How advanced technology and flat hierarchies convinced this researcher to move to Stockholm

Stockholm wasn't Greek chemistry researcher Varvara Apostolopoulou Kalkavoura's first choice of destination to extend her knowledge and professional networks. Yet within six months of arriving, she knew she had found the ideal place to establish her academic career, and one day make her home.

How advanced technology and flat hierarchies convinced this researcher to move to Stockholm
Everyone has a voice: Varvara addresses a conference, representing Stockholm University. Photo: Supplied

Wanting to undertake her Erasmus program with a friend, Varvara chose Stockholm, which had two places available. Arriving in 2009, she soon understood that she’d found a place that gave her exactly what she needed.

“I loved the organisation and structure that the university provided – I knew exactly what I was expected to study for, and how exams and assessments were contributing to my learning. I was also working with cutting-edge research and materials.”

“I also found the city itself impressive. It’s a beautiful place, you can get around easily, problems can be resolved quickly and technology is at a high level. I didn’t have to worry about my internet connection, which isn’t the case everywhere. I didn’t even mind that it was relatively cold, coming from Greece!”

Choosing a world-class research environment

After graduating, and having experience in the field of wastewater management in both Greece and Sweden, in 2012 Varvara decided that it was time to go back to academia.

“What ultimately led to me deciding to do a PhD in Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University was seeing just how invested people were in their research, and how it was being applied in the real world. Quite often, you see research being carried out just to justify a position at the university.

“I could see that a lot of the research being carried out was being applied to solve real-life problems, and that funding was being directed back towards the people solving those problems. We have the resources we need to push what is possible.”

Thinking back almost a decade, Varvara still remembers her initial reception as a researcher, and how it validated her initial impressions of life in Swedish academia.

“Of course, it was quite challenging, and there’s a lot that I had to do to establish myself. However, Stockholm University was a far more friendly and collaborative environment than I’d ever worked in before. Everyone was willing to help and make sure that I was doing well. I might have felt ‘dumb’ at times, but I could always work things out with the help from others. I felt I was encouraged to succeed at every opportunity.

Interested in studying in Sweden? Stockholm University is one of the world’s top 200 universities and the Swedish capital is a highly liveable city

“What I also liked was – and is – the ‘flat hierarchy’ that we have at Stockholm University. Of course, everyone has their bosses, but everyone is also encouraged to contribute and have their say. You’re never criticised or told you can’t speak, due to your position on the ladder. The ability to talk and share my ideas helped me immensely.

“I also valued the fact I was supported to go to conferences and collaborate with people from all over the world, from the beginning of my time at Stockholm University. That’s something you just don’t get in some academic environments.”

Over the decade since Varvara arrived permanently in Sweden, she has become a mother of three children. This experience has also opened her eyes to a different way of life in Sweden.

“In the course of my PhD, I had one child, and then twins! At Stockholm University I was able to take leave to be with my small kids, and when I returned, I felt I was still equally accepted as a faculty member and a researcher.

“There was no change to my position and responsibilities. That’s not the experience of women everywhere. I never felt that I was going backwards, because I was a mother in academia.”

Learn more on how the field of sustainable chemistry is tackling crucial environmental and climate change issues

Varvara and her family enjoying a Swedish summer. Photo: Supplied

Making Stockholm home

With a young family established in Stockholm and a close circle of friends and professional colleagues, Varvara has opted to take up Swedish citizenship – a recognition of how much she values her new home, and how far she feels she has come.

“Some say that it can be difficult to adjust to life in Sweden, but there’s so much there to help you if you embrace it, such as language courses offered to international people.

“I speak Swedish now, and it was very important to fit in. All of a sudden I could understand street signs and the conversations that people were having around me.

“Once I began using Swedish in the workplace and public, everybody wanted to help me and I felt accepted everywhere. I began to participate in Swedish customs and became a part of the community!

“When I could, I took up Swedish citizenship. I feel like I can give back and contribute more, as a member of a thriving society.”

Of course, as a new Swede, Varvara and her family enjoy their free time, especially treasuring the nature and green spaces around them.

“Coming from Athens, it’s extremely urbanised. So I love that there are parks and gardens everywhere and if I need to, I can always go for a walk and have a coffee for ten minutes in the middle of nature.

