Semester Abroad in Helsinki, Finland

Of everywhere I have been, this city holds a special place in my heart; I lived in Helsinki, Finland for 5 months for my semester abroad. My only regret in my time abroad is that I didn’t start a written blog back then as many of my friends did, and so now everything I write here is from memory and won’t be as detailed. I guess there is something to be said about that though, since it’ll be what really stuck with me from my time there. Anyway, moving on.

When I was applying to colleges, a big factor was what kind of international opportunities there were for students at that university. USC, boasting a diverse student population representing over 115 countries, had just that. Back then, I wanted to study abroad in Paris or Barcelona. After my freshman year, I actually didn’t want to go abroad anymore. Finally junior year rolled around and I decided I should at least check out some presentations from students’ experiences in different places.

One presentation completely changed my perspective on what a semester abroad should be about: Helsinki. I remember when the student giving the presentation was going to give his – I thought to myself, “why would anybody study abroad in Finland?” I was only sitting through that presentation because it was before the Melbourne one or Barcelona or some other popular destination (not to discredit any of those programs, they are all great). But, that presentation really changed my life; that sounds dramatic, but what unfolded because of it really did do that. Seeing the kind of experiences that the program at Aalto University in Helsinki offered its exchange students made me reevaluate what I wanted out of my time abroad.

So I decided that I was going to apply to the Helsinki, Finland program as one of my top choices. I realized that my reasons for wanting to go to Paris or Barcelona (mainly to party in Europe) were superficial, and that there was nothing special about spending my time abroad there. Finland, however, presented an experience shrouded in mystery and the unknown. I had never lived in a place like it before – the culture, the weather, the topography – nor had I ever ventured to Northern Europe.

With regards to travel, it had everything I wanted: beautiful architecture, a lot of nature nearby, the Northern Lights, proximity to other unexplored countries, and still in Europe. The program also was unique, offering courses in sustainability, which I was very interested in, and having a very involved international student union (KY-sub) that put on a lot of programs for the students. I felt that studying abroad in Helsinki was going to give me one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Even then, I couldn’t have predicted just how amazing it would be.

When I was accepted into the program, my parents were the ones that were worried: “It’s going to be dark, cold, and depressing, you’re going to be miserable. Please try to go somewhere else.” But I was set on going, and they were wrong (HA!). I think it was the best semester abroad I could’ve had. I could really go on forever about my time there, talking about all the fun we had, but I’ll try to keep it brief to get to everything else.

Helsinki is very quaint and very picturesque. When I arrived in the middle of winter, everything was blanketed in snow for about two months. The architecture is very European, and the city is largely built around the City Centre. We (the boys) lived in Kannelmäki (aka The Kennel). It was about a 15-minute train ride every day into the City Centre. The Finns are VERY punctual, which was actually very nice for planning as opposed to here in the United States where things run late all the time. We rode the train to walk to school every day, which was a nice 10-minute walk from the station; it wasn’t that nice when there were snowstorms, but being from LA I enjoyed those walks in particular. Then we would all usually meet back at The Kennel and go back out into the city at night. Like I said earlier, I could talk about all the neighborhoods in the city that we got to explore and everywhere we would go (Namu, Amarillo!!, Kaiku), but it would take a really long time and that isn’t what this blog is about. Basically we quickly adopted regular routines living in this amazing city, it really feels like a second home, and the friends I made there are some of the best.


I can’t talk about my semester abroad without mentioning Lapland. Unfortunately, I only made it up to Finnish Lapland once, but I certainly made the most of it! This trip was a little different than the rest of the ones I did abroad, as it was organized by KY-sub for all the exchange students studying at Aalto, which was really cool.

Obviously everyone’s number one goal going up that far north is to see the Northern Lights. When we arrived, it didn’t seem like that was going to happen; the forecast was overcast the entire weekend. In case you didn’t know, the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) can only be seen under certain conditions: between September and March, in a clear sky, and usually below a certain temperature. There is also a factor of how strong the geomagnetic forces at play are, which I was regularly checking throughout the weekend here. The strength of the Northern Lights required to see them as far North as we were isn’t too much, so that was met, we just needed a break in the clouds.

I believe it was our first night out, we were all sledding up a big ski hill, making the most of a night that failed to deliver the auroras, when suddenly, hiking up the hill with my sled, I looked up and thought I saw a faint green in the sky. I asked my friend if he saw it too and he said I was convincing myself it was there because I wanted to see the lights so badly. A few minutes later, and there they were, hovering and dancing over are heads. We all sprinted to get our stuff and over to a frozen lake, where I shot the images you see at the bottom of this post. During our time there, as you can also see, we took out dog sleds, which was exhilarating and adorable, snowmobiles, and one night went ice go-karting.


The other few pictures at the bottom are from Tallinn, Estonia. Estonia is actually only a 2-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. It’s an easy day trip, and – fun fact – a lot of Finns go there to buy their alcohol for the week because it is a lot cheaper! I regret that I only did the day trip once, I probably could’ve saved a lot of money! Haha, but in all seriousness, it is a beautiful, picturesque, and quite old city that would’ve been nice to explore more than I did. Latvia and Lithuania also aren’t far from Tallinn for an easy weekend trip that I would have liked to do. But the highlight from Tallinn was shooting AK-47’s at the gun range there. Pretty exciting stuff. 


In my 5-month semester abroad, these are the other countries I visited:

  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • Estonia
  • Denmark
  • Germany
  • Croatia
  • Slovenia
  • Czech Republic
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • England
  • Ireland
  • Belgium
  • The Netherlands
  • Luxembourg
  • Spain

For now, I will only be writing posts for places where I was able to put my camera to work, which is not all of those countries. Hopefully after I have covered most of that, I will be able to write smaller posts for the other countries.


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