How to survive as an overseas student in Skellefteå

Sami Kabir left his whole family behind - including his six-month-old daughter - to study for his PhD in Skellefteå. It's been a lonely road but Sami has plenty of good advice for other overseas students struggling with culture shock and Norrland weather.

Sami studies and researches AI on Campus Skellefteå.

Sami studies and researches AI on Campus Skellefteå.

Foto: Donna Richmond

Engelska2023-04-20 11:30

A small but significant section of Skellefteå-based English speakers are PhD and Master’s students at Luleå University of Technology on Campus Skellefteå. I’ve often thought that navigating the world of Norrland academia as an international PhD student presents a unique set of challenges, ranging from language barriers to cultural adaptation and perhaps even loneliness. And that's not to mention the winters up here.

So when I got the chance to meet Norran English reader, Sami Kabir, from Bangladesh, who’s studying artificial intelligence at Campus Skellefteå, I jumped at the chance. And I was a little surprised to find my preconceptions challenged. These students are made of stern stuff.

Sami Kabir has studied in Skellefteå on-and-off since 2017.

PC: How did you end up in Skellefteå?
SK: I hail from Bangladesh. I work as a programmer in the Ministry of Finance of Bangladesh, but did my master's degree at LTU in Skellefteå under the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program from 2017 to 2019. I went back to work for two-and-a-half years and then came back to Skellefteå under my same Master’s thesis supervisor in March last year to study a PhD in explainable artificial intelligence, a 4-year full-time study and research program. When I finish, I will go back to work in Bangladesh.

PC: How’s it going?
SK: It’s going as per the plan, so far. But research is rarely a straight path. Sometimes you get stuck. So you will feel frustrated and you have to find a way to make some headway somehow.

PC: What were your first impressions of Skellefteå?
SK: I had already spent time in other countries, so when I came to Skellefteå the only thing that really surprised me was that the Skellefteå river is frozen in the winter. That was very thrilling to me because I'd always seen rivers flowing, never ever frozen. That was really amazing.

Sami is researching AI at Luleå Technical University.

But I quickly became aware that I was lucky to be in Skellefteå, especially financially, as the living cost in Skellefteå is very cheap compared to other Swedish cities up here. If you go to Luleå or Umeå, even Piteå, where we have another campus, the monthly rent of the student apartments is way higher compared to Skellefteå. Everything else seems cheaper, too, apart from energy but that is a nationwide issue.

PC: How is it being here on your own? Does it get lonely?
SK:  I miss my family members, of course, very much; my parents, my spouse, everybody is in Dhaka in Bangladesh. My wife gave birth to a daughter, she is just six months old. So my wife right now is not willing to move to Sweden, because she is in Dhaka and my wife's parents and my parents, everyone is there, so they can help take care of our kid. But if my wife moves here, she has to do everything on her own. Because here, you will not get any helping hand, right? There's no family around. 

But in Bangladesh, we have so many helping hands. My wife wants to come a bit later, maybe next year. But she has already has her Swedish residence permit as a spouse. When I applied as a PhD student, I applied for both of us. When you apply for the first time, either you can apply individually, or you can apply along with your spouse, so I applied for us together and we got both at the same time.

Sami enjoys life on Campus - "They let you get on with things."

PC: That's a great tip for other international researchers trying to get residence permits for their spouses. Apply for them at the same time. You mentioned your extended family in Bangladesh. I guess that is a big cultural difference between your home and northern Sweden.
SK: Absolutely. In Sweden, I see that whenever kids turn 18, or even younger, most of them get their own place to live. In Sweden, it's a normal part of the culture. But in my country, it doesn't happen like that. In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan children will live with their parents until their parents die.

So maybe the son is 60-years-old and his father is, let's say, 89-years-old, and the mother is 81-years-old and they are all living together. It's a joint family culture. 

In Sweden I've heard that many parents start charging rent to their kids if they continue to stay in their parent’s house after 18. They're not charged much; it’s a kind of token amount to make them understand that now you are 18 you have to face the real world, you have to live on your own. It's not a commercial or economic issue; it is to make your kid realize it's time they stood on their own two feet.

Sami studies and researches AI on Campus Skellefteå.

PC: Do you have any tips for newcomers to Skellefteå?
SK: Be prepared well in advance. When I was in Bangladesh, and I was planning to move to Skellefteå, I basically researched everything online. What is the weather like? What is the temperature throughout the year? What type of clothes should I bring? What is the monthly rent and the living cost, lifestyle, and so on. I searched online everything and I was well prepared, and I knew I would have to adapt. If you have this mindset, you will be fine. Adapt to your new environment and you'll find it easier. You'll also learn that here you are left to get on with your work. As long as you do the work, the people here don't mind if you take time off, or fly off for a weekend to somewhere else in Europe. They trust you to do the work.

PC: How about dealing with it on your own, away from family and friends? Any advice?
SK: You have to have the mentality that here you are alone, so you have to be resilient. You need the psychological resilience to deal with the loneliness and work practically and succeed. Because I know many people who came and they really suffered from loneliness, and they had a solitary life, and they ended up going back home. That's a waste. A waste of money and time. So if you want to come, be prepared that it will be a solitary life, it will be a tough life. But it will be worth it. If you're coming from a different culture be extra prepared. There will be cultural shock, and you will have to adapt.