‘Stuck in the middle’: What it’s like to be an international student right now

While the uni experience is unforgettable, it is also heavily romanticised

Exploring a different culture, making friends from all over the world, becoming a “citizen of the world”, getting away from home, and “finding yourself” – sounds ideal, right?

Except that this is not all there is to the international student experience. No one ever tells you that no matter where you are, you will constantly be thinking of your other “home”; stuck between two places while not quite knowing where you truly belong. It’s safe to assume that while the uni experience is unforgettable (and some nights are difficult to remember), it is also heavily romanticised.

That being said, it’s not all philosophical discussions with older guys in dim bars or movie nights at Quilliam’s. It’s also falling asleep on the floor of the Robbo, massive hangovers and mixing energy drinks with sleeping pills during the exam period. On top of the chaotic experience that is the first year of uni, international students also deal with periods of feeling extremely homesick.

Not to say that home students don’t feel this way too – but going back “home” whenever we feel like it isn’t really an option for us international students. While studying abroad obviously has its benefits, some light needs to be shed on the not-so-fun parts of this experience. Besides the well-known FOMO and culture shock, there are also the little things like hearing your mum’s favourite song in a café and wishing you could jump on a plane and hug her, missing your country’s comfort food, your best friend’s voice or even the run-on-the-mill things (seriously, every time I go to Lidl I get homesick because it reminds me of my hometown).

No one can prepare you for these moments. Still, I may be a little biased since I had only visited London before starting uni in Newcastle and my perception of the UK was heavily distorted. I fantasised about British boys in overcoats (too much Peaky Blinders, right?), study dates in the park and taking the Eurostar to Paris on the weekend. It’s safe to say that I didn’t expect the constant rain, the drunk lads in Soho or barely having time to take the metro to Tynemouth. Still, as cliché as it may sound, I wouldn’t change a thing. If my uni experience had actually been like the romanticised reality I had daydreamed about, Newcastle wouldn’t have felt like home. Between the breakdowns, the hangovers and the regrets, I made a home out of this city.

And then the pandemic happened. I am aware that everyone is going through a difficult period, and that my problems may seem insignificant compared to others, but they feel very real to me. Last year, my internal conflicts revolved around what snack would go best with my meal deal. This year I had to decide whether I would go back home to Romania and do uni remotely from home, or stick the situation out in Newcastle.

On one hand, I had to consider that the UK could go into lockdown at any given time and that I would have to self-isolate for four weeks if I wanted to go home for Christmas. I changed my mind about this multiple times a day because the current situation is more uncertain than Newcastle’s weather.

On the other hand, I felt like it was my duty to stay in Newcastle, and I couldn’t help but think that my high school self would disapprove of my choice. No matter what I decided, I would be missing one of my homes and, more importantly, my family, be it my flesh-and-blood or my new-found uni friends. Now that I have decided to go back home to Romania and I am at peace with my choice, it all sounds way too dramatic, but last week it felt like I had to make my own Sophie’s Choice.

The situation may be grim, friends may be missed, and rent may still be paid although I am not in Newcastle but in spite of all of these factors, I am grateful. I may feel like I am split between two places for the rest of my life, but I am also lucky enough to have something worth being missed.

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