Gerrit Rooks, assistant professor in the Human-Technology Interaction research group, has distributed a questionnaire among his students to check the degree of loneliness. “It turned out that fifteen percent is very lonely. Fifteen percent! When I see those numbers, I think ‘Terrible, there are thirty people in this room who feel lost’."
“Our research involved two hundred, mostly first-year students. We used a standardized questionnaire that has been internationally used and validated. We also saw in the data that loneliness among students leads to study burnout. Lonely students have a less functional social support network, dread study tasks more and procrastinate more as well. A side note: unfortunately we didn’t track the nationality of the participants, so it is not possible to say whether these figures are higher for internationals at the TU/e. I suspect that the results also apply to students from other faculties. I would really like to investigate that further.”
That loneliness influences your study experience is clear from the story of Bianca Şerban, Romanian master’s student of Industrial Design. “I hated the time I was in my bachelor’s program, mostly because I was lonely. At one point I got into a depression and then I stopped attending classes, which isolated me even more. I went to the gym a lot to escape my thoughts. And to group lessons, just to be surrounded by other people. I wasn't sure how to deal with the fact that nobody wanted to do fun things with me."
"I've tried so many times, but finally gave up. I came to The Netherlands for a better future. The job chances are better here. But I don't just want a good job; I also want a social life and to feel connected. If you don’t have the social life, what do you really have here? I’m not alone in this. I know more people who struggle. Who find it hard to connect and feel lonely and/or depressed.”
Rooks emphasizes that we should not underestimate the pain loneliness causes: “Loneliness is social pain. That is literally true when you look at the brain. There is a relationship between social pain and physical pain. An experiment was conducted where people's brain activity was compared for physical pain and mental pain. A pinch was forced into the finger and it was seen on a scan that the ‘anterior cingulate cortex’, an alarm system in the brain, lit up. Then the test subjects had to play a game in which a ball had to be thrown between members of a group of people. After a while, the ball was no longer thrown at the subject. In the scan, the same part of the brain lit up. So social exclusion and rejection lead to real pain. You can see loneliness as a sort of evolutionary alarm for people; if you don't belong to a group, you are in danger."
Loneliness: a lack of connection
Judith Beenhakker, student psychologist at the TU/e, indicates that it is important to look at the entire picture. “Loneliness is about not feeling connected with other people. You don't have to be alone to feel lonely. You can participate in everything, be among people and still feel lonely. You then feel no connection with others. A connection is more than having a common hobby. It's also about trusting the other, daring to share things: then you connect with other people.”
Loneliness can be divided into roughly two different forms: social loneliness and emotional loneliness. Social loneliness involves less contact than desired with friends, colleagues and acquaintances with the same interests. Emotional loneliness is about the quality of contact of more intimate relationships with a partner/boyfriend/girlfriend. This concerns the lack of a close bond.
The cultural differences experienced by international students are diverse. From different food to new manners and expectations. "As an international student you not only have challenges at the university, but there are also things going on at home that you can't just deal with," Şerban says. "I cannot just visit my sick grandmother."
I was used to close relationships with my fellow students in my home country. Here I was very surprised that when a project or course ends, you are no longer friends
Giordana Credendino from Italy, bachelor’s student of Architecture, Urbanism & Building Sciences, noticed that relationships with fellow students are different here. “I was used to close relationships with my fellow students in my home country. Here I was very surprised that when a project or course ends, you are no longer friends.” Innovation Management master’s alumna and now PDEng Luisa Sancho* from Spain also noticed this: “Your colleagues in the Netherlands are really your colleagues, not your friends."
International students would like to have (more) contact with Dutch students. But building a deeper friendship seems to be challenging for many. Matthew Levin, master's student Industrial Design from the United States confirms this. “I find this particularly difficult when making Dutch friends. I do my best to establish a profound connection with them, but sometimes it feels like I’m reaching out to them to do stuff but they don’t do it back as much.”
