ADSC04669 (002).jpg

Heidi Heikkonen, Exchange student in Ireland


Heidi Heikkonen arrived in Dublin in spring. Studying social work at the University of Lapland, she decided to pack her bags and see the world on a whim. She reminisces on seeing the tide for the first time, meeting sheep in the mountains, and stirring up a hornet's nest at an Irish party.

”– I’m from Pirkanmaa, far away from the coast. I’ve never seen the tide. When I saw the low tide for the first time, I just wondered where all the water had disappeared.”

What was your exchange destination and what have you studied?
OK, I’m Heidi Heikkonen. I was in Dublin, Ireland, from January to May. A bit over four months. My major was social work and I took a couple of courses for my own major on social policy and the practices of social work. I also studied archeology, horticulture, and folklore.

Why did you go for student exchange?
I’ve been to UK before as an intern and liked it a lot. Then all of a sudden, during the second application period I decided, "Why not? It’s not too late to participate!"

My Bachelor topic will be quite difficult and I need foreign sources for it. Spending almost half a year speaking only English made a real difference in terms of my language skills. And of course, I really wanted to see the world.

Did the exchange period contribute to your mental skills in any way?
Absolutely! Especially my first time in student exchange. I was about 20 – already then I developed as a human being, this time even more. At home I have a spouse, and my friends are close by. During exchange you have time to think, to elaborate on yourself as a human being. For me, it’s a way to develop as a person.

Of course, you also get used to travelling. I’ve traveled pretty much all over Ireland. It’s easy and cheap – the trains are expensive but the bus system is very good. It’s a small country, so it hardly takes more than two hours to reach the other side.

Let’s expand the context a bit – describe Ireland, what is it like?
[laughs] Talking about expanding! As an exchange destination, depending on the university of course, Ireland is full of friendly people and the pub culture is great. Dublin is a tourist city, not representative of the whole country – just as well, because it concentrates on tourism. But in small places people are really friendly.

I’ve had a very good time in Ireland. Nature is all around, there are hills that are like mountains and then… sheep. [laughs] A lot of them.

Did you acquire any academic skills from your exchange university?

Perspectives, at least. I’m the first university student of my family, so I did not necessarily know what to expect.

My stay in Dublin prepared me for academic writing because I had to write in a foreign language. Things are easier when the foreign language has clearer rules, you can’t blabber away like when using your native tongue.

Was it easy to adjust to a new country?

I lived on a campus four kilometers from the main campus. It was a cozy little place with many international students. I also left behind a couple of Irish friends. And clubs were abundant – I was a member of a paddling club – and I made friends there. It was rather easy to adjust, but there were a few cultural shocks as well.

One of them took place at a local student party at someone’s home. In Ireland, well, the status of women still isn’t that equal yet. At this party we were chatting about this and that, and I just happened to say that I don’t want children and that my boyfriend knows my stance. The entire bunch of girls turned to look at me and said, “Come again?” A storm of questions broke out. As a Finnish woman I was not quite used to such intense questioning. I felt like I had stirred up a hornet’s nest. But it was fun to come up with another perspective!

Did you have any adventures that you would like to share with us?
We got lost so many times, I can’t even remember! But it was a nice neighborhood, so it didn’t really matter.

I also swam in the ocean. One of my friends from the US had always lived by the ocean – she just walked right in. I, on the other hand, am from the middle of Finland and had never seen the tide. When I saw the low tide for the first time, I just wondered where all the water had disappeared. I didn’t have the courage to go half the distance she had. She must’ve walked at least half a kilometer off the shore. It was pitch black and there she went in the water like the little Bambi. That was totally nuts! [laughs]

Do you recommend student exchange to others?
Yep, definitely. It provides a chance to develop as a person. You get friends from around the world. Especially from the academic point of view, I have benefitted from it. And of course, your language skills will improve.