“There was a point, a couple months after I moved in late 2019, when I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I just took a flight back home in January last year to spend time with my family and also got a lot of sun. It really helped my mental health,” said Gaura Naithani, a 25-year-old master’s student in Aarhus, Denmark.
Naithani, like thousands of Indian students, chose to shift base to another country to study further and build a career in 2019. And like so many foreign students, found that it wasn’t as easy to start a new life. “From the drastic weather change, since it rains here most of the year, to the new academic system, there was a lot to adjust to,” she told Re:Set.
Adjusting to life in a completely new setting, without familiar support structures, can be a difficult experience for young people. Many students report facing mental health challenges and feelings of uncertainty and loneliness during the initial months.
Dealing with academic pressure
“For a lot of students it’s the first time they’re stepping out into a new atmosphere by themselves. It can be very anxiety-inducing, and there can be concerns around self-esteem since they’re put into situations where they have extra pressure to think about financial security, work and academics,” Devika Kapoor, a counseling psychologist from Mumbai, told Re:Set.
For Sai Shraddha Suresh, a 25-year-old student of psychology, moving to Aberdeen, Scotland late last year, came with a lot more pressure than she had anticipated. “I have studied engineering in Pune, and to go from that to psychology in Aberdeen was quite difficult. The academic system, the assessment methods are starkly different and I took some time getting used to it, which also resulted in my grades dipping. That really shook me and affected my mental health,” she told Re:Set, adding that it also made her question her future prospects more than before. “I left everything and came here to study what I love, but the anxiety that I feel makes me wonder what the future is going to look like, once I’m done with my course,” she said.
Concerns surrounding academic performance is a recurring roadblock for Indian students navigating a new academic system. “In India, we can afford to study for a few weeks just before exams and still make it through, but here, there’s constant assessments and academic papers to write, which I have never done before,” Naithani said, adding that students should definitely research about the academic structure in detail before picking a college and should reach out to alumni or others who have studied in similar settings to get a clear picture to avoid being thrown off.
Making friends isn’t easy
While academic pressure is one major challenge, socializing — or the lack of it — can be another that can lead to shaky mental health for students.
“Meeting people has been really difficult and the pandemic hasn’t helped. I didn’t know anyone when I first moved to Dublin, and didn’t really get to meet anyone the first few months of my course, and that was really isolating,” Vishnu Valluri, a 23-year-old student of data analysis at the National College of Ireland, told Re:Set. Despite living in student housing, Valluri faced months of loneliness as COVID restrictions didn’t allow him to interact with his peers. “I had a roommate but we barely interacted since we both had hectic schedules and heavy coursework,” he said.
According to Kapoor, it’s vital for students to seek out friendly student communities or Indian communities to feel less lonely as it is the first challenge that hits most people. Bridging this gap will help in coping with the unnerving feeling of isolation. For Naithani, seeking out fellow Indians was a saviour. “Initially I would feel very homesick. Thankfully, at the time, I lived with two Indian women, which really helped, since we would be experiencing similar challenges and we’d talk about it a lot,” she said.
Valluri also suggests cultivating hobbies to tide through. “While you’re figuring out a whole new socializing scene, it’s important to have things you like to do by yourself,” he said. Amidst all this, health should also be a priority, according to Naithani and Suresh. “Because of the mental and physical stress I was under during the first few months, I didn’t get my period for four months, which was scary,” said Naithani, while Suresh stressed on ensuring students register with the healthcare system.