Finnish American Congressional Staffer Travel and Exchange Program, also known as FACSTEP, was organized now for the ninth time. Seven congressional staffers traveled to Finland in August. This bipartisan exchange program offers a great opportunity for the Congressional Staff members to learn about key elements of Finnish society.
The first day of this year’s FACSTEP took an enthusiastic group of both Republican and Democratic staffers on a Finnish icebreaker. The icebreakers float right in the city center of Helsinki, being always ready to embark on an important mission. Having massive icebreakers as neighbors might be normal to many Finns, but can seem very exotic to others.
The visit to the icebreaker Polaris was one of the many first-time experiences for the American guests. Each year since 2009 the Finnish Foreign Ministry together with other ministries craft an interesting and informative program for the congressional staffers invited to Finland.
This year’s highlights included a visit to a Finnish Naval base at Upinniemi, tour of a Helsinki-based high school, visit to the Finnish-Russian border crossing point, the lake Saimaa, the Helsinki Concert Hall and of course a real, wood-heated sauna on an island.
Staffers also met with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Timo Soini, the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, Anne-Mari Virolainen and the Speaker of the Parliament Paula Risikko. Not to mention the many representatives of various ministries, institutions, and organizations who all briefed the staffers on current issues regarding foreign affairs, economy, education, housing, and defense.
What a truly deep dive into Finnish culture and politics! And not only that: FACSTEP was also a great opportunity to form new, transatlantic friendships and connections.
After the trip, the Embassy of Finland in Washington D.C. stays in touch with its FACSTEP participants.
One of the important FACSTEP alumni traditions takes place every year at the Ambassador’s residence. This year Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi invited participants from previous staffer trips to meet and share their experiences over an informal buffet dinner. The alumni seemed all to agree on one thing: their trip to Finland had been a great success.
Jennifer Shapiro, the Chief of Staff of Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D), was part of this year’s group. For her, the most interesting part of the trip was to hear how Finland successfully has tackled homelessness. For Sam Watters, the Legislative Assistant of Congressman Sean Duffy (R), the most memorable experience was a day at the Russian border. Watters also enjoyed the boat trip on the Lake Saimaa, where he learned about the Finnish tradition of having summer cabins, something that is very common also in his home state, Wisconsin.
During the alumni meeting, the participants also shared new ideas for future FACSTEP trips. We’re excited about continuing the tradition and will make sure the next trip displays more and more aspects of all things Finnish!