Bachelor’s student of Architecture, Urbanism and Building Sciences, Ana Suso from Colombia sees a language barrier: “Before I came here, I didn’t expect too many problems with this because everyone here speaks English so well. But it still appears to be a threshold. And I do understand that it is easier to chill with people who speak your native language and who have the same cultural background, for example in the case of jokes. ”
Levin is also convinced that speaking the language is important to get a click with the locals. That is why he is trying to learn Dutch, which is difficult. Not so much the language, but more the chances to speak it. “Everyone immediately switches to English when they hear that you have an accent or are looking for the right words. Now that’s kind, but I have to practice if I want to master the language one day."
Suso notes that context also plays a role: “I know many internationals, but most have few Dutch friends. When I was in Germany for a while, I did have some Dutch friends. Perhaps it worked there because the Dutch students were internationals there themselves looking for friends, while here they already have their social circle.”
Living alone makes loneliness worse
In the article you may read a building advice for the future between the lines. Many independent studios have been built in Eindhoven. While they actually make loneliness worse, as many students indicated. They want to be together and share things with housemates. It is important to also consider this when building student housing. In addition, there are even more advantages to shared housing:
- it helps to tackle the room shortage faster because more students can fit on fewer square meters with shared accommodation
- a room is cheaper than a studio
- integration may improve if Dutch people also live in shared housing with internationals
Suso felt a lack of connection with housemates. “I enjoy cooking or studying with housemates, but there is little interaction in my student house. My housemates are friendly but not friends. There is also no common living room, which makes it more difficult. I feel lonely especially when I'm at home. Sometimes I go to events against my will because I am afraid that if I say no often, people will no longer ask me. I hope to be able to move to a house where the housemates do more things together, but that is quite difficult for internationals.”
Şerban first also lived in an independent studio. “The people in my block were mainly PhD students or (married) couples. It felt very antisocial, there was no community feeling." Matthew Levin recognizes this: "The first year I lived alone in a studio in Luna. That was quite expensive and somewhat lonely. I tried to keep myself busy with school so that I could not think much about my loneliness.”
Moving to a student house helped Levin: “I now live in an international student house and feel less lonely than in my old studio. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of interaction with my housemates, just with one. I hope that will change around the time the new students will arrive and housemates might change."
Seeing no way out
The loneliness is the hardest when there are difficult moments, such as disappointing study results or a relationship that ends. "Then you need support the most," Italian bachelor's student Giordana Credendino mentions. Levin agrees with her: “Unfortunately my relationship with my Dutch girlfriend recently ended and that is an example of when the loneliness feels more intense. I feel it to a certain degree every day, but on the days when sad things happen, that’s when it all kicks in more. You realize that you are sad and it feels like there is no one you can go to."
Not only international students feel lonely. International researchers and employees are struggling with this issue as well. Sancho* can confirm this. Because of her loneliness, she no longer wanted to live and tried to commit suicide twice. She started here with a master in Innovation Management and then a PDEng track. The master’s program in the Netherlands gave her much more free time than she was used to in her home country of Spain. She was not sure how to fill her time and noticed that many locals already had a full schedule.
She tried different sports and clubs that matched her interests, but there was still a lack of deeper, lasting meaningful relationships. “Moving to a shared living space was an important positive contribution to improve my situation. This gave me more chances to interact when I got home."
“I also tried a psychologist, but there was a language barrier. During the sessions I felt rushed; the psychologist constantly looked at her watch. Later I found an advertisement with a women's support group from the expat community. I signed up and this certainly helps me. It has made me realize that I am not the only one with - these kinds of - problems. And we don't just talk, we also do fun things together. I now know that I really want to get out of this and I am working hard on that. ”
Talking about your problems should become the norm, Chelo Carcelén believes. Not just concerning loneliness. "If you keep things to yourself, they will only get worse." That is what her son Juan Carcelén did when he started a PDEng course at TU/e in 2013. “That went really well until his supervisor, with whom he had a good click, became ill. He got a new supervisor with whom the click was less and he found it difficult to deal with the criticism he got. That made him insecure and made him feel that he was not good enough."
"I couldn't oversee Juan's problems because I was in Spain and he was in the Netherlands. He didn't want to burden me. Juan had a nice group of friends and was active in sports. Yet he was not feeling well and he did not share this with anyone. He spoke excellent technical English, but was unable to express his emotions properly in that language. That also made it difficult to get good professional help. My idea was to visit him in the Netherlands around Easter, together with a girlfriend. Unfortunately we were unable to; Juan took his life in 2014, a few weeks before Easter."
