“Academically you can’t find a better place than a small private school. Alma is a good starting place to get comfortable with a new culture.” — Joonas Kotka, Class of 2015
Joonas Kotka is asked the question frequently. Why would he leave his native Estonia and travel halfway around the world to enroll at Alma College?
“I wanted a new challenge,” says Kotka, who hails from Tallin, the capital city of Estonia. “I graduated from one of the top high schools in Estonia, and in college I wanted to challenge myself both academically and on the soccer field. If I stayed in Estonia, I couldn’t do both. I needed a new adventure.”
Joonas learned about Alma from another Estonian, Martin Kuustik, a 2010 graduate of Alma College. Joonas applied to Alma as well as several Ivy League schools. He ended up at Alma.
“Alma is the perfect environment,” says Joonas. “At first, it was hard. I carried around my laptop to Google English and learn the language. But the small class sizes helped me deal with things.
“And I played soccer, so I had a group of friends immediately,” he says. “Students who come from a northern European country are typically more reserved, but soccer helped eliminate that first barrier for me. I’m happy I came to Alma.”
Four years after his arrival, Kotka walked across the commencement stage with his bachelor’s degree and a double major in mathematics and physics. In the fall 2015, he entered Duke University’s graduate program to study engineering management.
“My brother, Jan, is in electronic manufacturing,” says Joonas. “He’s young, 35, a general manager, and a great role model for me. I want to follow in his footsteps and learn both technical information and management skills.
“At Alma, I took business, economics and science courses,” he says. “Also, being a tutor and teacher’s assistant in mathematics and physics helped me remember what I learned from freshman calculus and other classes. In grad school, I can be a graduate assistant.”
Academically, he credits Alma’s faculty for actively helping him understand class material and assisting with his graduate school application.
“Professors John Putz and Tim Sipka — really, everyone in the mathematics department — were there for me when I had questions,” he says. “In physics, Cameron Reed and Victor Arguetta always were helpful.
“Here, if you have a question, the faculty are always in their offices and can help you,” he says. “For example, I wanted to challenge myself so I took organic chemistry. I had problems, but I stayed with Dr. Scott Hill, went to his office, and he explained everything to me. If you want to work hard, the faculty will help you. Faculty at Alma believe that the process of learning is just as important as getting the right answers.”
Outside of the classroom, Joonas and his friends took the initiative to form the Alma College Food Coalition, which included a popular Succhi bar, noodle bowl and restaurant nights. Their goal was to provide more healthy and diverse food choices for Alma students to supplement the offerings in Hamilton Commons.
He advises incoming international students to find friends quickly, to branch out and interact with other students.
“Academically you can’t find a better place than a small private school,” he says. “Alma is a good starting place to get comfortable with a new culture.”
Joonas played four years of intercollegiate soccer at Alma. A midfielder, he scored five career goals with two assists.
“Soccer was great,” he says. “Our team was the most united team I have ever been a part of. It was like a brotherhood; we were very close. We hung out together not just at practice but also outside of practice. We made the MIAA playoffs in my senior year for the first time, and the year before we had the first winning season in 13 years. We achieved a lot. When I came, we were rebuilding with 30 freshmen; my class was the rebuilding class.
“I’ve never been part of such a unified team before,” he says. “In Estonia, our team was feared; we beat everyone. Here, I came into a losing team. I was angry at first because I was not used to losing, but we built something out of it. We achieved something big here. Now, Alma has a winning program. Teams have to take Alma seriously. I take great pride in this.”
Both engineering and soccer have opened a lot of doors for Joonas, and he wants to stick with both as long as he is able. Whatever he achieves, he can look back at the foundation he received at Alma College
— Mike Silverthorn, Director of Communications