Study abroad: good for your wellbeing

4 December 2020

UCL alumnus Lindsay Heenan, BA European Social and Political Studies, undertook a year abroad as part of his degree in Copenhagen, Denmark. We caught up with him to find out about his experience of studying abroad.

View of Copenhagen riverfront, with tall houses in the background and boats floating on the river

What was your experience of studying abroad? 

“Overall, my year abroad was the absolute best experience, and opened up so many opportunities for me. I studied in Copenhagen in the third year of my four year course. My highlights were (1) the city itself and the quality of life Copenhagen offered, (2) the opportunities to travel throughout the wider region and (3) making new friends and having a more laidback lifestyle that was more enjoyable. 

You meet so many people in the same position as you, who don’t know anyone, and have moved here and want to make friends. There were loads of opportunities for travel within Scandinavia, and also across Europe – there are plenty of student schemes to explore the regions, which were a huge benefit to me as I love travelling.” 

Why did you study abroad? 

“The year abroad was a mandatory part of my course since I was a language student. The idea for language students is that you go abroad to improve your language skills, rather than just get good grades in the host university. It means you get a lot out of living in a new place, and sets you up well for language exams when returning to UCL for final year. My favorite thing about this was that it meant everything felt slightly less pressured than the busy first two years of my course, and it allowed me to take a much broader range of modules. 

Study abroad isn't just for those studying languages, there are plenty of opportunities where teaching is in English. Regardless, I have a love of travel and knew that I wanted to study abroad when I first applied to UCL. Doing it with the support of UCL behind me was a great way to learn about how it is to move abroad for the first time and feel supported in doing so.” 

Study abroad and wellbeing 

“After two pretty intense years at UCL, I definitely think my year abroad couldn’t have come at a better time. With the change in pace of city life from the bustling and often stressful London, I felt smaller Copenhagen would offer a much better quality of life. I absolutely fell in love with the city, and would really recommend it to UCL students. It’s so easy to get caught up in London life, and it can often have a detrimental effect on wellbeing. Spending some time away was exactly what I needed! 

Ironically, the biggest difficulty was the change of pace –I wanted to do everything, meet people and see things, so it can be easy to burn out. So I would say that if you’re taking the whole year abroad, pace yourself as there is plenty of time to do everything you want to do. Like everything in university, you need to find that balance between having a good time and getting your head down to do more productive things. At the end of the day, you’re still in university!  

I think it’s definitely important to remember that studying abroad can be challenging to your wellbeing. I know that plenty of my friends experienced culture shock, particularly those who had only ever studied in the same place they grew up. For me, this was made easier by moving from Northern Ireland to London two years prior. It's also important to remember you'll always have plenty of support both from UCL and your host university should you have any challenges.” 

What advice would you give to someone considering study abroad? 

“Absolutely go for it. I would say though, that if you’re going to put the effort into applying, make sure you put in a similar amount of effort into preparing. That’s in every sense: sorting out accommodation in good time, picking modules, and staying in touch with the host university, especially if there are orientation weeks, which work differently in each place. 

If you want an enjoyable and fulfilling year abroad that will be positive for your wellbeing, be prepared to organise it rather than just expect everything to fall into place. You’re in a different culture, with different ways of living and working, as well as language barriers. Things can easily be challenging or overwhelming, so it really pays to set yourself up well by preparing in advance.” 

How did your year abroad influence you once you returned? 

“Studying abroad helped me come to the realisation that I didn’t have to confine myself to the UK anymore, and that I had the potential to change how I do things. As a result, I’m now studying for my Masters at Bocconi University in Milan. 

I have no doubt that if I hadn’t gone on year abroad, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to even apply for universities outside of the UK for further study. I’d say it’s about realizing firstly that it’s possible, and secondly that you’re capable of it – having already gone through the culture shock of moving to a new country, you know how to handle whatever a life abroad and a foreign university throws at you. 

I think it’s also key to be exposed to different education systems and styles. There are world-class institutions across Europe and beyond. Today I love what I’m doing, but I know I wouldn’t be doing it if it hadn’t been for my year abroad.” 

Learn more about study abroad opportunities at UCL and find out about the support on offer. 

Lindsay Heenan, UCL alumnus, BA European Social and Political Studies