Daniel is a final year BA Politics student who has seized all the study abroad opportunities that Essex Abroad offer! Having returned to Essex after completing a term abroad in Finland through the YUFE Minor programme, we've asked him to share his experience with us.

Dive into his account of being the first Essex student to participate in a YUFE Minor, his top nature spots in Finland, and the transformative power of studying across borders. 

sun setting over Lake Pielisjoki, Joensuu in Finland

Why did you decide to go for it?

The Essex Abroad team had invited me to take up an exciting new study abroad opportunity coordinated by the Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE). With different YUFE Minor programmes at various European universities to select from, I selected the University of Eastern Finland where I would study the BEAR (Borders, Europe, and Russia) YUFE Minor. Finland would turn out to be one of my most cherished adventures around the world.

Being nominated to study at UEF which specialises in over twelve fields of study and offers state of the art facilities, was an opportunity to further enrich my degree in Politics. The BEAR YUFE Minor offered a wide range of modules to choose from, for instance covering the impact of the invasion of Ukraine, the composition of Russian civil society or border research. Additionally, this programme provided access to on the ground information from civil activists in and out of Russia and Ukraine, attending academic conferences such as the BOMOCULT conference on border research and learning about the experiences of cross border academia from UEF’s specialist professors. The Finnish-Russian border being only 60 miles away, border research is an extremely topical research field for the university.

My year abroad in Hong Kong was coming to an end in May 2023, with Essex Abroad’s extensive catalogue of study abroad partners and excellent funding opportunities, I was granted the opportunity to undertake a summer programme about ‘Gender-based Violence Across Borders’ that collaborated with domestic NGOs in Mexico, and a research programme on China’s Belt and Road Initiative before my departure back to England.

After this life-changing journey of circumnavigating the globe, I was hit with the existential crisis of completing my final year of university, my motivation completely depleted because of the dreaded confrontation of having to finish my bachelor's. So I chose to take up the opportunity to study abroad through Essex one last time in the autumn term of my final year.

student stood in the snow in front of arctic circle sign

I knew very little about Finland before I arrived in September, only the astonishing amount of saunas (3 million) – enough saunas to share between two people.

Can you tell us about your experience in Finland?

The evening before my departure to Finland, me and my best mate went up to London to see HAIM at O2 Shepherd’s Bush for her birthday. With a rescheduled early morning flight, I completed the last of my packing in the early hours of the morning and headed off to Gatwick airport.

With my love of trains, I decided to take the train up to Joensuu – kitted out with restaurant cars, conference rooms and telephone boxes – try the meatballs. As I stepped off the train, the crisp and fresh Finnish air greeted me. After settling in, I went for a walk around my neighbourhood Rantakylä, surrounded by the emerald green forests and ended up by a small beach overlooking a river filled with small islands.

P.S - check out the Essex Green Travel Grant if you use sustainable modes of transportation to your final destination.

There was an overwhelming amount of nature in and surrounding Joensuu, a delightful surprise as I was getting used to life in Finland. Koli National Park is a gorgeous example of Finland’s wonders. A picturesque landscape overlooking the mesmerising Lake Pielinen, you hike up its ascending rocky hills filled with giant Finnish trees and look over the countless islands present on the glistening lake. 

A hidden gem of Finland is Pirunkirnu (The Demon’s Churn). With a 40-minute ascending hike filled with treacherous obstacles, the fairytale atmosphere at the top is worth it, mystical spirits are rumoured to roam around the bottom of the 50ft deep gorge, with the vantage point decorated with lush moss carpets, red-dotted fungi, and beard-lichen.

View of trees from above at Pirunkirnu ascending hike in Finland

The highlight of my experiences in Finland was sauna – whether with friends or alone, it was a place to relax from hectic student life where you could release all your stress and negative energies. The most exhilarating feeling for me was diving into the snow and sprinting back to the sauna. Producing such euphoric feelings that made you forget everything on your mind.

