Are exchange students lonely?

From right to left: Malin Kvamsdal, Lili Mena, María Boyero Merino, Victhoria Marie Nordahl Photo: James Alexander
STUDENT HEALTH AND WELL-BEING

In the autumn of 2018, a huge examination of Norwegian student’s health and wellbeing (SHoT-undersøkelsen) found that 1 out of 3 students often or very often feel lonely. Fædrelandsvennen reported in January that UiA hosts courses for their international employees about Norwegian work culture and society. The title of the article was “I have never experienced a place where it is more difficult to get to know people”. The article mentions that many, also international students in Agder, struggle with feeling isolated. This brings forth the question: What do the exchange students at UiA think about this?

COFFEE HOUR

Every Tuesday, ESN Agder arranges Coffee hour in the staff cafeteria at UiA. Here, students can meet, get free waffles, tea, coffee and socialize. Lotte Westhoff and Romy van Hiel from Netherland are both studying Hotel Management. Questioned if they thought there was a problem that international students are lonely, they both explained that there are many opportunities to meet and make friends.
– We came here together, so we always have each other, but I think when you come here alone you could be lonely. But if you try to make friends, like in coffee hour, I think there are a lot of opportunities to make friends, said Westhoff.

Romy van Hiel and Lotte Westhoff from the Netherlands Photo: Private

– I think that in the group that we arrived in, everyone has some friends. So, I don’t think the problem is here now amongst exchange students. ESN, I think, is working hard to try to get everyone to join activities, added van Hiel.

They both agreed that it is more difficult to get to know Norwegian students than other exchange students.
– I think it is because, as exchange students, you arrive at the same time, so you are kind of in the same situation. And everyone comes out of their comfort zone, so it’s easier to talk to each other. Because Norwegian students already have their friends here, I think that’s different, said van Hiel.

A BIT SHY

In the article in Fædrelandsvennen, Norwegians are mentioned as private people, and one was quoted saying they would have liked to have seen more warmth. The two exchange students didn’t agree completely with the stereotype that Norwegians are cold and shy.

– Maybe not cold, but a bit shy to take the first step to introduce themselves. That’s the hardest part. But if you talk to them, I think they are really warm, explained Westhoff.

– Yeah, and it really depends, because we have a few courses were Norwegian students asked us to join a group. So, I think it varies per person, answered van Hiel.

They both had the same answer on what the biggest culture difference they encountered in Norway was.

– We are from the Netherlands and we are always very direct. It’s in our culture, so I think that’s the difference, said Westhoff.

– But it’s not as bad as we expected, added van Hiel.

EXPECTED NORWEGIANS TO BE CLOSED

Jon Olaizola from Spain studies to be primary school teacher, and he also had something to say about loneliness amongst exchange students.

Jon Olaizola from Spain. Photo: Irene Olaizola

– ESN prepares a lot of different activities, so we have a lot of opportunities to come, be with friends and to meet new people. This way I don’t feel alone. It’s different, because, in Spain I used to go to a lot of activities in the same day. So, when I’m here and leave university, I go to my room and I feel a little bit alone. But then, in the other way, I think that we have a lot of activities and a lot of opportunities to come, get involved in Norwegian culture and to meet new people, said Olaizola.

He further explains that he expected people in Norway to be more closed before he got here, but that he was positively surprised. Especially after joining the student orchestra Blæsen.

– Before coming here, I listen to people saying, “Norwegian people are closed”. But it turned out they weren’t so closed as I imagined before coming here. For instan, members of this orchestra, they are so open and so funny. They try to make you feel good and part of the group. So, in a way they are a little bit closed, but they are also very kind, explained Olaizola.

A PROBLEM IF ANY STUDENT FEELS LONELY

Mette Høgbråt Pedersen, International Coordinator at UiA, also answered questions about lonely exchange students. She said that UiA currently has 144 international exchange students, and that the number of international students attending UiA has increased steadily over the last couple of years. At the question if she considered loneliness amongst international students to be a problem, she answered:

Mette Høgbråt Pedersen Photo: UiA

– It is a problem if any student feels lonely at UiA. So, I think we really have to say that this concerns all students at our university. We are attentive if international students experience culture shock, but culture shock might as well happen to someone coming from the north of Norway, said Høgbråt Pedersen.

Pedersen also explains that loneliness amongst students is an international problem.

– It is a common problem internationally as well. Loneliness is a common tendency when I speak to international contacts, told Høgbråt Pedersen.

FRIENDS FOR LIFE

Høgbråt Pedersen also adds that of course the international students are in a special situation, since many may have travelled very far away from their homes, families, and come to a new place with no network. Of course, the International Education Office, the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) and staff at UiA’s faculties try their best to make them settle in as best as possible. In addition, exchange students can get support from SiA Health, just as all other students.

As Høgbråt Pedersen further explains, international students get good information about Norwegian culture, but she adds that it needs to go both ways, namely that Norwegian students need to take interest in the exchange students as well.

– Norwegian students shouldn’t be afraid to talk to our international students and shouldn’t be afraid to use English. It is also important to remember to use English and not Norwegian in a study group with international students who do not know the language. Getting to know our international students gives you so much back, explains Høgbråt Pedersen.

Concludingly, she talked about the stereotypes of Norwegians being cold and reserved.

– I get feedback from many international students that do not experience this, but rather they find many Norwegians as very polite and helpful. However, they say that Norwegians can seem a little shy at first, which may give us the reputation as cold, but once they get to know us, they have friends for life, said Høgbråt Pedersen.

Written by: Victhoria Nordahl | Photos by: James Alexander, Private, Irene Olaizola

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