The theme of stress for Mental Health Awareness Week this week is something which every single student around the world has undoubtedly dealt with in some form or another. With all the many bonuses of being an international student, the territory does come with its fair share of stumbling blocks, too.
Here are five significant causes of stress international students can experience at university that domestic students just don’t have to deal with – or at least not in the same way – and how you can tackle them.
1. Language barriers
Studying in an unfamiliar language? Congratulations! That’s a pretty ballsy move but one thousands of students dare to do – and do successfully – every single year.
That’s not to say, sadly, that it doesn’t come with the occasional stress. Not being able to interact with and confide in your peers in your mother tongue can be draining, and paired with the anxiety some students feel around sounding silly if they say something wrong, can’t remember a word or really cannot communicate what they want to, it can be a struggle.
Even if you are speaking your native language, some things are just not the same. An American student in the UK, for example, might have quite a shock when they order chips and get fries or ask to borrow their flatmates’ pants they’ve been eying up and are met with some rather strange looks.
What you can do: Besides the obvious ‘brush up on your language skills’, there are many things you can do to help with this. For one, as scary as it may seem, throwing yourself into situations where you cannot cling on to others who speak your language can really help.
Yes, it is likely to feel mighty stressful at the time, but it’ll help improve your communication skills and every time, it will feel even just a little bit less scary.
Worst-case scenario: You can’t remember the word for ‘temperature’ but desperately need cold and flu medicine so end up spluttering over the pharmacist.
More likely scenario: You look it up on your phone and show the pharmacist, who gives you the medicine, and you both go on with your day merrily.
2. Culture shock
Wooooow – hold up, things are pretty different here. The people are so friendly I can’t walk down the street without 40 people saying hi to me, the supermarket doesn’t appear to sell anything I eat and the weather is just darn confusing (make up your mind, weather!)
Culture shock can hit you at any time studying abroad and be a very isolating and disorientating experience for many students.
What you can do: Give yourself time to adapt. Of course it’s different from home – it’s not home! But there will be things you find you love about your new country just as much as, if not more than, things you love about home. Be patient and be kind to yourself, sometimes these things just take time.
Worst-case scenario: You decide you don’t fit in in this new environment so don’t see what it has to offer, closing yourself off to all its exciting hidden treasures.
More likely scenario: It takes a while to adjust – things are different here! – but when you do, you realise your new country has hundreds of amazing things about it just like home, as well of hundreds of awesome things you would never find at home, making each experience more special and unique.
Okay, so domestic students get homesick too but there’s something quite different about your home being a 13-hour flight and hundreds of dollars away, as opposed to an hour or two across the country. Knowing you can’t just pop home for the weekend – or if you can, not at ease – can feel pretty scary.
What you can do: Reach out to other international students who probably feel the exact same way you do. It’s clichéd but true: a problem shared is a problem halved. You’re likely to feel a weight lifted if you share your woes with someone who just gets it in a way most other people wouldn’t.
Speak to family and friends back home, hold onto those memories, but don’t allow them to take over your new life abroad or you won’t be able to make new memories!
Worst-case scenario: You spend the next few years longing for nothing but home, escaping there in your mind and pretending you are there, stopping you from experiencing university properly.
More likely scenario: You realise how lucky you are to have a home which you love so much, it hurts to say goodbye to, and learn that it is likely to feel the exact same when you leave your university country. Home will always be there, and you know that. You make the most out of every day during your university years because you know, deep down, you’ll be homesick for there too if you move back home.
4. High expectations
Whether its high expectations of your new country, the course, all the cool people you’re going to meet or of your academic success, considering what a large investment you have made by studying abroad, you’re likely to want to ‘do it right’.
If you or your parents have spent a huge amount of money to allow you to study abroad – which is highly likely – you and your family probably expect a lot. The idea is often that upon graduation, you will be able to secure a high-paid job and maybe even help support your family.
If you feel like your grades aren’t quite what you want them to be, or life isn’t quite how you pictured it, the disappointment and shame can cause you to put huge amounts of pressure and stress on yourself. No one wants to disappoint their family, no one wants to fail.
What you can do: Remember you are only human and cannot be expected to do everything right. So don’t hold yourself to ridiculous standards whether these are imposed by your family or yourself.
Worst-case scenario: You put so much pressure on yourself, you burn out and miss the grades you and your parents wanted you to get. You decide nothing is like you thought it would be so it’s all wrong! You sulk and end up having a pretty bad experience just because it doesn’t match what you expected.
More likely scenario: You learn what a healthy amount of pressure is, and what is causing you to stress out so much you’re disadvantaging yourself. You work hard and make your parents proud. No matter what you expected, and what it’s like compared to that fantasy, you accept it for what it is, and fall in love with this version of things even more than the one you had in your head.
It’s a brave and bold decision, deciding to study abroad; one which shows a lot of strength of character, whether you feel strong or not. You go to a country, often without knowing a soul there, and start everything anew, without family or friends nearby for support. It’s bound to get a little lonely sometimes.
What you can do: Sign up for clubs and societies, speak to people before and after lectures and in your accommodation and say YES when someone invites you out – for every one friend you make, there’s bound to be another three waiting around the corner (sometimes, quite literally!)
Stay in touch with home where you can but be wary of allowing all your happiness and social contact to come through a screen.
Worst-case scenario: You sit in your room with no friends and video-call family and friends back home constantly and sob into photographs from home when they are sleeping (time difference can be a bummer).
More likely scenario: You get yourself out there and make friends for life from all over the world. You chat with people from home on video once or twice a week because you want to stay in touch regularly but are so busy with your new friends, you sometimes forget how much you miss your old ones.