Make sure to collect badges for your student overalls. These are a trademark to Finnish socials; the overalls represent your student society or faculty, and the aim is to decorate them with patches or badges. I already have 10 patches sewn onto mine.

How does studying in Finland compare to Essex and other study abroad experiences?

It’s certainly been a culture shock living in three different places, each offering its own unique perspective on world affairs. It’s been a challenge adjusting to different educational environments and their different approaches to assessment, but these experiences further honed my adaptability to acclimatise to new and changing university environments.

The British system is specialised around your degree, however at the University of Hong Kong there is encouragement to be multi-disciplinary with your course selections. For instance, I enrolled on to journalism courses which featured professors with previous field experience, this was an invaluable opportunity into Hong Kong’s political atmosphere.

Mexico was a complete juxtaposition to Hong Kong, with a free-spirited approach to learning. We’d hold classes outside in the stunning nature and hold a more discussion focused method of learning. The emphasis on discussion, highlighted the social and political situations present in Mexico especially as full-time students also took part in our programmes.

With Finland, I was completely free to mould my course to my liking, it was unnerving at first. I felt completely flipped on my back. But with an even stronger multi-disciplinary approach compared to Hong Kong, course durations could be anywhere from two weeks to a whole semester. As long as you fulfil your credit requirement for the semester, your timetable was to your choosing. The experience taught me I was a lot tougher than originally thought.

A concern can be the differing grading systems whilst abroad, but research, reaching out to people and trusting your instinct will serve you well when making your final decision.

In regard to the BEAR YUFE Minor programme, learning about Russia’s ethno-political, religious and historical claims for present conflicts across Eastern Europe whilst at UEF, presented an academically structured insight into how Russia applies memory politics to influence minorities’ political beliefs in former Soviet states – especially in Russian-speaking spaces.

As the first student from Essex to undertake a YUFE Minor programme, I embarked into the unknown, unsure on this new initiative fostered between European universities and Essex. Especially, with the departure of the Erasmus programme after Brexit, YUFE is undoubtedly the next journey for British universities to produce strong links with our European neighbours.

The Erasmus programme took 30 years to achieve its current success, offering social mobility within the European Union and fostering growth between member states. However, the YUFE alliance was only established in 2019, it set out to establish the very first European university where students can attend courses virtually and in person. I wish for other students to take up the chance I had this autumn, it will undoubtedly benefit their degrees and give them a chance to learn more about our neighbours’ cultures.

What are some of your favourite memories?

Seeing my best mate again, she caught me by surprise and had travelled all the way up to Joensuu to see me before my flight back home. Those last two days in Joensuu were so intense but I wouldn’t have gotten through it without her.

Of my other notable memories, receiving aurora alerts at 2am and hunting them down with friends was a blast. We would take a hot flask of tea and blanket to cosy up underneath the stars, gazing at the night sky. 

green auora in sky

ESN (Erasmus Student Network) Joensuu socials were like none other, they ran almost every week, bringing exchange and domestic students together for game nights, international dinners, and even talent shows. From arriving to Finland unfamiliar to the weather and culture and then being blessed with the chance to meet such a vibrant community of international students, my affection and appreciation for the cultures around me grew.

My time in Finland was so special that I wanted to keep these memories together playing on repeat. I gathered new experiences, learned how resilient I am and created a worldwide community of people I will be visiting. Our group “Kermikka” was the guardian angel I never knew I needed. I was lucky to share the end of 2023 with them. I only wish that others can have what we had.

What would you say to other students interested in studying abroad?

I could list all the reasons to study abroad here, but I’d be repeating myself. If you read this blog post and thought it sounds like something you couldn’t miss out on, then allow yourself to get through the challenge of living abroad and come out of it standing tall.

From an academic point of view, I undertook this semester as it offered access to on-the-ground intelligence, was suited to my degree, and provided the chance to connect with so many like-minded people from across the world.

student sitting in snow in Finland

Inspired by Daniel’s story? Find out more about Study Abroad opportunities.