Georgetown University Student Association President Pat Dowd (SFS ’09) never thought he would spend his senior spring break in a Finnish sauna, meeting Finland’s president or jumping into a frozen lake – but that is just what he ended up doing.

After traveling 3,000 miles as part of a cross-cultural exchange, Dowd said he gained a new perspective on life abroad and experiences at Georgetown. When he was first invited to Helsinki, he knew it would offer him a valuable opportunity to learn about international affairs, but never considered that he would land the unexpected chance to speak with Finnish diplomats and politicians.

“If you were to ask me did I think I’d be going to Helsinki to talk to politicians about Finland’s role in international affairs for my senior year spring break I’d have told you to get lost,” Dowd said. “[The Parliament visit] was a high point . [to my] senior year.”

Dowd was invited by Helsinki Mayor Jussi Pajunen to come to Finland to strengthen ties between Finland’s capital and Washington, D.C. Dowd, representing the District’s university students, was among 12 D.C. residents who were selected to come to Finland to learn more about Finnish culture and politics.

Among the dignitaries Dowd met was former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who recently won the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. Dowd formally extended an invitation on behalf of School of Foreign Service Dean Robert Gallucci to come and give the Herbert Quandt Distinguished Lecture this year.

With all expenses financed by the Finnish government, Dowd was given the opportunity to immerse himself in Helsinki’s university community and political arena. Dowd visited many universities and colleges and was able to take a first-hand look at the city’s Aalto University project, the opening of a new university in August 2009, combining the Helsinki University of Technology, Helsinki School of Economics and University of Art and Design Helsinki.

“To me that seemed as kind of an unusual pairing of competencies, so I guess I was kind of skeptical what they were attempting [through the Aalto University Project], but by the end of the week, I got a really good idea of what that was,” he said.

Dowd was also given nearly full access to Finland’s diplomats and politicians to explore Finland’s role in international politics for a paper that he is writing.

“I got a Thomas Friedman level of access when I was there to ask questions. The trip was really cool, because I got a chance to take all the theory and conceptual stuff I learned at Georgetown and apply it to a real issue,” Dowd said. “It really validated the worth of a Georgetown education.”

In addition to writing a paper, Dowd was asked to complete some other tasks upon his return. Dowd is involved in organizing both the Ahtisaari lecture and an embassy party at the Finnish Embassy on May 6. Furthermore, Dowd is helping a Finnish marketing team work on myhelsinki.com, a Web site aimed at improving Helsinki’s visibility and accessibility.

Dowd used the information he learned from touring universities and combined it with the knowledge gleaned from interviewing politicians to gain a new perspective on Finnish diplomacy.

“What had occurred to me was that Finnish people are very creative people and have this long history of creativity,” he said. “They also bring this approach of design and architecture to diplomatic and world affairs.”

Dowd also tasted a bit of Finnish culture during his trip, visiting the Finnish Sauna Society, a place where Finnish dignitaries go to relax and unwind.

“I had never [gone to] the Finnish sauna thing and it was a three-hour ordeal,” he said. “That was actually a great place to ask more people about Finland’s role in world affairs, because people chat in the sauna about all kinds of stuff.”

While gaining a new outlook on Finnish international relations and cultural differences, Dowd frequently drew on his Georgetown experience during his travels.

“I was the youngest person recruited on the trip, and I was able to really have a successful cross-cultural experience because of the skill set I got at Georgetown,” he said.

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