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Mantė Žygelytė: Some things are more about the journey than the goal

In the ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, a Collaborative and Industrial Design student and Aalto University Student Union (AYY) board member Mantė Žygelytė shares some of the difficulties she has experienced and lessons she has learned.
Mantė Žygelytė, photo by Linda Lehtovirta.
Photos: Linda Lehtovirta.

Can you share a story of how you ended up in Aalto?

This is my third year in Aalto now, I moved to Finland in August 2021. I was born in Lithuania, but since the age of six I have moved a lot, especially in Europe. I started my bachelor’s studies in product design in Hong Kong. Then I started to look into master’s programs back in Europe.

Aalto University was one of the options, and I made a group project with someone who was doing an exchange in Aalto’s Collaborative and industrial design. She let me know how it is like to study in Aalto. In addition, there was another person who was studying in the same programme and doing exchange in in Hong Kong. I got to know her perspective as well.

I made my choice after I was selected to the Master’s programme in Collaborative and industrial design. I felt it was the right choice, in terms of being close to the family, and Finland offering free education to EU citizens. It was also fulfilling my needs in terms of service design.

Can you share stories about the student life and TOKYO?

What I really appreciate about Aalto and especially my course is that it is a diverse group of students. It’s not only in terms of nationality, ethnicity, or age, but students also come with a different amount of experience. Through participation in classes and conversations with fellow students, I really got a chance to learn and grow my confidence and competence in design.

In Hong Kong, I didn’t have any Lithuanian community. But TOKYO's (School of ARTS student association) vice-chair Rūta Šerpytytė was from Lithuania, and I became a bit interested in being active as well. I first volunteered for the TOKYO’s Christmas Sales in November 2021, and then I got involved in TOKYO in 2022 as the vice-chair.

It was the right choice to get to know people beyond my own programme. The TOKYO year was a very pleasant experience, and I really appreciate the people that I worked with. We were 11 board members, all from different programs and with various experiences, both international and local students. We keep in touch with these people.

 Mantė Žygelytė, photo by Linda Lehtovirta.

Can you share how it felt when you joined the AYY board?

Besides the board members, TOKYO also has an executive manager, Anna Merikari, and she works at the AYY office. She told us last year that the AYY board application period has started. Three of us did apply, and Totti Korpua and I were selected to the AYY board. It’s a one-year full-time commitment.

The term of AYY board starts in January. It was a very different experience especially in the beginning of the year. I realized that whereas in ARTS and in TOKYO board we had diversity of nationalities and ethnicities, I came to the office space of around 50 employees, where I’m one of the few international people and the only international person on the board of ten people. The student union has existed since 2010, and I’m the third international board member – there were two international board members in 2020.

As someone who doesn’t speak Finnish or Swedish, the tiny things at the office made me feel like I wasn’t welcomed there. For example, each room has a name and all of them are labelled in Finnish. They are value-based words like ‘Rohkeus’ (courage) and ‘Reilus’ (fair). In Microsoft Teams, the majority of the channels were labeled in Finnish and the recycling bins didn’t have English labelling until last month. 

These tiny reminders made me question myself: what am I doing here? What is my purpose here? Back then, the office was not ready to welcome me. It was scary to admit openly that I don’t feel included, and I needed someone to recognize that and stand behind me. I was open about this with my board, the chair and the executive director. Even though the beginning of the year was difficult, now I’m very happy that I’m the member of the board.

Our chair, board members and the rest of the office did a great job in terms of hearing my feedback when something was not inclusive or accessible because of the language barriers. They have taken steps forward to make those changes. Now, I know how things are handled and how feedback is implemented within AYY. It helps me to navigate, and everything is easier. These experiences and positive changes made me feel more empowered. 

We don’t necessarily need to speak the same language to understand each other. There are different ways how to convey a message, e.g. whether it be using online translators, having professional interpreters or asking a board member or employee to do interpretation for me. We’ve developed and advanced these practices during this year.

Mantė Žygelytė, photo by Linda Lehtovirta.

What is it like to walk in your shoes?

Each board member has different portfolios, and my portfolio are new students, internationality, and equality. It’s a lot of work. Therefore, it’s more like running in my shoes, and sometimes it’s dancing. Sometimes it’s not physical, but mental running. I need to be able to shift my focus to different tasks and meetings. That was also difficult in the beginning of the year, but now, being part of the board for nine months, I’ve gained that kind of stamina and experience.

And when it comes to dancing, it is very interesting that in the beginning of the year I was really shy and scared. I didn’t have the feeling that my voice should be heard. Instead, I felt really small. But now, I’m able to be true to myself and others.

What has changed externally?

When the new Finnish government was elected and they released the governmental programme in June, their view of immigration hit hard. It is important to acknowledge that as an EU citizen I’m protected to a certain degree, whereas other people coming outside of EU have no guarantee for them and their future, and it makes them very uncertain about their future in Finland.

Students are worried for their livelihoods and wellbeing. There is lack of English language information and news regarding the government and proposed changes. Therefore, some people were scared and thought that maybe it’s time to leave the country right now. At the same time, I feel like the communities are also coming together. There is also something beautiful as well – the students are united, and they show solidarity; there is team spirit and support.

I feel like when someone is trying to minimize you or crash you down, it is very important that people stand up, give the space to be heard and to be represented and the voices of the affected are amplified. I feel like I have to be strong for other people.

Mantė Žygelytė, photo by Linda Lehtovirta.

When you look back at your journey from the beginning of your studies at Aalto until now, what specific lessons did you learn?

I thought that I’m going to come to Finland, study for two years and then go into work life. But you have to be flexible. Some interesting opportunities can come up and you take them. It impacts your journey, maybe in a way you haven’t planned. Flexibility and adaptability are something I already learned from a young age as I didn’t know what my next country will be.

What else do you do in your free time and why is that important to you?

It’s been quite busy, and I’m trying to implement my new strategy. It’s called radical resting, where I try not to do any work. The idea is inspired by Aalto radical creativity.

Radical resting can mean different things for different people. For me, it means taking care of my needs, my body and my well-being. It depends on a day, it can mean cooking myself a good meal, spending time with my friends, having conversations, or cycling. I sometimes go to Lehtisaari; it’s a very lovely island. I also love listening to music, it’s part of my daily life and it helps me to recharge. I like dancing and singing along.

What are your future plans?

This year I will be running as the former of the board, the chair of AYY. This has never happened before; there has never been an international candidate. I’m excited, nervous, and scared about it. I can't even ask someone for advice since no one has been in my shoes.

Some things are more about the journey than the goal. The goal is pushing you somewhere, but during the journey you learn something about yourself, your capabilities, and others.

Interview: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

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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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