Analysis of Juan's diary
Carcelén: “After his death, I analyzed parts of his diary together with a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist determined post-mortem that he was suffering from a burnout. Then you close yourself off completely and you become very anxious. He also didn't want to be in the Netherlands anymore, because he started to find it too dark and sad. On the day that Juan took his own life, he actually had an appointment with his tutor. He was probably nervous about that."
“In my opinion, the university can help by properly monitoring foreign students. You have to imagine that everything is different when you move to another country: the food, the language, the way you talk, express yourself, everything is different. It would be good if there were a group of psychologists following the group of foreign students. Perhaps the problem would have then been discovered earlier. I would like to say to other students who are struggling with this: ask for help. Don't keep it to yourself. If you do it will only get worse. You won't help anyone with that.”
“Juan was always very cheerful and loved studying. He knew he wanted to do something with math: ‘If you understand math, you understand life,’ he said. Becoming an engineer suited him. I work in a hospital and see people of all ages die there. Your life has no fixed end date. Juan has turned 25 and I see that as a gift; I was lucky enough to enjoy life with him for 25 years. This interview is important for me to warn and help other students: talk about it if you don't feel well. Only then others can help you.
The role of the university
The university can also contribute to a solution, Credendino believes. “Architecture is quite an individualistic program. Even though you are encouraged to respond to the work of others, you do most things alone. A clear separation is visible between the Dutch-speaking students and the internationals. Sometimes Dutch-speaking students receive more study material, because certain parts only exist in Dutch. Then internationals must work with a Dutch-speaking student to understand the content. Conversely, they never really need an international. They can easily do it themselves. This makes you feel less valuable as an international.”
“When Dutch speaking students ask questions in class, they often ask them in Dutch. I wish they would ask them in English, because I also want to learn from the questions. And the same applies to feedback. Teachers give international students feedback in English and Dutch-speaking students in Dutch." Suso agrees with Credendino: she also recognizes the study groups separately for Dutch-speaking students and internationals. According to Şerban, this also applies to project groups: “With the project groups, Dutch-speaking students choose other students who also speak Dutch and the internationals stick together. It would be good if the university made the groups and consciously mixed both backgrounds, preferably 50/50."
Şerban sees another chance for the university. “I chose a different master after my Computer Science bachelor because of loneliness. The loneliness in Computer Science is painfully clear due to the individual nature of the program: everyone is always behind their computers making tests. The entire atmosphere and set-up of the program make it easy to feel lonely there. Gender inequality also plays a role in my opinion: girls are outsiders there. The guys tend to stay with the guys."
"My master in Industrial Design is set up much better. People there are more open and social. Both Dutch students and internationals. And everyone is encouraged to communicate with others through presentations and requesting feedback from random fellow students. If Computer Science can follow the example of Industrial Design, that would be great.”
Connecting through sport
Sport is used by many students to take their mind off things or make new friends. “Having a serious conversation with someone you don't know may seem like a big step. But once you’ve exercised together, it becomes a lot easier,” says Daan Guldemond, supervisor of the ACE program at the Student Sports Centre.
“The program was first created to help students who have challenges getting good study results. The idea is: if you bring your life as a whole more into balance, your studies will also become balanced. But we see students with all kinds of issues. From students whow we literally move out of isolation to students who want to develop better contact skills.”
Guldemond understands the loneliness problem all too well. “I have been an international student myself so I know what it is like. I studied in Sweden and was lucky enough to share a building with 182 exchange students. We were all in this together and that helps. Your daily schedule is often very different from that of a local and that makes connecting a bit more difficult. The sports center there helped me to make friends fast."
Guldemond: “The ACE program has a quite some international participants and we also match some of them to work out together if possible. When you register, we will look together at a sport that suits you and I will guide you through the process for six weeks. There are many options: from group lessons to fitness and team sports. We always measure progress and we see that it works. The ACE program can be followed free of charge and after that you can purchase a sports card at a reduced rate.”
