Five international life stories – one connection: Stockholm University

At Stockholm University, diversity is embraced – in subjects of study and in people. Ranked among the world’s top 100 universities, every year it attracts people from around the world to join a community of more than 30,000 students.

Five international life stories – one connection: Stockholm University

The Local spoke with five alumni – former students from five different countries and five different academic disciplines – about their memories of Stockholm University and how their time in Scandinavia’s capital shaped who they are today. 

The resulting tales encompass the totally Swedish (from midsummer to collective decision-making) and the truly global (from digital transformation in India to rubbing shoulders with some of America's top astrophysicists).

Q: What are your favourite or most vivid memories of studying at Stockholm University?

Anne Evenhaugen, from the US: MA, Curating Art, 2009-2011. 

“Having fika every day with my cohort. My favourite was the chokladbollar! (Swedish chocolate balls). We got to know each other really well. It was a great mix of people from many countries and I was the only American. We also had great opportunities to hear from international artists and art historians; on one internship I got to meet Annie Leibovitz.” 

Rohit Thomas, from India: MBA, Marketing, 2007-2008.

“Writing a research proposal was an eye-opener. Having done my undergraduate degree in India, there was hardly any research element. Midsummer in Sweden was also memorable. I come from India, where it’s always 40C, so the aura around midsummer, the food, and celebrations was wonderful. People were very open in welcoming us to join in.”

Find out more about Stockholm University's 75 Master's programmes taught in English 

Brenda Ochola, from Kenya: Master’s, Media and Communication Studies, 2014-2016.

“Being able to tailor my Masters, so I could complement media department courses with others, such as one at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship Studies. That helped open up a different world in Stockholm’s vibrant startup scene. I began working part-time at Impact Hub, a co-working space for social entrepreneurs, and could apply my new skills while still studying.”Photos: Brenda Ochola receiving her Master's degree and in her professional life

Sepehr Saeidibonab, from Iran: Master’s Programme in Applied Social Research, 2014-17

“Meeting people who came from different parts of the world and making new friends. I'd also mention one of my favourite places on campus: Studenthuset. This was the place where myself and my classmates would join up to study or work on an assignment.”

Elissa Ferguson, from Canada: MSc, Environmental Management and Physical Planning, 2011-2013.

“The Student Union representatives for international students provided amazing opportunities and activities. I became a student ambassador and started an English tutoring programme because Masters degrees in English were still fairly new in Sweden. In terms of teaching, the most valuable thing was the systems thinking perspective, which helps with understanding interactions between scientific, economic and social factors.”

Science, humanities, social sciences and law: take a look at Stockholm University's full range of courses

Q: What is your job now and what does a typical day involve?

Anne: “I have two roles. As Head of the Smithsonian American Art Museum & Portrait Gallery Library in Washington D.C., I oversee acquisitions, collections, development and projects that support the museum’s mission. I also help answer reference questions from around the world.

“As art department head, I’m the supervisor for the National Museum of African Art, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum of modern art.”Photos: Anne Evenhaugen in her Stockholm University days and today

Rohit: “I’m Head of Marketing & Alliances at X-PM and I’m based in New Delhi. We specialise in transition management – digital transformation, performance improvement or restructuring. Think of it as renting a Porsche. Companies might not have the internal bandwidth to solve their problem, so we can step in for six or 12 months then exit. I plan and develop interesting marketing content with my international colleagues.”

Brenda: “I’m a Communications Officer at Stockholm Environment Institute. Two projects currently take up most of my time: one is about reducing carbon emissions in the Baltics, and one is about geopolitics. My day-to-day tasks include writing features and blogs, interviews with researchers, and finding ways to communicate results outwards, as well as PR events and press.”

Sepehr: “I work as a credential evaluator at UHR, the Swedish Council for Higher Education. My job is to evaluate foreign academic credentials from countries such as, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. A typical day involves handling cases, answering emails and going to meetings. My department plays an important role in helping international students who wish to start their careers in Sweden by evaluating their qualifications from their home countries.”

Elissa: “I’m an environmental scientist for the Federal Government of Canada and I work with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. I’m working on a clean-up project for an old gold mine. I’m in a lot of meetings and I do a lot of technical writing and plain language summaries of scientific documents. We communicate the information to a lot of First Nations people and special interest groups.”

Q: How has what you learned at Stockholm University shaped your life and career since?

Anne: “I think the Smithsonian hired me so quickly because of my Masters. There were 700 applicants for my first job here but that set me apart because very few universities had curating degrees at the time. Now, I work at the largest museum complex in the world. The beauty of it is not just about my field but the amazing breadth of experts. I love working with astrophysicists researching the stars and scientists looking for ways to fight coronavirus.” 

Apply online: get a step-by-step guide to applying to study in English at Stockholm University  

Rohit: “Collective-decision-making is one thing. People in Sweden take decisions slowly but through consensus and it’s very clear for everyone. Another big thing is learning work-life balance.

