My Leeds story - Leo

We are extremely proud of the achievements of all our graduating students at Leeds, but especially our Class of 2020, who completed their studies in such challenging circumstances.

Each month we shine a spotlight on a Leeds alum who graduated in 2020. In May, we hear the story of Leo McDonagh, a Japanese graduate who has forged a career as a translator since leaving Leeds.

He tells us about his time at Leeds, the challenges he faced overcoming anxiety during the speaking parts of the course, his year abroad, and how he went on to achieve a first-class degree.

You can read the stories of more inspiring graduates featured in our My Leeds Story Class of 2020 series, or alternatively, listen to the My Leeds Story podcast series here.

My Leeds story
Leo McDonagh

Let's go back to the start. Why Leeds?

I had known throughout my teenage years that I wanted to study Japanese at university. I was so determined that when I got poor results in my A Levels the first time, I retook them so that I could get into a good university. I wasn't really sure where I wanted to go, but Leeds were really good at staying in touch with me, more so than any other university that I was looking at.

When I finally got the grades that I wanted, other universities were still sceptical about accepting me, but Leeds welcomed me straight away. I had never even been to Leeds before, but I felt like I would be nurtured there because of this.

Even though I struggled so much with A Levels, in the end, I managed to achieve a first-class honours at Leeds, and I am so thankful that Leeds had that faith in me.  

The fact that the course was a perfect fit for me and the city is so lovely was an added bonus!

So how did it go when you were here?

Leeds is such a lovely city, with a great balance between city life and nature. I loved the convenience of the shopping streets and the lovely independent cafes, which offered great places to study. There were plenty of opportunities to make friends at local social groups and University societies. The Japanese Society was particularly great for making friends while also practicing Japanese, and I often went to the pub socials and the cookie and koucha meetings.

Academically, the course was well-suited to me. It was intense, but the staff were very supportive and understanding, meaning that I could push myself hard while knowing I had my professors and tutors to fall back on when I needed help. There were a lot of interesting classes as well that often appealed to my niche interests, such as gender and sexuality in Japanese literature and Japanese-English translation studies and practice.

Overall, I'm very pleased that I decided to study there.

Tell us about the challenges you faced during the course - the Japanese BA is no walk in the park, is it?

Leeds has a highly intensive Japanese course, particularly in the first year, and I think it would pose a challenge to almost anyone. There is a lot of work to do and you have to be very dedicated to stick with it, but in the end, it's worth it.

I have anxiety and so speaking Japanese was a challenge for me as well. Your speeches and presentations are graded on things like your speed, tone, and eye contact, and I had trouble with maintaining those. However, even though I was so anxious before every speech, it always ended up fine, and the staff were very understanding and just want to help me learn these skills. There are also language exchange opportunities at Leeds, where I got to practice speaking and made Japanese friends at the same time.

Despite my anxiety, I ended up scoring higher on speaking than my other Japanese exams in my final year, which really surprised me.

Before lockdown hit, you were able to spend a year abroad. Tell us about that.

I went to study at Waseda University in Tokyo in my second year. Leeds is one of - if not the only - university in the UK to send BA Japanese students abroad in the second year, a fact I did not even know when I applied!

Moving to a new country is a life-changing experience and I recommend it to anyone. You learn so much about yourself and what you're capable of, and your worldview changes forever. Being only in the second year, my Japanese was not fluent at all, but I believe being immersed in the language and culture in that early stage of my degree forced me to make the necessary leaps in understanding that enriched the rest of my degree. If I ever needed anything, my teachers back at Leeds were always checking in on us and even made a visit to see us in the spring.

My time there was fantastic. I travelled across Japan, to South Korea, and to my favourite place in the world, the southern island of Okinawa. I even got a tattoo on my chest of the red maple leaves to commemorate the first day-trip I had in Japan to the bright red forests of Nikko. I went to hot springs and remote temples. I was immersed in local history. I tasted amazing food. I made friends from all over the world who I still talk to today. I joined my university's LGBT+ club and tea ceremony club, where I spoke no English. I especially enjoyed the exciting hustle and bustle of the huge Japanese cities and exploring every little alleyway of Tokyo after classes were out.

"I didn't expect to be living in Germany after doing a degree in Japanese, but I couldn't be happier!"

Leo McDonagh (Japanese 2020)

How did Covid-19 impact things for you?

The pandemic started just as I was getting to the most crucial part of my degree: the very end of final year. Our last few weeks of lessons had to be conducted online. Our professors tried their absolute best to make the transition easy for us, but as language students, we were used to practicing our Japanese with each other in class a lot, and we couldn't really do that, so that was difficult.

Our final exams were moved online, as well. In-person exams have always caused me a huge amount of anxiety, so in a way, having a bit more time took that pressure off. But to balance that out, the exams were made a lot longer and harder, and I barely left my room! It was also quite strange performing my speaking exam without being able to see my professors' faces.

Perhaps the saddest part was that I could not say goodbye to my professors and classmates that I had spent four years with. The Japanese course is highly intensive, meaning that we spent a lot of time together every week, and it really felt like a family. I had really wanted to thank my professors at graduation for supporting me, as well. Hopefully, I will be able to see them again eventually.

Tell us what you are doing now you have graduated.

In my last year of university, I did a lot of freelance work translating and networking with other translators around the world.

Because of that initial work, I got quite a bit of experience translating and ended up getting some dream projects, from indie video games to manga. For example, I've translated some manga series on LGBT+ topics that are going to be published this summer. It's quite surreal that a book with my name in will soon be sold in Waterstones!

Following my freelancing work, I was offered my dream job translating video games at a famous game company. They sponsored me to move to Frankfurt, Germany. I didn't expect to be living in Germany after doing a degree in Japanese, but I couldn't be happier!

Leo's best of Leeds

Favourite place to eat in Leeds:


Best lunch spot on/near campus:

Pyramid (so cheap!)

Best place to study on campus:


Favourite lecture theatre:

Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre 

Your favourite building on campus:

Brotherton Library

Favourite Yorkshire / Leeds phrase:

Calling people "duck"!

Favourite place you visited whilst here:


Best night in Leeds:

Brudenell Social Club