Milla Ihalainen: "Training Figure Skating in Madrid Was Actually an Amazing Opportunity"

A year or semester abroad can definitely be the best part of your time at university, but there are many things to consider and anxieties to overcome before packing your bags and actually going. This week, we talked to Milla about her tips for future exchange students, as well as how she's managed to combine figure skating and studying abroad in Spain.

What do you study?

I am a fourth year English Philology student. I finished my BA last spring and am currently studying abroad as a Master's student. As my minors at BA level, I had a mandatory minor of Methodology and then chose World Politics (International Relations as it's called in Helsinki) and Communications. I would like to continue my Communications studies and possibly IR.

Where are you studying right now and why did you choose that place?

I am studying in Madrid, Spain. I wanted to improve my Spanish and live somewhere warm! I also chose Madrid because here I get a unique chance to further my skating career, but more about that in a minute.

What have been the best things about studying abroad so far?

I think studying abroad always gives you a chance to see life from a completely different angle. This is so cliché I know, but you do really grow as a person. I have met new people from all over, learned so much about cultural differences, learned to speak a language I only had rudimentary knowledge of, tried and loved new cuisines, and most of all gotten to know myself better in the process. Even within my studies I have gained new perspectives. School has been quite easy for me here, but the way in which subjects are approached is quite different and very interesting. For example in International Studies I have a course which approaches politics from a completely geographical viewpoint, and another which approaches world crises as interlinked with demography.

What are some of the difficulties you’ve had?

The biggest problem that I keep coming across is the language. In Southern European countries, you really should have at least a basic conversational aptitude to be able to get by. There have been so many times when having a better command of Spanish would have helped my life. But I have managed with my Basics 1 & 2 intensive course knowledge. Spain is also notorious for bureaucracy that drives you insane. Trying to get my courses registered was living hell, running from one office to another. Nothing in Spain seems to work as it's supposed to, but as long as you know that and reserve plenty of time for taking care of everything (and don't trust public transportation to stick to any schedule), everything always works out somehow. Patience is important!

Anything you wish you’d known, but didn’t, before becoming an exchange student?

One problem that is common for Erasmus students is professors who just don't like foreign students. I had one teacher who seemed to dislike me from the very beginning and if I missed even one class, she was sure to make life a living hell for me. I personally recommend switching out of these classes, because there is nothing you can do to persuade them to like you, and Erasmus is supposed to be a pleasant time in your life. Another good hint for anyone leaving on an exchange is to read blogs by other students that have studied in your area and perhaps even in the same school! You can avoid a lot of pitfalls if you know about them ahead of time.

You’re also a figure skater. How have you managed to combine skating and studying abroad? Any tips for people who would like to go on an exchange but don’t want to put their hobby or passion on hold while abroad?

For me training in Madrid is actually an amazing opportunity. The other skaters that I train with are among the best in Spain and the best of them have even competed at the European Championships or World Junior Championships. In Finland, I couldn't have an opportunity like this, because the overall level in figure skating is so much higher all over the country that there would be no place for me among the top skaters, not to mention that there is no training facility in Finland which really gathers top skaters, as there is here.

The difficulty in training while studying has always been trying to fit everything into a manageable schedule. I also learned after my freshman year to not overdo the amount of credits that I could complete while training professionally without dying from stress. I train around 20-25 hours a week at home in Finland and here I spend around 3 hours training on weekdays, when I'm also supposed to be studying, not to mention the time it takes to get from one place to another. I often choose my courses based on the schedules and I have taken quite a few book exams back home at Helsinki University, because they enable a more flexible schedule. While on exchange it's good to make sure beforehand that you may choose your courses freely if you are in a similar situation. Also allowing enough time for rest and food is super important while making your schedule!

My advice to other students who would like to study abroad, but are not sure how to make it work with their own passion or hobby, is to start by researching what possible options there might be in the cities that your own major has an exchange place in. I would never have thought Spain would be the place to go for figure skating! After researching, start bravely calling to ask about the possibilty of training/practicing/joining the team in your possible exchange location, because very often arrangements can be found! Other universities may even offer better possibilities for sports than our home university, for example my boyfriend picked up an old hobby when he went on his exchange.

Finally, would you recommend going on an exchange, based on your experiences?

I would definitely recommend going on an exchange. One big concern about going on an exchange was also my relationship. We were originally planning to study in the same place, but due to complications ended up on different sides of Europe. Obviously long distance always has its downsides, but I feel like we are both getting more out of our exchange this way than if we had picked the safe and comfortable Stockholm together. For me, this has given me the opportunity to train at top level and for him there were courses related to his academic interests that cannot be found elsewhere. And flights around Europe are quite cheap, so having weekend dates around Europe is a romantic and fun way to see your significant other, while also getting to see new places. Traveling around has definitely been the best part of my exchange so far!