When you’re studying abroad, you want to feel connected and part of something bigger than yourself. But international students say they’re feeling lonely in the Netherlands, with two out of three saying they’re lonely. Studies often focus on loneliness in older people, but it affects people of all ages, as seen in the responses to our Facebook post asking for help from lonely students. “I’m here for a better future, but I’m also here for a social life and to feel connected,” one student wrote. “I’m not alone in this struggle – I know many people who struggle to connect and feel alone and/or depressed.”

Dr. Gerrit Rooks, an assistant professor in the HTI research group, sent out a questionnaire to his students to see how lonely they were. It turns out that 15% of them were really lonely. When I saw the numbers, I thought, “Wow, there are actually 30 people who are really lonely in this room!” The survey was done on 200 first-year students, using a standardized questionnaire that’s been used all over the world. The data showed that loneliness among students was linked to burnout, and they also had a weaker social support network, were more likely to dread study tasks, and procrastinated more. Unfortunately, the results weren’t available for internationals at TU/e, so it’s not possible to say if these numbers are higher for them. I’m curious to see if this applies to other faculties.

The effects of loneliness on your study experience can be seen in the case of Bianca, a Romanian master’s student in Industrial Design. “I hated my bachelor’s program, mainly because I was so lonely,” she recalls. “I was depressed for a while, and then I stopped going to classes, which made me even more isolated. I used to go to the gym to escape my thoughts, and to group lessons just to be around other people. I didn’t know how to handle the fact that no one wanted to have fun with me.”

I’ve been trying to get a job in the Netherlands for a while, but after a while I just gave up. The job opportunities are better here, but I’m not just looking for a good job – I want to feel connected and have a social life. If I don’t have a social life here, what do I have? I’m not the only one who’s had this problem – I know lots of people who struggle with it. It’s hard to connect, and it can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.

Rooks stresses that loneliness isn’t just about being alone – it can also cause real pain. This is especially true when it comes to the brain, where social pain is linked to physical pain. In one study, people were asked to compare their brain activity when they were in physical pain and when they were in mental pain. When a pinch was put into their finger, the brain’s alarm system lit up, and then they had to play this game where they had to throw a ball between people. When the ball wasn’t thrown at them anymore, the same alarm system lit up in the scan. So, loneliness can be seen as an evolutionary warning sign – if you’re not part of a group, it’s a sign that you’re in danger.

Being an international student can be tough, especially when it comes to dealing with the cultural differences. It can be hard to adjust to different food, new ways of eating, and different expectations. Judith Beenhakker from TU/e says that loneliness is a feeling of not having a connection with other people. It doesn’t have to be lonely to feel lonely – you can be part of everything and still be alone. That’s when you don’t feel connected to others. It’s not just about having a common hobby – it’s about trusting the other person and sharing things, so you can connect with them. Beenhakker says that social loneliness is when you don’t have enough contact with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and emotional loneliness is when there’s not enough contact with a partner, boyfriend, or girlfriend.

As an Italian bachelor’s student studying architecture, urbanism & building sciences, I was surprised to find that my relationships with my classmates were different here. In my home country, I was used to having close relationships, but here I was surprised that when projects or courses ended, you weren’t friends anymore. “Your colleagues here are more like colleagues, not friends,” said Innovation Management alumnus and now PhD student Luisa Sancha* from Spain. “It’s hard for me to make Dutch friends because I’m always trying to do things for them, but they don’t always reciprocate.”

Ana Suso, a Bachelor’s student in architecture, urbanism and building sciences from Colombia, also noticed a language barrier. “I didn’t think there would be much of a problem because everyone speaks English here so well,” she said. “But it’s still a challenge to build a deeper connection with Dutch students.” But it still seems like a limit. And I know it’s easier to relax around people who speak your language and share your culture, especially when it comes to jokes.

Levin believes that it is important to speak the language in order to make a connection with the locals, which is why he wants to learn the language. It is not so much about the language as it is about the opportunities to learn it. “Everyone switches to English right away when they hear your accent or find the right words,” he says. “That’s nice of you, but I need to practice it if I’m ever going to master it.”
Suso points out that context is also important: “I know a lot of internationals but most of them don’t have any Dutch friends. I had a few Dutch friends when I was a student in Germany a few years ago. Maybe it worked out that the Dutch students there were already internationals looking for friends and they already have a social circle here.”

  • Living alone can make you feel more lonely. In the article between the lines, you can read a building recommendation for the future. There are many independent studios that have been constructed in the area. However, they can make you feel even more lonely. As many students have said, they want to be with their housemates and share things. This should also be taken into account when constructing student housing.
  • Shared housing has several advantages:
  • It helps to solve the room shortage quickly as more students can be accommodated on a smaller number of square meters.
  • Shared accommodation can be cheaper than a single studio.
  • The integration of Dutch people with internationals can be improved by living in shared housing.

Suso feels disconnected from her housemates. She enjoys cooking with her housemates or studying with them, but there isn’t much interaction in her student house. Her housemates are “friendly but not friends”. They don’t have a common living room which makes things more complicated. She feels lonely, especially when she’s at home. She sometimes goes to events against her will because she worries that if she says no too often, people won’t invite her anymore. She hopes to move into a house where housemates participate in more activities together, but it’s hard for internationals to do so.

At first, Mr. Erban found himself living alone in an independent studio in Luna, where the majority of the occupants were either PhD students or married couples. This atmosphere was characterized by a lack of social interaction and a lack of community. Mr. Levin acknowledges this, noting that the studio was expensive and somewhat isolating. He has since moved to an international student house, however, he does not have much interaction with his housemates, only with one. He hopes that this will change when the new students arrive and the atmosphere may change.

When faced with a difficult situation, such as a disappointing study result or the end of a relationship, the feeling of loneliness is the most intense. “This is when you need the most support,” says Giordana (Italian bachelor’s student) and Levin (Dutch graduate student). “Unfortunately, my relationship with a Dutch friend recently ended, which is a prime example of when this feeling of loneliness is most intense. I experience it to some degree on a daily basis, but when sad events occur, it all comes flooding back, making me feel like I have no one to turn to.” This feeling of loneliness is not only experienced by international students, but also by researchers and employees. For example, Sancho* (Masters in Innovation Management, followed by PDEng Track) began her studies in the Netherlands and found that she was so lonely that she was no longer interested in life and had twice attempted suicide. She found that the master’s program provided her with much more freedom than she had been accustomed to in her native Spain, yet she was overwhelmed by the amount of time available to her.

She attempted to engage in a variety of activities that were in line with her interests, however, there was a lack of long-term, meaningful relationships. Moving to a communal living space was a significant positive factor in improving her situation, as it provided her with more opportunities to interact with others when she returned home. She also consulted a psychologist, however, the sessions were hindered by a language barrier, and the psychologist was constantly checking her watch. Subsequently, she found an advertisement for a support group for expat women, which she joined and found that she was not alone in her difficulties. Through this group, she was able to find companionship and companionship, as well as activities that were enjoyable. She now has a strong desire to overcome her issues and is actively working on it.

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