“It’s just another reason I love living and working in Stockholm!”

Want to study at a leading European university in environmental sciences or another exciting area? Check out the Stockholm University course catalogue

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Why Sweden should protect its fantastic popular education organisations

When the computer programming class Richard Orange's son had loved was cancelled, he got in touch with the local branch of ABF, a Swedish public education organisation, and started it up on his own.

Why Sweden should protect its fantastic popular education organisations

The course in Scratch, a block-based computer programming language for children, was the only extracurricular activity I’d ever found that my son had shown any enthusiasm for and I was disappointed it had been cancelled.

The Covid-19 pandemic had bankrupted CoolMinds, the company that ran it, and the course was called off half-way through. I collected the email and phone number of Fabian, the teacher, and also of some of the other parents, but a plan to move the course to the offices of a parent who ran a startup went nowhere.

Months later, I wandered on impulse into my local branch of ABF, the non-profit organisation founded more than 100 years ago to educate workers, knocked on the office door and found the people there immediately willing to help.

Yes, they could host a course teaching computer programming to children. Yes, they had a computer room upstairs with 10 PCs and a projector. No, I didn’t need to pay anything to rent the room.

All I had to do was start a so-called “study circle” and do a short online course to become a so-called “circle leader”.

After asking around among the parents of my children’s classmates and making a few posts on neighbourhood Facebook groups, I soon had the 10 children I needed, and the course started a week later. 

ABF, launched in Stockholm in 1912 by the Social Democrat party and unions, is just one of Sweden’s studieförbund, or popular education organisations.

There is also Vuxenskolan, which was started in 1968 by a fusion of the Liberal Party’s Liberala studieförbundet (founded 1948) and the Centre Party’s Svenska landsbygdens studieförbund (SLS), founded in 1930.

And finally, there is Medborgarskolan, founded in 1948, by members of what became today’s Moderate Party. 

ABF remains the biggest, according to Statistics Sweden, with some 83,000 study circles run across the country in 2022, compared to 74,234 at Vuxenskolan and 30,169 at Medborgarskolan. 

They are all fantastic resources for foreigners. 

Some 42,871 people born abroad took part in events organised by Sweden’s study circles last year. 

At the same time as my computer course, the ABF centre in Malmö gives Swedish lessons to a group of Ukrainians, and ABF centres across Sweden have since 2015 been teaching Swedish to refugees who do not yet have access to Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) courses. 

Worryingly, Sweden’s study organisations are struggling. The government is reducing state funding for them by some 250 million kronor next year, 350 million the year after, and 500 million in 2026, cutting their funding by about a third.

At the same time, participation has still yet to fully recover from the pandemic. 

Below is a graph showing the total number of people partipating in study organisations, study circles and other types of popular education. 

Source: Statistics Sweden

As a foreigner who has come to the country and been impressed by its strong tradition of free adult education and self-improvement, I feel it would be a terrible shame if the studieförbund began to be dissolved. 

I found ABF such a help in setting up my children’s computing course.   

Once I had the personal numbers of the children and their parents, I loaded them up onto the ABF web portal for circle leaders, and could then tick off whether they attended or not.

When I realised the course was going to be too time consuming to teach myself, I got back in touch with Fabian, whose teaching at CoolMinds my son had liked so much. 

All Fabian had to do was report the hours he taught and his rate. ABF’s administrators then divided the total between each parent and, once I’d signed off that the course was over, sent each of them a bill. Neither Fabian nor I have ever had to deal with any of that ourselves.

The course is now well into its second year and is – given that it’s basically an extra school lesson – surprisingly popular with the children. We’ve started two more courses, one where Fabian teaches Java programming to older children and another teaching a new group Beginner’s Scratch. 

The Local has used ABF’s free podcast studio several times. Photo: ABF

It’s not the only way I use ABF. 

When the studio The Local usually uses to record our podcast in Malmö is booked, we use theirs. ABF used to host the choir my daughter is in. 

Alongside all this, there are all the eclectic events like Tai Chi, embroidery, or even on how to cook Finnish pirogi pies.  

But what is best about Sweden’s studieförbund system is that if there’s something you as a foreigner want to learn about or do, some event or activity you think should exist, all you need to do is get in touch and they will help make it happen. 

Long may they last.