. ECSC is an initiative by the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) and aims at enhancing cybersecurity talent across Europe.

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Leila Arstila solving an escape game challenge together with Santtu Sievänen. Veeti Ojanperä helped to find the solution. Copyright: David Bohmann

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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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