Study abroad: good for your wellbeing
10 December 2020
UCL alumnus Lindsay Heenan, BA European Social and Political Studies, undertook his year abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark as part of his degree. We caught up with him to find out about his experience of studying abroad.
What was your experience of studying abroad?
“Overall, my year abroad was the absolute best experience, and opened up so many opportunities for me. 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. The best was heading up to Lapland in Norway and Sweden, where I had so many amazing experiences. The absolute highlight was going to the sauna, then running outside and jumping into a hole cut in the frozen lake. It was -22 degrees and all under the Northern Lights, and honestly one of the best moments of my life.”
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.
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.”
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 personal change of pace – it was almost like being a fresher again, because I wanted to do everything, meet people and see around, so it can be easy to burn out in that sense. It can also be easy to get caught up in the social bubble when you have a more relaxed academic life. 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 and it’s not just a gap year!
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 a bit of culture shock, particularly the ones who had only ever studied in the same place they grew up. I think I found this a bit easier, as I had already made the move from Northern Ireland to London two years prior.”
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 for it. That’s in every sense: sorting out accommodation in good time, picking modules, and staying in touch with the host university, especially if there is orientation weeks. Orientation ran differently to the UK in Denmark, where you have to sign up for everything in advance. Don’t overlook the legal processes either! Make sure you know what you’re doing if there’s visas involved, and know what documentation you need even for just moving within Europe.
I guess what I’m saying is that if you want an enjoyable and fulfilling year abroad that will benefit your wellbeing, be prepared to organize 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 just 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 realization 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. Universities outside of the UK know what they’re doing too, and 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.”
In addition to spending the academic year in Copenhagen, you also undertook several other global opportunities. Can you tell us more about your time in America and China?
I loved my time in Copenhagen so much that I wanted to see what other opportunities would be available to me once I had to leave. I applied to a program in my home country called the Washington Ireland Program, which I got accepted to and placed in a two month internship in the U.S. Congress. It was a pretty amazing experience, made all the better by the fact I was living with a family in the DC suburbs while I was there, who I still stay in contact with regularly. While the program is obviously only open to Irish students, I did meet interns from other countries in Congress and elsewhere who were on similar types of programs - I would hugely recommend for students to look into what opportunities might be available to them within their own countries.
The other half of my summer was taken up by the Study China program in Beijing. It was advertised to me by UCL, but run by the university of Manchester, and offered places in Mandarin summer schools in a couple of different Chinese cities. It’s open to all students in the UK, regardless of nationality, and is a fantastic opportunity. During my three weeks we had daily Mandarin classes as well as cultural activities, and had the opportunity to travel during our free time. Accommodation and tuition is covered for you, so all you need to pay for is your flights and living costs while you are there (which are relatively cheap). It was a crazy three weeks and I had a lot of fun - would totally recommend it!
What would you say to other students considering taking a short-term opportunity over the summer?
Absolutely go for it! There are tonnes of opportunities out there for students during summer periods if you spend some time looking. A lot of them will cover substantial costs for you, and are only available while you are a student, so make use of these kinds of opportunities before you have to enter full-time working life. As far as wellbeing goes, I think I really benefit from quite a fast-paced lifestyle with lots of fun - my time in Copenhagen, Washington and Beijing definitely did wonders for me in that respect!
What inspired you to make your 2019 video?
I’ve always loved making videos - it’s why I signed up for the vlogging opportunity for my year abroad. I feel like photos and videos are a great way to be able to look back on your best memories. I had done a ‘One Second Everyday’ back in 2017, so decided to try it again while I was already recording footage for my vlogs anyway. It continued on during my time in the U.S. and China, and when I got back to London - granted, I had a lot less time for fun activities when I started final year! It’s a pretty huge commitment for a whole year, but download an app for it and you’ll be surprised how easy it can be.