Rooks: “I am now setting up the student challenge ‘eradicating loneliness’ together with others in the Center for Humans and Technology (CHT). How can we solve this issue here at TU/e? And how can we use technology in the solution? Just a few questions that keep my mind busy."
The students don't just give up and look for ways to feel less lonely. For some, working out or making music works, others choose external help such as coaching or talking to a psychologist. Student psychologist Beenhakker: “When I speak with students who indicate that they are lonely, I try to think along with them about (re)creating the connection: how did they do this in the past and how can we do that here at TU/e again?"
Connection through life coaching
Margit van Tuijl, life coach at TINT, also tries to improve that connection through life coaching. Both the connection with others and with themselves. In addition to coaching, TINT also offers workshops and events for personal development and existence questions. “We are becoming more well known, more students know where to find us. Asking for help with loneliness can be quite a step, certainly in cultures where asking for psychological help is still taboo. The feeling of being different from others, for example by having ADHD or autism, can create a barrier for yourself in the interaction with others. If you ask yourself, ‘do I belong?’, you can start to radiate that uncertainty."
"During coaching I don't just look at the connection with others that some students want to improve. I also focus on the connection with yourself. What makes you happy? If you can restore that yourself, then you also radiate that, which is attractive to others and then the social aspect can also become a little easier.”
Don't give up
Adrian Vrămuleț from Romania, bachelor’s student of Computer Science and Engineering, has also experienced lonely moments and sometimes feels reluctant to approach people, but has found ways to just do it. “I always look for common interests so I always have a topic to talk about. And I don’t give up if someone says ‘no’ to an invitation. Of course people are sometimes busy or don't feel like it; better luck next time. I used to find it hard to connect with other people. In middle school I struggled a bit with making friends, I was bullied and I felt lonely. Even to the point that I thought about suicide. I didn't feel loved, but I couldn't push myself over the edge to really do it. There are still too many things that I want to experience in life. Changing my study program helped me to feel better because I met more like-minded people there.”
Şerban: “Now that I am in my master's, things are getting a bit better. People are much more open and fun at Industrial Design. My ultimate dream is to teach at the university. But for now I just want some nice friends and a good job. Because even if you love what you do, if your social life is crap, you once will hate what you do.”
Levin makes sure he keeps busy not to think too much about his lonely feelings: “In my spare time I write and make my own music. Sometimes I jam with others. I like to go to the gym, keep myself busy. Whether my loneliness influences my decision to stay or leave the Netherlands after my studies? A little bit. It’s a factor but not the deciding factor. I think my chances of a job in design are bigger here than back home. And I’m always up for something new. And as I haven’t lived here as a working professional yet, that is new. So I’ll try to live the European Dream. Yes I’m lonely but I have a purpose. Now it’s my master and later a job."
Come to the Common Room: a living room for students in Metaforum (ground floor) where international student association Cosmos meets regularly. But non-members are also welcome. "Lunchtime is a good time to come to the Common Room, then there are many people," says Alice Sibiescu, secretary of Cosmos. If you find it scary to just step in, you can always email Cosmos in advance, they will be happy to introduce you to the rest.
Do you live in an independent studio? Perhaps it is a better idea to look for a room in a student house or shared flat. This way you have more chances to interact and you can also cook, eat or do other fun things together.
Look at messages on Facebook in the Expat group for language exchanges. Of course you can also post one yourself. Which languages do you already speak well and which ones you still like to learn? This way you can have a coffee with someone with the same interests and at the same time brush up your language skills.
There are buddy projects aimed at helping you on your way if you find it difficult to make contact. You’ll be set up with someone from your own neighborhood with whom you can do fun things and who can help you a bit.
Also think about the cause of your loneliness: do you find it difficult to make new contacts? Or do you simply never have time because you experience so much study pressure? Are there other underlying problems that make you feel alienated from others? Try to talk about this with someone around you. You will notice that many people have (had) feelings of loneliness.
If you need professional help, The TU/e offers support in the form of sessions with a student psychologist with whom you can make an appointment. There is a separate psychologist for PhD and PDEng candidates.
Have you been suffering from loneliness for a long time and are you thinking of suicide? Don’t keep these thoughts to yourself. Contact 113 Suicide Prevention via 0900-0113 or www.113.nl. 113 also has an app.