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Helaina’s Story: Studying & Competing at the University of Edinburgh

Oct 25, 2023

Helaina joined the University of Edinburgh to pursue a Master of Science in Management whilst continuing her collegiate rowing career. Having grown up in New York and Florida, Helaina went on to represent Northeastern University on their women’s rowing crew and graduated with a BSc in Business Administration and Communication Studies.

What made you choose to study in the UK?

I chose to pursue graduate school in the UK for a few key reasons. Firstly, I wanted to continue rowing at a high level, similar to Division 1 in the US. However, achieving this in the US would have required juggling a high-performance team commitment with full- or part-time work, which I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue right after graduation. Additionally, due to NCAA regulations, I used up all my eligibility during my undergrad so I c

ould not pursue my master’s degree and row D1 in the US. Moreover, I felt that I needed more development before joining a group of women 3+ years my elder who were vying for the national team. When a couple of UK schools reached out to me about rowing opportunities, I took the time to explore my options and decided to apply. Ultimately, attending grad school in the UK allowed me to study abroad and experience living in a different culture, which I couldn’t do during my time at Northeastern due to my rowing commitments (rowing competed in both fall and spring semesters). This decision aligned my rowing goals with my academic goals and personal aspirations.

What did you like most about studying in the UK?

One of the things I appreciated most about studying in the UK was the incredible city where I pursued my graduate degree: Edinburgh. Being at the University of Edinburgh allowed me to live in a place rich in history and global recognition. It was fascinating to be part of a city that attracted visitors from all over the world just to experience the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. The city was full of rich history and culture; I would casually pass beautiful buildings from the 16th century on my way to class, or on weekends while grabbing coffee with friends, we would pass men playing bagpipes in kilts. My flat had a view of Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano in the middle of the city. Actually, running around Arthur’s Seat in the park became one of my favorite running routes, and favorite view of Edinburgh. Whether looking out from classroom windows or walking to class, I could see the Edinburgh Castle at the top of the skyline. This experience allowed me to fully embrace the life of a local in one of the UK’s oldest and most fascinating cities.

What were the main differences between university sport in the UK and the US?

There are quite a few differences between university sport in the UK vs the US. Firstly, the governing bodies are very different. In the US, university sports are heavily regulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) or other governing bodies like the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics). These organizations establish rules, eligibility criteria, and oversee collegiate sports programs in detail. Whereas in the UK, the centralized governing body is British Universities & College Sport (BUCS). Sports at UK unis are often organized and governed independently by each institution in addition to British Universities & College Sport (BUCS).

BUCS is less strict than NCAA. For example, NCAA rules limit the number of hours student-athletes can spend on training and competition during the main season and off-season. These limits are designed to balance academics and athletics. However, inthe UK there are no strict training hour limits for rowers (this could be for all student-athletes, but my experience is only in rowing). Thus, my team could train as much (or as little) as my coaches deemed necessary. Thirdly, eligibility rules differ between countries. NCAA in the US has strict eligibility rules that limit how many years a student-athlete can compete at the collegiate level, which is why I could not continue rowing D1 in the US. In the UK, student-athletes can often participate in sports for as many years as theyare enrolled as students, so if I were to continue academia in the UK for Edinburgh, or a different university, I would be allowed to continue rowing.

Lastly, I found that the US places a much stronger emphasis on competitive collegiate sports, like universities often invest heavily in facilities, coaching staff, and recruitment to compete at a high level. This was true at Northeastern as we had a beautiful boathouse on the water with 3-4 coaches on the coaching staff and written notes allowing us to miss class for our competitions. While competitive sports are also valued in the UK, the emphasis for rowing was certainly less on achieving national championships (BUCS) and more on academics.

What were the main differences between academic study in the UK and the US?

I think it really would depend on your degree but for me the biggest difference was the grading system and class structure. I completed  13 courses in one year since every course was only 5 weeks long with either one essay, one group project, or one final exam as the final grade. I found my degree at Edinburgh to be more fast paced than my undergraduate degree.

Aside from sport and studying, what else have you done in the UK? Have you travelled anywhere fun, tried a different cuisine or explored a new club/activity? 

My master’s degree courses and rowing on the senior team at Edinburgh took up most of my time during my year in the UK. However, while rowing during the year I got to travel to different parts of England and Scotland for competitions, like the Scottish highlands for our training camp at the start of summer. After rowing concluded at the end of June, I was able to travel with my friends from my master’s degree to places like Isle of Skye, my friend’s house in the south of France, Switzerland, Italy, and weekend trips to London.

Was there anything that surprised you about the UK?

The biggest surprise for me was how different the UK felt compared to the US when I first got there. Before arriving, many people had told me how similar the two countries are, so I was a bit surprised when I first arrived by their initial stark differences. But after living in the UK for about a year, the two countries started feeling more similar, like a second home.

What would your advice be to anyone considering studying in the UK?

If you can, 100% attend grad school in the UK. You will grow as a person, especially if you have never lived in a different country before. You will make friends from across the world, you will learn to love your sport in a different light, and learn about other cultures that you can grow to love. It will likely seem scary or challenging at first, but honestly you only grow as a person when you are outside your comfort zone. Take the leap, trust me you won’t regret it.