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.”