It’s so lonely being an international student

I feel like everything is lost in translation

Inclusion is a primordial emotional necessity; we crave to be accepted within a group and if not then we’re lonely. Now, imagine you are an international student going abroad to study: it’s the first time being on your own; no more hiding behind your mother’s skirt, and instantly you need to learn how to handle yourself.

But it’s more than just your financial independence you need to worry about, because you are miles and miles from everyone you’ve ever known: parents, siblings, best friends, your boyfriend or girlfriend. Without any of them, something does not feel right. Without any of them, you’re alone.

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Completely independently, internationals have to face unprecedented concepts in everyday student life, meet new and diverse people, face cultures that they don’t fully understand the ins and outs of and essentially change a way of life they have been living since birth. It is an intriguing challenge especially with an added language barrier, and it’s isolating as hell.

People deal with it in different ways, you have the social butterflies for example: individuals that prefer to socialise with everyone and not restrain themselves from unconscious biases and predilections set by their culture. Those individuals might even be friends of yours and that inclines you to wonder, how do they do it when it’s so difficult? How do they know how to strike a balance between comfort and opening up? It takes a lot of confidence.

There are also the people who group with their nationalities. Luckily they had a few acquaintances they knew from back home or made some new superficial ones from Facebook groups they joined before leaving home. They have someone in person to have a conversation with in their maternal language and then gradually reacquire the feeling of inclusion again that way and rarely talk to people outside of those groups.

Finally, you have recluses, people who stay in their rooms all day and don’t even speak to anyone because they’re either too scared or they’re concentrating on their education. These are the people that have already booked tickets for Christmas to go back home and cannot wait to return. Unfortunately, they are also not embracing the present with their time at university and they are therefore missing out on so much.

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Credit: Mihnea Ungureanu

To add insult to injury, these are also the people that are recognised as weird and antisocial by natives of the country. Ask yourself: if you were put in the same situation, where everything you did was lost in translation, would you not feel the same? Would you not be terrified every day to go out and live your life?

Everyone is special in their own unique way and ideally, there’s nothing stopping us from being open to everything but remaining attached to nothing, while simultaneously being open to the possibility of being attached to, say, a club or a social group. Your nationality is a big part of who you are and in most cases, will prevail in terms of customs, but nevertheless what is more beautiful is the opportunity of being both proactive and reactive. To internationals I say be proud of where you come from but be willing to learn about the cultures of the people revolving around you, or face being alone during term time.

Once a friend told me that he envied the fact that I was studying abroad and I asked him why. He replied by saying that you can create long lasting friendships with people from all over the world and one day you will go and visit them; whereas all my friends are here and I will never have the chance get out of my comfort zone because I am stuck here. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

From experience, what substantially demotivates people are their unconscious biases and predilections. Therefore the sole thing people have to do is try to overcome their fears, which eventually will give them a further incentive to continue trying, until they reach the point they are no longer afraid of blending in but standing out as personalities.

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Lancaster University