Antonnet Botha is a Senior Training & Events Development Coordinator at WES.
When she first came to the United States, she found herself feeling lonely and homesick. While pursuing her master’s degree, she had to figure out how to take care of her mental health so that she could achieve her academic goals and enjoy her experience abroad.
Today, she still struggles with these feelings—but she now has more tools and resources at her disposal to cope with them in healthy ways.
In this blog, she shares some of the tips she has learned for coping with feelings of isolation in a new country. You will also find counseling resources that can help you embrace the right frame of mind to fully enjoy your experience in a new country.
Antonnet hopes that sharing her story and her research will help other international students and immigrants who may be struggling. Read on for advice on how to overcome isolation, homesickness, and depression as a newcomer to North America.
It’s thrilling—and a little stressful—when you are making plans to migrate to a new country.
When you finally arrive, you will have so many new experiences to enjoy.
But once all of the excitement has worn off, you might start to feel homesick.
For many immigrants, this is when loneliness starts to kick in.
When you arrive in a new country, you might not know many people. It can be hard to find new friends, especially when you might not speak the same languages or share cultural touchpoints.
You might feel isolated by the experience of starting life over again, which is not something that everyone can relate to. And you might not know how to express these overwhelming feelings of disappointment or depression, because you have worked so hard to achieve your migration goals—and now you feel like you are supposed to be happy.
How do you fight the urge to get back on a plane and go home?
Here are some tips on how you can manage these common feelings, get the support you need, and find the strength to continue your journey.
Stay Connected to Home
With modern technology, it is easier than ever to stay connected to the people you love anywhere in the world.
There are several apps and programs that are free and easy to use, such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and Skype. These will help you stay in touch with family—and even see their faces as often as you might have at home.
You probably already know how to use social media and video calls, so here’s what I would like to share with you as a tip: You need to make time to use these apps and connect with friends and family back home. Set aside an hour or two a day to make these calls. That might sound like a lot, but you should talk to people back home as much as you need to, until you feel less lonely in your new life.
Feeling disconnected from your new culture is hard, but it is harder to simultaneously feel like you are now disconnected from the life you used to lead. The good thing is, that does not need to happen.
It helps to plan these in advance for two reasons: One, it helps to make sure everyone is free when you are in different time zones. Two, it gives you something to look forward to when you are feeling down.
There are also a few less obvious ways to stay connected to home: music, books, shows, and movies. For me, listening to music from back home and watching movies in Afrikaans (my home language) was one way that I felt like I was staying in touch with my roots. It truly made my spirits soar.
With all the different streaming site now available, you will find at least one that will have movies, series, and music from your home country. Make sure you get access to these platforms; I can assure you it will help close the gaps in those times when you are not able to hop on a call with friends or family.
My last piece of advice for how to stay connected to home: Eat. Do your research to find a place that sells food or snacks from your country. Ask your mom for your favorite recipe, or find a restaurant that serves food from your country (this is sometimes tough to do). The taste of home is very comforting and will help counter feelings of homesickness—one meal at a time.
Find Your Community
For me, finding a community was the hardest part of adjusting to life in the U.S.
At first, I struggled to make connections with my peers. But once I found one or two people who I was able to confide in, they became my new mini family.
When working on this blog post, I reached out to other international students who experienced loneliness or feelings of isolation when they arrived in the U.S. I asked them what helped them the most—and forming a new community was one of the top responses.
There are several ways to form your own social network. One of the students I spoke to said that even though she is an introvert, she knew she had to make an effort to connect to her local community. She joined several Meetup groups that fit her interests, and joined InterNations. Both these platforms gave her the opportunity to meet with likeminded people. Common interests helped her to form closer connections with the people she met at these events.
Most schools have programs, groups, and clubs that aim to bring students closer together and form relationships. Take advantage of these programs and make an effort to get as involved as you can (without overwhelming yourself or putting your school work on the back burner).
Clubs can vary significantly—and some schools have more clubs and programs than others—but rest assured, if you cannot find a club or program at your school that interests you, then you can likely find one within your local community.
In the U.S. it is not uncommon for communities to host a wide array of sports clubs, volunteer opportunities, and other social networks. Take some time to find programs near you that also satisfy your interests and will help you meet people who might turn into close friends.
Explore School and Community Resources
Many schools have mental health counselors who are free and available to all students.
Counselors are trained to help students with a wide range of problems. You can talk to them about being homesick, for example, but you can also talk to them about your grades or your plans for the future.
Some schools even have multilingual counselors, so that international students can more easily communicate. One of the students I spoke to told me that her school has just introduced a counselor who speaks Chinese. The school saw that the large community of Chinese students were struggling to communicate their feelings and concerns in English, so the school decided it was time to bring in someone who could help.
Speak to a student advisor, ask fellow students, and look over your school’s resources to find out if there is a counselor available to you and how you can best take advantage of the services offered. These professionals have a deep understanding of how to approach your feelings and find coping mechanisms.
They will also make sure you understand that these feelings are temporary. They are a common part of the journey when transitioning to a new lifestyle in a new country. However, counselors will ensure that you know you will be able to transcend these feelings. You will be able to enjoy the adventure again once you have identified what is making you sad and finding solutions, while settling into your new life more securely and socially.
Even if you aren’t in school, you might feel more at home by trying a community program that introduces newcomers into the local culture. For example, many churches, community centers, and schools organize homestay and “holiday hosting” programs. These are meant to help immigrants and international students feel more at home in the U.S.
Homestay programs connect international students with host families that they can stay with for a certain amount of time. Sometimes it is just for a school vacation, and other times it is for a whole semester or school year. In these instances, you are taken into someone else’s home (typically with a family). They will often introduce you to their friends and help you form connections. Homestay programs help international students fully emerge in the local culture.
“Holiday hosting” programs are similar, but they only last for one meal or one day. This option involves an individual, family, or community group hosting newcomers for a holiday celebratory meal. It is a great way to immerse yourself in local traditions. For example, a popular holiday to host newcomers is Thanksgiving—a uniquely North American holiday!
These are just two examples of programs that will help you feel connected to your new culture and community. It is especially important during the holidays to connect with the people around you.
These are only a few things that may help you battle loneliness and feeling homesick.
There are many valid ways to cope, and one approach may help one person but not another. The key is to keep searching until you find something that works for you.
The important thing is not to give up without trying to find out what works for you. Do not just cave to your longing to go home. Instead, remember everything that you have already accomplished and focus on the amazing adventures that still await you on your journey.
And when things get especially tough, do not hesitate to ask for help from friends, family, and professionals. Sometimes all you need is the chance to talk, and someone who will listen.
Here are a few counseling websites to keep in mind: