Study abroad: Homesick blues? Banish those fears

Students and parents can rest assured that European universities go out of their way to support freshers and help them to settle in

Mention the term pastoral care and most people think of schools and
colleges, but it can be just as important at university level – no more so than
when you’re going overseas to study.

“When prospective students and their parents from the UK contact us, they often ask what happens if they wind up suffering from the blues, homesickness, money worries or anxiety about their course or career prospects. Understandably, they want reassurance that they’ll be safe and happy,” says Marie Vivas, director of admissions at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany.

Parents, she says, tend to imagine that pastoral care in Europe is not as effective as in the UK. “But in fact there’s more of an emphasis on it. After all, at our university, we have 75 per cent international students, who naturally tend to have greater pastoral needs than domestic students,” she says.

The first fear parents have is about language, she reports. “‘How is my child going to manage and talk to people?’ they ask. They also worry about medical care. ‘What happens in an emergency?’ Then come the safety issues. ‘Will my child be safe on campus? Are drugs and alcohol a problem?’ And finally there are the emotional issues. ‘What happens if they don’t settle in or are dying to come home?’”

To answer these questions, the university provides an orientation week for new students and their parents during the last week of August.

“During this time, parents stay on campus and attend parent workshops, where they get to meet different staff members – careers services, academic and peer advisers and psychologists, among others,” Vivas adds. “For parents who can’t make it, we send out a PowerPoint presentation. We also work with the students in this week on their most common concerns. And we invite banks and medical insurance companies to explain their programmes.”

Once term has started, the university sends out a letter every fortnight, each covering one of the most prevalent fears. “These letters are posted on facebook, as well as a portal where incoming students and parents can view them,” says Vivas.

But it’s the residential campus system, she says, that provides the greatest reassurance. “Everyone has a college master who lives here with their family and is in charge of pastoral care for that particular college. They organise events and are always available for the student to talk to.”

Buddy programmes are also effective, says Nadja van Haren, spokesperson for HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht in the Netherlands. “All first year international students get a buddy coach – a student from a higher year who picks the student up from the airport, shows them around the city and campus and helps them with all kinds of questions,” she explains.

“Even before arrival, we arrange for our new international students to be contacted by phone by a current international student, preferably from their own country, so that they can voice any concerns they have and ask any questions they might not necessarily ask a school official.”

Van Haren says language is seen as the biggest barrier. “But they don’t need to worry – most people in Holland speak English and our whole study programme is English.”

Marcus Burnett, educational counsellor and UK and Ireland manager for Laureate Hospitality Education, agrees. “The idea of language being a problem is a myth as so many European universities have subjects taught entirely in English.”

Having an international educational counsellor based in the UK can be a great relief to students and their parents in the early stages, he adds. “That’s my role and it involves liaising with both parents and students to allay any fears they have.”

Meanwhile, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands boasts a Study Support Office, with courses geared specifically towards international students. “We realise international students have different needs and problems from our domestic students,” explains spokesperson Maarten Dikhoff.

“They are far away from home and will run into things like culture shock, homesickness and difficulties with the differences in education systems. So these courses help them out on such issues. Every programme also has a study adviser, who is there to help the student throughout their studies – not just for academic issues, but for personal ones – and we also have student counsellors and a student psychologist for international students.”

The Welcoming Ceremony is especially popular, he says. “It’s an official welcome to our international students and we have an information market, where students can find out information on all sorts of services, and student organisations relating to areas such as study support, doctors, dentists and health insurance. We also offer lectures on studying and living in Gronigen that day. These lectures are presented by someone from our Study Support Office and one or two international students themselves. Right after the ceremony, the International Student Week starts – an introduction week especially for students from abroad to help them settle in.”

For Craig Taylor, 23, who is studying modern global history at Jacobs University, it’s the high ratio of staff to students that has helped him settle in the most. “It means the interaction between professors and students is a lot less formal and a lot more frequent than at UK universities, and that counts for a lot.” As for homesickness, he says that, like many UK students in Europe, “I can fly home on Ryanair for £14 and be home in an hour, so I never have the feeling of being far away.”

For Ritwik Swain, who went to school in St Albans, it was only when his headmaster pointed out a newspaper article about Maastricht University that he considered studying overseas. “It led me to Google other psychology degrees in the Netherlands and I found Gronigen.”

The Dutch emphasise the importance of independent and self-development, he says. “But the university has a student support team, with a great team of counsellors and the other students are so friendly that I can rely on that community to get through anything.”

Vivas points out that knowing what to expect is half the battle. “Homesickness, for example, tends to hit in November. Until then students are running around and excited. But then their mid-term grades are usually not as good as school and it’s getting dark and rainy. But college masters organise cheer-ups and we explain it is normal.” Understanding that there’s flexibility – for example around changing courses if one doesn’t suit you – can also be key to settling in, she adds.

Students thinking of studying in Europe should research as much as they can online, advises Dikhoff – not just the university website, but the Facebook pages and groups.

“Talk to UK students already studying in the country and learn from their experiences and if possible, visit the city and institution. We just had an Open Day, which about 50 UK students and their parents came to.”

Most concerns stem from fear of the unknown, says Rob Maat, manager of international relations at Fontys International Business School in the Netherlands. “The better you inform yourself, the better you’ll feel.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Data Analyst - Essex - £25,000

£23500 - £25000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Data analyst/Sys...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Account Manager

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Account Manager is r...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Manager / Sales Executive

£18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Account Man...

Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness