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A Finland Story in Seven Sentences

In early 2023, Mikayla, Roxie, Atticus, and Sean Patella-Buckley (pictured above, left to right) spent four months in Finland.

A Finland Story in Seven Sentences
A family’s adventure and quest to be intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizens of the world

By Sean Patella-Buckley, English Teacher

During early 2023, English Teacher Sean Patella-Buckley and his family spent four months in Finland while his wife Mikayla, a science teacher at UPrep, conducted research for her Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program. In partnership with the Marketing and Communications Office, Sean captured the experience for our community in a seven-part vlog series.

Anyone who knows me also knows how important stories are to me. I love reading them. I love hearing them. I love telling them. It’s part of my profession as an English teacher—guiding my students through processing the stories they read and helping them master the tools they need to craft their own. 

Storytelling is the life blood of my hobbies, too. As often as I can, I join my improv group (shout out to the Twisted Flicks crew!) in the joyful art of collaborative storytelling. And every summer I run a role-playing game for my kids and their friends. I could go on, but suffice it to say that storytelling is etched into my heart.

We are a species that has survived and thrived on pattern recognition and making order out of chaos. That’s the role of the storyteller: taking disparate, seemingly random elements and crafting them into something recognizable, something that taps into the shared human experience. We need stories. We need hope that the ordeals we face—whether they are mundane, everyday things or existential threats and tangible traumas—have some sort of value.  We want to know that we will be stronger, wiser, or in some other way better off because of the challenges we face.  

When my wife, Mikayla, told me last February that she’d applied for a Fulbright grant, I was beyond proud of her. It was the “move the family to Finland for four months” part that gave me pause. I have enough trouble remembering to bring the shopping list with me to the supermarket, so the idea of navigating an entire country about which I knew practically nothing? With our two children? That was a whole other magnitude of unknown.

Mikayla and I agreed that the goal of this experience for our family was to live out UPrep’s mission to be “intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizens of the world.” 

Framing our adventure as a story was my way of processing and making our Finland adventure into an experience that I could wrap my head around. Story creation helps me find value in experiences. I also hoped that crafting our experience as a narrative would build a connection point for members of our community who connect in some way with our story, either as inspiration for future endeavors or as recognition of a shared past experience.  

Here is an outline of our Finland story, along with links to each of the seven episodes. I used an improv storytelling game called “Seven Sentence Story” to frame it:

  1. “Once upon a time…” Before the actual adventure begins, it’s important to establish a few things. First off, every story needs a protagonist (or, in our case, protagonists). In the first episode, we meet those protagonists (me, Mikayla, and our two kids, Atticus and Roxie) and get a sense of those first confusing, exhausting, exhilarating moments abroad.
  2. “And every day…” Before the story really gets going, you also need to establish what “normal” looks like.  Trying to find any patterns or purpose to the first month or so of our stay was impossible because so many things were new that we had little concept of the relative value or magnitude of a given experience. Our guiding light during the chaos was to say “yes” to everything we could, to try to appreciate our immense privilege, and to keep our eyes and hearts open.
  3. “Until one day…” Without conflict, without some sort of disruption of the aforementioned “normal,” there’s no tension, no drama, no story. For our family’s story, this was a tough stretch. The honeymoon period was over, and we were settling into the hardest elements of culture shock. This stage challenged each of us in very unique ways.
  4. “Because of this…” A good story raises the stakes. Our version of this took the form of starting to really dig into what made our adopted home so unique. Because Mikayla and I are both educators, we approached this from a teaching angle. There was a lot of familiarity in what we found, but also a LOT that we were not prepared for.
  5. “Because of THAT…” A really good story raises the stakes even higher. Finding the admirable in Finland was easy. It took time and trust for our Finnish colleagues to open up about the aspects of their education system that don’t work as well as they could. I am immensely grateful for their candor and time, and much of what they had to say resonates with me as well.
  6. “Until finally…” Stories need to end, otherwise they’re not stories. They don’t always end happily, but each story needs a terminus point. For our family, that meant having to hold in our hearts two contradictory feelings. We wanted to wring every last drop out of our short time in Finland, but we also wanted to make sure we took our time to do it right: to savor, to process, and to move through those experiences with grace.
  7. “And ever since that day…” Here’s the payoff: Where we learn whether, why, and how the struggle was worth it for the protagonist. Each of us has brought back our own little piece of Finland. For our eight-year old daughter, it was a profound sense of agency, that she can do so much more than she thinks is possible. For our 12-year-old son, it was an empirical understanding that there is more than one way to live in this world, and that our many privileges are gifts to be used wisely and generously. For Mikayla, it was many things, but one of them was a greater appreciation of the value of what she can contribute to the world through teaching and more. For me? The most precious gift I brought back with me, the one that I hold onto the tightest, is sisu. If you’ll recall, this is the Finnish concept of resilience, of an understanding that challenges happen as a natural consequence of living, and that acceptance and patience will see you through to the other side.

My family and I have returned to the United States and Mikayla and I returned to teaching it at UPrep. It’s been one heck of a journey. I’m already looking forward to the next “Once upon a time.”

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