Making diverse, meaningful relationships and positively handling loneliness
The transition to university is a very exciting time for all students, but it is even more so for students who are leaving their home country to study in a different cultural setting. The barriers to settling in can, however, be quite challenging. Often students put an emphasis on settling in academically and perhaps on integrating with a limited number of other students from their home country. University though offers so much more.
From my research with graduates who studied in the West, many expressed that they wished they met more people from different cultures and had strategies to overcome times of loneliness. On graduating they realised that if they had gone beyond their comfort zone they would have emerged with a greater range of transferable skills that would have impressively impacted their studies, their personality, their career and ultimately their life.
In this article the focus will be on how to make positive relationships beyond your comfort zone at university, what you should look for in friendships and what the warning signs are in a dysfunctional relationship. We will also explore how to navigate times of solitude at university so that you emerge through periods of loneliness with a vibrant and resilient sense of self-worth and purpose.
Get involved in clubs and societies
At university you have many opportunities to try new activities or to re-engage with interests that you previously participated in at school or at home. Western universities have a plethora of clubs, societies, sports teams and volunteer opportunities. A key benefit around them is that you will meet a range of different people who share similar interests as you but who are not necessarily studying the same subject as you. This significantly widens your social network within the university enabling you to gain a much broader social perspective. It has a positive impact on your self-regard, and the connections and friends you make through various clubs and committees may well be useful to you in your career or in other aspects of your development. So, whether you have an interest in Rowing, Chess, Model United Nations, looking after homeless animals or anything else that takes your fancy, grab the opportunity to try the clubs out and don’t wait for people to come and enroll you.
Tip: Engage in societies and clubs in the first few weeks when you are fresh and open to new ideas. Your daily routines are not yet established in your university life and thus it is much easier to onboard into new ventures at the beginning of the year.
You can read more about university clubs and their inherent benefits here and here.
Develop communication skills
Communicating is not about having native levels of English language fluency. In fact, there is a fair amount of scientific evidence that suggests the majority of personable communication is transferred through the eyes and through body language. If you do not feel comfortable introducing yourself to others, then practice at home with trusted friends and family. Simple things such as a firm handshake (but not too firm), looking the other person in the eye when you introduce yourself and clearly stating, with a smile, your name, what you’re studying, where you’re from and what you’re interested in makes a good first impression. Continuing to keep eye contact when others are telling you about themselves is important too as we all enjoy experiencing someone who is actively listening to us. Also, smile and enjoy others’ company knowing that if you do, they will more likely enjoy your company too.
Remember too that in university you are dealing with many different cultures and etiquettes which may at the beginning appear alien to you. Be respectful, considerate and kind, and most importantly of all, be yourself. If you make a “faux pas” but are respectful, then, in almost all cases, nothing more will be thought of it. One final point to be aware of is that you can’t get on with everybody – sometimes friendships click sometimes they don’t. If one doesn’t, brush it off and move on.
Tip: Soft eye contact helps you concentrate on the other (rather than on yourself) and supports you against pangs of social anxiety. And remember, you will find friends who interest you – but only if you make the effort to get out and communicate!
Dale Carnegie wrote a classic book about how to win friends and accumulate influence (Carnegie, 1937). If you read it, you will learn how to make people relate to you and a fair amount about the culture of doing business in the West too.
How to overcome loneliness
One of the realities of moving away from home is that your immediate support network (parents, family, close friends) is not close at hand, although they are often there for you virtually. When starting out at university, or indeed anywhere away from the comforts of home, it is normal to feel lonely at times. This can become problematic to your mental health if you begin to experience extended periods of loneliness and isolation. In such cases, the most important thing to do is to speak to people you trust and let them know what you are experiencing and how you are feeling. Universities also have counsellors at hand who will be empathetic towards you and will have experience of guiding international students through the challenges of settling in and making friends. One important point to remember is that although others can help and will help, the initiative to reach out and make change needs to come from you.
Tip: See the process of making change as part of a natural learning curve and as a chance to build your own inner resilience.
A good US university website with a resilience model for international students is here.
Also, an award-winning UK university-based project that sheds light on loneliness and other mental health topics is here.
Finally, a practical app that is designed to support the self-care of international students in the UK is here.
Learning to face time alone constructively
When we learn, grow and develop, we do need to spend some time alone to reflect on the changes we are experiencing through transitional phases of our life. Reflecting effectively is an active process of first slowing down and pausing so that we can:
(i) observe things as they truly are;
(ii) acknowledge and give thanks for what is going well (and there are always positives);
(iii) consider changes we may like or need to make; and then
(iv) strategize how we may move ahead.
Such a process requires some form of solitude to accomplish.
There are various techniques for reflection that you can use. Mindfulness is one, and there are a range of apps available that can support you in this. (Here is a science-based programme from the University of Wisconsin-Madison).
Another form of reflection that is effective, especially if you are disciplined in its practice, is journaling. The strength of journaling is that it facilitates the process of formulating your ideas, and as a student you will appreciate that formalized thought (i.e. writing) is the highest form of thinking. You may read more about the benefits of constructive journaling here.\
Tip: Self-authoring your future for the next 3 to 5 years is a powerful way to vision what your life can be like at its best. Many students have benefited from defining their future goals and aspirations in the first few weeks at university by using the future authoring programme here.
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with…
Self -reflection also enables you to become more aware of your intrinsic needs and wants. It helps you to understand and come to terms with who you are and who you are becoming. With this in mind, it is also worth reflecting on the quote by Jim Rohn, that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. If you consider the principle of the quote, it highlights the importance of the relationships and friendships you choose to develop and nurture at university. It also points to being aware of how you are in those relationships and what are your expectations and needs from your close friends. There is a very good chapter in “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” (Peterson, 2018) that explores the qualities of good friendship and the signs and pitfalls of picking friends who are unhealthy for you.
Tip: Make friends at university with people who want the very best for you.
Identifying abusive and unhealthy relationships
Not everyone we come across in life does have our best interests at heart. And it is possible that some relationships are or can take an unhealthy turn towards a form of abuse. Abusive relationships are when one person tries to dominate the other emotionally (threats, insults, constant criticism, isolation, intimidation), physically (assaulting the body), sexually (any form of sexual touching that you have not consented to), or financially (controlling your cash, bank accounts etc). Abusive relationships often emerge over time and the initial signs of abuse can be quite subtle. If you are being abused you may hope things will get better. They rarely do. If you are concerned that you are involved in any relationship (whether it is with a partner, a friend, a professor, or a relation) in which some of the symptoms described above or here are manifesting then you should seek support from the university support services or health care providers on campus immediately.
Tip: Get out of unhealthy relationships and immediately seek professional help if you are experiencing abuse.
Many students who come from overseas and from different cultures do settle in and make friends with a range of different people and have a wonderful and successful time at university. I am sure you will too! If you take the advice above and nurture healthy, positive and diverse friendships you will enjoy university more and you will be far less likely to give up when times get difficult. Why? Because you will have made a support network that celebrates your achievements and empathizes with you in your challenges. Furthermore, you are far less likely to feel a sense of failure when small things go wrong because you will be grounded in reality through your own developing sense of self-awareness and purpose. You will have a wide range of activities you’re engaged in that gives back to you fresh energy and a sense of perspective. And you will have a solid friendship network who you can lean on, knowing that they have your best interests at heart.
Copyright Ⓒ Juvenis Maxime 2023
Author: Susie Gordon