Photos: Rohit Thomas at Stockholm University and in his later career

“In India, you work long hours and productivity is often not great. Everybody has a fixed number of hours per day, so you need to learn the art of managing your time.”

Brenda: “I was born and raised in Kenya and had no intention of staying in Sweden in the beginning. But now I’ve been here six years and counting. I’m open about the future but I’m happy to be here. At SU, we learned a lot about the impact on society of media coverage and how different audiences consume media. That helps me make decisions today such as how to shape messages and which channels to use.”  

Sepehr: “My Master’s thesis helped me in realising my professional goals in Sweden. I used social network analysis to analyse the friendship dynamics among students of two schools in Stockholm. The research awoke my interest in the Swedish educational system as an institution, which has great potential with regards to internationalisation and globalisation.”

Photos: Sephr Saeidibonab in Iran and at Stockholm University

Elissa: “The fact that I studied environmental science in Stockholm is huge in the interview process. Sweden is often romanticised for blond hair, blue eyes and the stuff about free love that isn’t necessarily true. But it is well-known as an environmental leader. I also don’t think I’d have gained the same critical thinking skills in Canada. I was taught a process for considering many perspectives in a concrete way that is now ingrained in my brain.”

Q: Can you sum up your time at Stockholm University in a single sentence?

Anne: “I lived in the most beautiful city, met wonderful people, and advanced my career – my experience was once in a lifetime!” 

Rohit: “I’d already worked at a major company, Philips, before my Masters – but I discovered myself all over again during my time at Stockholm University.”

Brenda: “I had a full, all-round, rich experience because I did it my way and Stockholm University offered me that opportunity.”

Sepehr: “It was a journey, full of ups and downs, filled with excitement and fear, but in the end with fruitful outcomes.” 

Elissa: “It was life-changing – it gave me an amazing skill set for work and made me much more independent and empowered as a person.”

Photos: Elissa Ferguson at Stockholm University 

Interested in changing your life by studying at one of the world's top 100 universities? Find a programme or course at Stockholm University that suits your ambitions and interests and get a step-by-step guide on how to apply.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Stockholm University.




‘They feel conned’: Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules

Sweden's top universities are to call for doctoral students to be exempted from Sweden's tough new permanent residency rules, arguing that it will damage both academic standards and national competitiveness.

'They feel conned': Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules
At Lund Technical University, a majority of doctoral students are international. Photo: Kennet Ruona/LTU

In a post on Wednesday, Astrid Söderbergh Widding, the chair of Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, said that Sweden’s universities had agreed to submit a joint letter to the government “very soon”, calling for parliament to put in place a special exemption for PHD students to make it easier to stay in Sweden after their studies. 

The parliament, she wrote, “should introduce an exemption for doctoral students and young researchers from the requirement to be financially self-sufficient”. 

Previously, doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden with a residence permit for doctoral studies for four out of the past seven years. Apart from a slim set of requirements, this was granted more or less automatically.

But according to Sweden’s new Migration Act, which was introduced in July this year as comprehensive legislation to control the number of asylum applications, they now need to be able to additionally show that they can support themselves financially for at least a year and half.

The new law means that the rules for permanent residency are now the same for all categories of applicants, including doctoral students.

Stefan Bengtsson, the rector at Chalmers University of Technology, said that the change would mean as many as 400 to 500 doctoral students, many of whom have built up considerable expertise, might be unable to stay in Sweden.

“This makes for an uncertain future for those from outside of Europe who have applied to come to Sweden for an academic career, which is cause for great concern and disappointment among those who came here under other circumstances,” he told The Local. “Some of them may, of course, feel like they’ve been conned

But what was even more worrying, he said, would be the impact the change to the law might have in the longer term. 

“This change to the law could contribute to giving Sweden a bad reputation. This will create difficulties in recruiting internationally and damage our long-term skills supply.”


At Lund University, the majority of doctoral students in the science and technical faculties are from outside Europe, while Söderbergh Widding, who is also vice chancellor at Stockholm University, estimated that about half of doctoral students were international. 

Söderbergh Widding told the TT newswire that the change was “a devastating death blow”, which put to waste a “previously hard-won battle to make it possible for doctoral students to obtain a permanent residency permit after four years of studies”. 

She said in her letter that the change contradicted the research policy proposition from December 2020, which stated that the “number of foreign doctoral students who stay in Sweden should increase”, and said that giving residency to doctoral students was a good way to increase this.  

Ole Petter Ottersen, the rector of the elite Karolinska medical university, told the newswire that he thought the change in residency laws would damage Swedish competitiveness. 

“This is not good for Sweden. This will damage our ability to attract and recruit talent from other countries. For a country that lies on the periphery, the goal should be to make it easier, not harder, to recruit competence.”