What can international students do to cope with loneliness?

Orientation day for international students in 2021. Photo: Bart Weerdenburg

Last week, the National Student Association (ISO) and the National Student Union (LSVb) urged the government to pay more attention to the issues faced by international students because of the pandemic. Loneliness was mentioned as a serious and rampant problem.

ISO and LSVb referred to a recent survey by Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, which revealed that nearly 70 per cent of the 115,000 international students in the Netherlands feel lonely to some degree. These results echo the latest International Student Survey, in which 45 per cent of participants said they felt lonely. Some of that loneliness derives from the very fact of being abroad: year after year, this survey confirms that it can be hard to adjust to a new academic culture and make friends with the locals. But the on-again, off-again lockdown can make things worse.

In its latest yearly survey on the housing situation of international students in Utrecht, the International Student Housing Assistance (ISHA) decided to add the topic of loneliness to the questionnaire. Roughly 67 per cent of respondents said they had, indeed, felt lonely since the outbreak of the coronavirus. According to the ISHA report, most international students in Utrecht live alone or have up to two roommates. But even those with roommates might have found themselves home alone in the pandemic, as many international students went back to their home countries for extended periods of time.

“International students have several risk factors for loneliness, including being away from loved ones, novelty (finding yourself in a new situation), not having a network in the new place yet, and feeling different (not fitting in) because of not understanding social codes and norms”, explains Luzia Heu, Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, who conducts research on loneliness across different cultures. “The lockdowns deprive them of one of the solutions, which is meeting new people. Covid rules ask people to restrict their social interactions, keeping them to their own household or close family members. But international students usually don’t have that”.

My life is so boring!

X., a Bachelor’s student of Economics & Business Economics from China, who moved to the Netherlands in 2019 for a pre-bachelor's programme, is a good example. She lives by herself in a studio in one of the Campus 030 buildings at the Utrecht Science Park. She feels a bit different from her European counterparts. “European students are more talkative in class and they like to party, drink lots of beer, and smoke weed. As a general rule, Asian students are more into peace and quiet. Every time I hear the music coming from my neighbours or I can smell the weed through my window, I wonder if I should go join them, but that would be awkward. Then I feel really lonely”, she says.

The first lockdown was, initially, a relief for her. “I’m not a party person. Before the pandemic, my friends were like ‘let’s go, let’s go!’ and I had to say ‘maybe next time, I’m tired’. I didn’t mind the lockdown at first because I like staying home”, she says. But, after a while, solitude gave way to loneliness. “I hate online classes so much! It’s so hard for me to stay focused. I don’t have a lot of friends from the university because so many online classes have been online. Sometimes I would ask a neighbour if I could come over for dinner or to play games, but often I would just stay in bed thinking ‘my life is so boring!’”

Her story also illustrates a distinction that researcher Heu stresses it’s important to make. “Being alone and feeling lonely are not the same thing. Loneliness is about how you feel, it doesn’t need to have anything to do with your relationships or how much time you spend alone. Loneliness is about feeling isolated or misunderstood.”

Despite being someone who enjoys her moments of solitude, X. says it would have been easier to cope with the lockdown if she’d shared an apartment with other students. Juana, from Argentina, who’s pursuing a Master’s in Epidemiology, can attest to that. When she first moved to the Netherlands, in June 2020, she had two roommates who were never home. “I've since moved houses. Now I live with three girls, one of whom was my friend before I moved. The country went on lockdown right after I’d moved here, so I was happy because it made such a difference to be around friends.”

I said yes even to things that were not usually my cup of tea

When loneliness strikes hard, both X. and Juana do the same thing: take their phones and video call their parents. “Being away from my parents is one of the main reasons that I feel lonely. Talking to them helps a lot, even though it’s just a video call”, says X. “In the beginning, I would call my mom every night just because I was bored”, says Juana.

But, of course, calling your parents only brings relief to a certain extent. In addition to that, international students must “put themselves out there”, in the words of Juana. Despite the coronavirus restrictions, she did her best to meet as many people as possible. That’s why she said yes to absolutely every invitation that came her way. “I’ve said yes even to things that were not usually my cup of tea, just because I had no other opportunity to make friends. I’m glad I did that. There were people I never saw again because we didn’t have that much in common, but it was good to put myself out there. Otherwise, I would have been stuck inside”.

She met some of her best friends that way. “One of my really good friends is someone who sent an invitation on the WhatsApp group of my study programme and I was the only one who showed up. In the beginning, we were like ‘oh, it’s just two people’, but it was actually great because we got the chance to get to know each other”.

