The everyday idealist

Paavo Pyykkönen has always rescued plants abandoned by others. In his work, he supports opportunities for youth to gain international experience - especially those young people who don’t realize they deserve such experience.

The flowerbed between two streets brightens up the day. People stop to admire the flowers: beauty brings joy.

Paavo Pyykkönen
Paavo Pyykkönen tends Helsinki's most unusual flowerbed.

These flowers planted in the traffic island are a good example of Paavo Pyykkönen’s philosophy. Pyykkönen, who works at the Finnish National Agency for Education, set up this unusual flowerbed with a couple of colleagues five years ago. Nowadays Pyykkönen tends the flowers that grow in front of the building housing the Finnish National Agency for Education himself.

Many people stop to thank Pyykkönen, he says. “A woman passed by here one time, and when she came back, she brought me ten euros to buy new flowers,” Pyykkönen smiles.

The flowers reflect Pyykkönen’s grassroots idealism. He says that the flowers have served their purpose when he sees people’s reactions. “Think - people in Finland stopping to say what a nice thing this is!”

International experience for everyone

Pyykkönen is Senior Programme Advisor and works on youth exchange programmes. Youth exchanges are opportunities for young people to plan and realize an international meeting based around a common interest.

Working on a common project helps develop social skills, and communicating with people in different countries hones language skills, explains Pyykkönen. At the same time, young people from different countries and cultures realize that they are not that different from each other.

Working together on the grassroots level helps people understand their differences better. Pyykkönen notes that cross-cultural experiences actually strengthen national identity, as they help people think more deeply about their own culture.

Pyykkönen emphasizes that everyone has the right to acquire international experience. He considers it especially important to support those young people who otherwise struggle to get involved. Perhaps they are members of some minority - or perhaps it has never occurred to them that learning international skills was possible for them.

Participation in a youth exchange or gaining other international experience - such as volunteering abroad - can be a fundamental factor in shaping the direction of a young person’s life. “For a young person, noticing that he or she is able to thrive can be incredibly empowering. They grow more independent and their self-esteem solidifies.”

Cosmopolitan work

Pyykkönen himself studied English philology at the University of Oulu, northern Finland, but he came to realize that he is more of a doer than a reader.

Pyykkönen smiles as he explains that when he was starting his university studies he thought that university would make him very cosmopolitan. That might not have happened immediately, but now Pyykkönen’s job is very cosmopolitan indeed. He has colleagues all over Europe. “It is great to see that the same work is being done elsewhere as well - that people all over Europe want to work toward the same goals,” Pyykkönen muses.

Fighting exclusion

“I have always rescued doomed houseplants,” grins Pyykkönen. He says that he has salvaged flowers and other plants from the Oulu University administration building, among other places.

Those plants were being thrown out, but Pyykkönen could not bring himself to leave the poor things to their fate. “A plant is a living being: if possible, it should be saved.”

Pyykkönen exudes an air of wanting to work for those less advantaged. He says that he knows from personal experience that anyone can become socially excluded. That is why he considers helping and supporting others so valuable. “I hope that others don’t need to have to have such difficult experiences I’ve had.”

Pyykkönen has been able to realize this aspiration in his work with immigrant youths. Pyykkönen notes that many of these young people lack role models who could inspire them to pursue the good things in life.

At school, pupils from immigrant backgrounds have often been encouraged to, for example, aim to become practical nurses, even if they had more ambition. “It is great to read interviews with school leavers who say that they want to become doctors or lawyers,” Pyykkönen chuckles.

Empowering experiences

Pyykkönen planned a career in the theatre. His long-term hobby became more professional when he studied theatre at a university of applied sciences. Life took a different direction, but Pyykkönen draws on these experiences regularly in his work with youths. Drama skills are invaluable when you are trying to encourage young people from different backgrounds to get involved.

Drama skills developed in the theatre are a good example of the kind of know-how that can be gained outside conventional work. Europass is a handy tool for highlighting such skills.

CIMO uses Youthpass which the young person can get from participating in Erasmus+ youth programmes. In dialogue with their tutor, they can review what they have learned. They can present those skills in their Youthpass, which can be included in their Europass.

The idea of empowering and being empowered is a recurring theme for Pyykkönen. Every young person needs experiences of succeeding and being accepted. Projects undertaken together can help collapse barriers between youths who are thriving and those who are not doing so well. Volunteering or participating in an exchange abroad can open up the world in unexpected ways.

Pyykkönen knows this from personal experience. During his university studies, he went on exchange at Keele University in the UK. He says that at the time, he felt that his life was without direction.

“Suddenly, I realized that I was doing well in my studies, and I was making a lot of new friends amongst the other exchange students who were in a similar phase in their lives,” he reminisces. “I was a different person when I returned.”

Text: Juha Rudanko

Photo: Samuli Siirala

Paavo Pyykkönen tends the city's most unusual flower bed and thinkgs that everyone has the right to acquire international experience.

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