Monday 2 September 2019

We Need to Talk About Year Abroad Loneliness

Alisa shares the experience of loneliness on a year abroad from herself and her peers   
- Alisa Anwar

3 months of application forms, 7 months of preparation, 2 weeks of goodbyes, and an 8 hour plane journey had finally led to this moment. “Ok…so what now?” I found myself asking as I dragged 2 suitcases into my small humid empty dorm room and closed the door.    

Studying or working abroad for a year or semester is often presented to us as one of the most exciting once in a lifetime opportunities where you will make the most amazing friends, travel to beautiful cities and famous landmarks, and truly experience life as an independent traveller. The sheer competition of the application process in many universities, alongside the presence of travel grants from the UK Government, forces us to feel grateful that we were lucky enough to be part of the ‘selected few.’ We were told that those who study abroad are more likely to achieve 1st class degrees, have greater job opportunities, and produce university work to a much higher standard than their peers who didn’t go abroad. 

Before I was about to embark on 9 months in Canada, I would spend hours scrolling through social media – looking at all of the amazing Instagram posts and Facebook photo albums from those who had spent the last year abroad. It seemed as though they all had the best time. 

I started to think about how I had presented my year abroad to others. A quick scroll through my own social media would reveal that I had fallen into a trap similar to the accounts that I had followed before I left. I have only shown the positives; the amazing trips that I have been fortunate to go on, or the scenic landmarks that I have seen. I have not exposed the downsides to being away from home for a prolonged period of time in a foreign country.  

I currently live in a house of 30 exchange students, so I am surrounded by young people who are living abroad from all across the world. I asked them to note down the aspects of their experience that they have found difficult. These were some their responses. For the purpose of this article many of the following names have been changed for privacy. 

“The time difference makes things more difficult because when it’s quite here in the evenings and I want to call home, everyone else is already asleep.- Susan

“Adapting to the new environment was tricky because the system and workload was so different from my home university in Japan. I also found it difficult to study in a different language as I was so used to learning and conversing in Japanese. It is things like that make me feel detached from my surroundings here”- Felicity

“I had to push myself to get involved with complete strangers, which is very daunting”- Benjamina 

“Honestly, I feel homesick a lot of the time, especially when I see my friends back at home all hanging out together. I feel like I am missing out on lots of fun stuff back in the UK and often find myself spending more time thinking about home than I spent enjoying my time abroad” - Alice

“Being away from my girlfriend is hard and has tested our relationship immensely. Long distance is tough!”- Jack

Now, the purpose of this article is not to dissuade you from going abroad; the purpose is actually the complete opposite. It is simply to provide some reassurance to those who are currently living away from home, and who want to return, that you are not an anomaly in the system. You are not alone in finding the process hard, you aren’t the only one that is experiencing homesickness, or having periods where you regret your decision to live in a foreign country. Most importantly experiencing these things doesn’t mean that you are failing

Understanding how you can help to stop these emotions from ruining your experience of being abroad is really important. If you know you suffer from mental health problems that could impact your time abroad always research mental health facilities available to you at your destination. Simultaneously, remember that you are still part of your home university and can easily access pre-existing support there too. Independent organisations such as ‘Mind’ or ‘ReThink’ are also more than happy to listen to your worries. Try to limit phone calls home to a regular schedule so that you aren’t too reliant on those back in the UK at the expense of you bonding with new friends abroad. However, at the same time be aware that your friends and family are there to support you and you should be open about how you feel to them. Push yourself to fill your week with activities so that you remain occupied. And, finally, don’t be disheartened if you’re finding it hard. 

You can find advice around looking after your wellbeing on a year studying abroad here

My name is Alisa, and I’m a third year International Relations student at Durham University. I am a lover of travel and have spent the last year in Canada for my year abroad. Aside from this I enjoy art, theatre, and music. I am extremely passionate about student welfare and the importance of looking after yourself and your mind when you are abroad. 

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