But that’s not all. Juana recommends also giving others things to say yes to. “Don’t be afraid to be the one who initiates things. It’s easy to say ‘oh, nobody invites me for anything’, but you can also invite people to things! As an international student, you just have to take the risk of being rejected sometimes”, she ponders.

One of the people Juana said yes to was doing precisely that. Dutch Bachelor’s student Wobke was having a lonely evening when she posted on a Facebook group for international students, asking if anybody would be interested in starting a dinner club. As an English Language & Culture major, she figured there would certainly be other English-speaking students in the group interested in meeting new people. “I thought only four or five people would answer me. I got 44 replies”, she says.

After the surprising amount of replies, Wobke made a WhatsApp group and divided everyone interested into subgroups of about five people. She and Juana ended up in the same group. The first dinner took place last week.

eenzaamheid-student-010.jpgPhoto: Shutterstock

It’s only human

Researcher Luzia Heu stresses that those feeling lonely should refrain from blaming themselves. “Loneliness is inherent to human life, it’s only human to get lonely sometimes”, she explains. Her series of videos on loneliness featuring people from Austria, Bulgaria, Israel, Egypt, and India demonstrate just how universal the feeling is. Despite all the cultural differences between the participants, one cannot help but notice all the similarities in the testimonials.

However, Heu warns, “one thing is situational loneliness, such as the one felt after breaking up with a romantic partner, which is perfectly normal; another thing is chronic loneliness, which is when people feel constantly lonely or feel lonely for a long time. That needs to be addressed by intervention. Some people think that all lonely people need is more contact with others, but that is not always the case. For some people, other things work better than social gatherings, like individual therapy, spending time with solitary activities they enjoy or reading about a character experiencing the same as them. In fact, if people don’t feel understood by peers in the first place, social contact with random others may exacerbate loneliness because they will just be reminded of not fitting in”. In that case, Heu elucidates, what would really help them is having someone with whom they feel truly understood, accepted or appreciated. “Unfortunately, there isn’t always such a person in their lives”.

Heu also notes that loneliness can be particularly hard for young people because they’re having their first experiences with it. “The more experiences you have, the more you understand what those feelings are about, why you’re getting them, what you need, and how to take care of yourself. The first time you feel lonely, you might think there is something wrong with you or your relationships, while the second, third or fourth time down the road, you’ll have learned that it sometimes doesn’t have anything to do with your relationships. You’re just overwhelmed by a new situation, for example”.

Wobke, who struggled with depression throughout her adolescence, is an example of that. “My depression was kind of solved by the time the pandemic broke out, and then things came back all over again. My first year of studies was completely online and I was sharing a flat with my landlord, with no roommates. It was really hard, I was just alone in my room all the time, with no reason to go out other than for groceries. Looking back, I’m amazed that I got through that period… But because I had been through that before, I recognised the signs when I started getting really sad… The calm before the storm, you know? That’s when I’d call my parents or ask one of my friends to sleep over, back when we were allowed to have just one visitor at a time”.

If the root of your loneliness is something that cannot be addressed right now, such as missing your family or having to follow online classes, Heu recommends keeping in mind that this, too, shall pass. Meanwhile, you can try to ease the pain by getting busy. “That doesn’t work for everyone, but many of my research participants have mentioned engaging in hobbies or being outside in nature as much as possible”, says Heu. “You can also see this phase as an opportunity to build a better relationship with yourself. Last but not least, remember what motivates you in life. If finishing your degree abroad is something that’s really important to you, then it’s easier to accept the loneliness that sometimes comes with it”.

Feeling lonely?
There are several initiatives that can help international students struggling with loneliness. You can start by following the Instagram page of UU’s Warm Welcome team, where you’ll get to know more about the city and student life, and be notified of events where English-speaking students can socialise. Then, you can take advantage of the fact that cafés and restaurants are allowed to operate again and visit Paranassos' CultUUr café, open from Monday to Friday. In addition, the Utrecht Science Park will soon be getting a living room for students, with the goal to facilitate encounters. If you prefer deep one-on-one conversations, UU Walks, an initiative pairing up students so they can go for a walk together, is a good option for you.

You can also connect with ESN Utrecht, the non-profit for international students, and BuddyGoDutch, a buddy programme connecting Dutch students with international students. Downloading the apps MeetUp and HeyVina! (for women only) can help you meet new people as well.

But if what you need is someone to talk about your feelings and frustrations, you can schedule an appointment with UU’s student psychologist or make use of the anonymous chat service of student wellbeing organisation Frisse Gedachtes. Perhaps you’d also be interested in joining UU’s wellbeing workshops or the Meditation Lab. Last but not least, sports can do wonders for your mental health. Remember that if you have an Olympus pass, your subscription has been extended by a month, for free.