International students at Christmas time: beating the blues

International students at Christmas time: beating the blues

As the holiday season approaches and students return home to spend time with their family and friends, what about the international students left on campus who are unable to travel? Christmas can be a very daunting time of year for these students. If you’re working as a student adviser, or in any other role which gives you direct contact with international students, you might be called upon to provide emotional support. But how can you help? Here are some expert tips.

International students are faced with multiple adjustment challenges when studying in a foreign country. They may struggle with insufficient funds, have to overcome language barriers and are expected to perform in an unfamiliar academic environment. In addition, they experience acculturative stress, not only caused by changes in climate, diet and daily routines, but by cross-cultural communication challenges making it difficult to connect to others and achieve important personal goals. Consequently, international students may get irritated over the local way of life, experience homesickness, and even develop an overall sense of dissatisfaction and frustration. This distressed state of mind can become even more pronounced during the holiday season.

Coping with the adjustment process

Students should understand that all humans tend to interpret others through the lenses of their own, often biased, assumptions. Thus, instead of relying on clues from easily misread signs such as a mimic or gesture, they should explicitly ask about expectations upfront. For instance: “Professor, what attitudes and behaviours would you like to see in students in general?” Or more specifically, “what attitudes and behaviours would you like to see in me?”

Encourage your students to ask what is expected of them in terms of desired attitudes and behaviours. To proactively address potential communication concerns, you could discuss the following questions with students:

  • How could you find out more about expectations and perceptions?
  • What feedback do you need from others to optimise yourself in this new environment?
  • How was expectation clarification dealt with in the past, for instance at school or at home?
  • What would make it easier for you to ask about somebody’s expectations?


Encourage students to accept their feelings

After students have developed a better understanding of their own and others’ expectations, the adjustment process is still likely to remain emotionally challenging. Therefore, you need make them aware that humans are habitual beings who do not like leaving their comfort zones. This is why exposure to unfamiliar environments and the need to experiment with new behaviours is likely to make students feel uneasy, annoyed or frustrated with how difficult life has become. Especially during the holiday season, students may feel isolated, lonely and homesick. You should tell them that this is ok, this is absolutely normal! It can help to tell a story about your own concerns that you once had during a similarly difficult period to show that they are not alone in their feelings.

On a more general note, it is beneficial for students to hear that the problem is usually not the emotion itself, but how they deal with it. You may want to educate your students about the importance of being aware of their own feelings and their transient nature, of how feelings are being triggered by certain events or how making their own appraisals of their feelings would already be a great step toward successful coping! A mindful and accepting way of coping with acculturative stress could entail the following:

  • Take your time with the adjustment, be patient with yourself!
  • Allow yourself to feel sad about what you miss. Find a way to integrate your old into your new life.
  • Find ways to live with things that don’t satisfy you 100%. See what you can influence and what you have to accept.
  • Don’t forget the good things you brought with you. You bring talents and experiences that are bigger and better than what you could possibly show during the adjustment process.
  • Finally, share your experiences with others, if possible. Get out of your room and take a walk. Getting physically active and breathing in fresh air could be the best of all remedies, especially during the dark and cold winter season.

By Frank Haber, Psychological Counselor and Interculturalist, Jacobs University Bremen, Germany