Kukka (22) spent a whole semester abroad. After no more than a month, she was met with a feeling of loneliness. At one point, it got so bad she bursted out in tears during a presentation because she felt so sad. Eventually, Kukka found a way to deal with her loneliness and started to feel better. ‘It’s super important to not carry all the bad feelings by yourself’, she says.

Studying in a new country can be challenging sometimes. As an international student, you don’t always know what to do, where to go and how to manage your feelings. But Wellness Wednesday is here to help. Do you need a boost of energy, some quick tips on how to get your life together or are you in need of some good advice? Every Wednesday there will be a series of lifestyle articles posted on 21bis. Mindfulness, relaxation, food and exercise: we have it all. With our ideal tips and tricks, you will come a long way. Make sure to visit this website and follow us on our Instagram page: ‘weare21bis’ to stay up-to-date. Get ready to brighten up your day! And now onto the article: loneliness amongst students.

In the beginning of the schoolyear, Kukka spent a semester in Belgium, but it didn’t go as planned: ‘The loneliness that I was experiencing made me feel like I wasn’t even living my own life. It felt like I was living some other person’s life instead of my own. I was completely lost.’

‘Studying in Mechelen for the autumn semester of 2018 was emotionally difficult for me sometimes, because it was the first time that I moved away from my parents. It was so odd for me to be separated from my normal life, routines and family’, Kukka recalls her first month in Belgium, ‘My Erasmus was so much fun in the beginning. I had new things to discover and different events to go to, but after that first month, I started to miss everything from my home country: My dogs, friends, family. Even the Finnish language and the food.’

To put everything in perspective, I sat down with the student services of Thomas More Mechelen. Elhasbia Zayou, head of student services, explained me more about loneliness amongst students and what they do to include international students like Kukka: ‘First of all, we start the semester with welcome days for all the international students at our school. We give them practical information, like numbers of student services and the international support team. Besides that, exchange students can also request a buddy for the semester. The buddy can pick them up at the airport, help them find their way around Mechelen or go for drinks. We know students are at a big risk of suffering from loneliness, so that’s why we focus on broadening their network.’

‘Some international students get along with their buddy really well or find some other people they trust. Others miss their family and friends from their home town’, Zayou explains, ‘Luckily, we have technology like Skype nowadays so students can keep in touch with their loved ones.’

‘I continually talked with my family members and boyfriend, so I felt part of their everyday life, even though I wasn’t physically there’, Kukka says, ‘My boyfriend and I planned Skype dates. Yes, dates. My international friends always laughed at me, because it was so funny to call a Skype-call a date. But it was so nice and made me feel better.’

‘On Erasmus, you meet a lot of new people, but it’s hard to decide who are good friends to share your real thought of life with.’

Lieselotte Heymans, also an employee at student services, joined the conversation as well: ‘What’s really important is that there are different kinds of loneliness. Emotional loneliness is the lack of a close and affective bond with someone. Social loneliness is the lack of contact with friends and family.’

Kukka mostly suffered from emotional loneliness: ‘For me, it was difficult to build deeper connections with people and to this day, I still don’t know why. Normally, I’m a very social person and I usually make friends really easily. On Erasmus, you meet a lot of new people, but it’s hard to decide who are good friends to share your real thought of life with.’

‘At times, loneliness can be invisible. You could be really lonely while there are many people around you. You could go to bars with friends, take initiative and be really social. But still, something is missing’, Zayou describes the extreme situations in loneliness, ‘The other extreme is that someone will completely shut down. They won’t leave their room anymore, talk to their friends and cancel all of their plans. Of course, there are different levels in loneliness. You could lean towards one extreme or towards the other. When a person completely shuts down because of loneliness, it’s noticeable and friends or family can act towards it. If a student acts like nothing is wrong, it’s really hard to know something’s up.’

‘I could have so much fun and feel good, but then the realisation of going back to my depressive dorm room and being there alone would hit me and I’d feel sad again.’

‘I pushed myself to go out with people, even though I sometimes didn’t want to. I’m a really open person, so I talked to some of my friends about it. Because they knew how I was feeling, I received a lot of support’, Kukka didn’t separate herself from friends and social contact, but still had a difficult time: ‘I could go out with other exchange students and it would be so fun and I felt good. But then the realisation of going back to my depressive dorm room and being there alone would hit me and I’d feel sad again.’

‘When I was in a really bad place, I began making new routines. A weekly schedule helped me a lot.’ Kukka gets into detail about what made her feel better while staying in Mechelen, ‘For instance, on Mondays, I’d enjoy a cup of coffee in the afternoon while doing a crossword-puzzle. In the evening, I’d go to spinning classes. On Wednesdays, I’d do my laundry. Eventually, I found the perfect balance and started enjoying my life in Mechelen.’

‘In Finland, we always sit down to face people and speak openly about how our life is going, so not really having a good friend who you could trust and talk to was really hard in the beginning. Every day, it was the usual ‘Hi, how are you?’ to which people always responded ‘I’m good!’ It’s really easy to go out with your Erasmus friend and have fun, but in the long run, you need good friends by your side. I was lucky to have found a lovely friend. We had so many deep conversations and nice chill outs. Those are the moments I miss most about Belgium.’

‘A lot of the time, someone will try to tell you something, but after only five minutes you’ll be scrolling through your Instagram.’

‘It’s really important to seek real contact with another person, ask them how they are really doing and actually mean it. Everybody’s always so busy with their classes, phones and social media’, Zayou adds, ‘You really have to take your time to listen to how someone’s feeling. A lot of the time, someone will try to tell you something, but after only five minutes you’ll be scrolling through your Instagram and not really paying attention anymore. Imagine finally finding the guts to open up to somebody about how bad you’re feeling and that person is constantly on his phone. You don’t want to tell your story when someone’s not really interested. That’s how people become lonely, when they feel like nobody wants to take the time to listen to them.’

If you’re going on Erasmus in the future of if you’re going to live in a dorm, Kukka has one more tip for you: ‘Look for a dorm with a private room, but a shared kitchen. This is the perfect way to get to know your dormmates. Eating alone isn’t fun at all. I became good friends with my dormmates and could always knock on someone’s door when I was feeling really down.’

If you’re experiencing any kind of struggles, whether it be loneliness, homesickness, sadness or if you’re in the need of a talk, don’t be scared to contact student services. They’ll gladly sit down with you and listen to you.

If you like our Wellness Wednesday series, be sure to check out our previous article: 3 typical Belgian recipes.

Text and featured image: © Janne Schellingen