Travelling to a foreign country to take part in an educational program presents many challenges affecting a student’s mental health. International students encounter financial, linguistic, academic and interpersonal problems while studying abroad, andor many students, leaving home and dealing with wide cultural gaps away from loved ones is very demanding.
Therese Ongcong, a 21-year-old student from the Philippines, admits she dealt with significant culture shock when she arrived on the Mount Royal University campus.
“When I first arrived at MRU, everything seemed so big and I thought I would get lost,” says Ongcong. “I think I had sort of a panic attack and I felt, like, drowning in negative thoughts. I felt nervous and scared.”
One of the biggest challenges for international students is managing expectations. It’s common for students to gloss over the difficulties of being uprooted from both family and friends.
“Although I knew I was going to be by myself for almost a year, sometimes I feel homesick. I guess it’s my mistake to set high expectations and think that everything was going to be like in a movie,” admits Ongcong.
In a Calgary Journal online Likert scale sampling of 30 international students taking part in a program at MRU, 66 per cent of students did not consider potential mental health issues before going on an exchange program. As well, 77 per cent said they have felt homesick during their stay.
Mount Royal exchange coordinator, Jessica Mossiere, says that student mental health is a serious concern and not taken lightly.
“It’s [put] into consideration when reviewing applications for exchange semesters abroad,” says Mossiere. “Students can self-identify any issues if they choose to, and the information is kept confidential.”
The sampling revealed that the majority of students do not turn to faculty resources, and instead use family and friends to ease mental strain.
“This does not surprise me as many students aren’t aware of the supports that are right here on campus,” explains Mossiere.
Coping with homesickness
Ongcong says there is no substitute for the support of a loving family, even when halfway around the world.
“When I’m feeling down, I usually talk to my family in the Philippines,” says Ongcong.
“Even though the time gap is huge, we usually find time to talk to each other, or I talk to my friends on Skype.”
Resources on campus
The International Student Support Centre welcomes students from all cultural backgrounds. Located in the Lincoln Park Campus, the Centre is staffed by student volunteers and is a vibrant hub for students looking to expand on-campus experience.
The Centre hosts programs throughout the year to facilitate connections between students including language exchanges, shared meals, various social and cultural events, off-campus trips, study groups, information sessions and more.
Baptiste Thomas, a 20 year-old international business student from France, finds value in the friendly outings planned by the Centre.
“Since I’ve arrived here I have participated in many activities that the ISSC organised,” says Tomas. “We went to Banff, visited Calgary, watched movies together and enjoyed a delicious thanksgiving dinner.”
Thomas feels his international experience is both unique and rewarding.
“I wouldn’t change anything about my stay here,” he says. “I had the opportunity to make many new friends, and despite the fact that all of us are from very different origins, we have so much fun together.”
Ongcong says despite the challenges of being far away from home-based supports, she views the potential benefits of studying abroad as significantly outweighing the risks.
“I would say the most exciting part of this adventure is the chance it gives me to get to know a completely different culture, and expand my horizons,” says Ongcong.
“It’s also a great opportunity to meet new people and maybe create some good friendships for the future.”
MRU and Internationalization
Mount Royal University’s plan is to increase the number of international students. The goals also included establishing new international partnerships, expanding field school opportunities, increasing participation in inbound and outbound exchanges and to enhance support provided to international students on MRU campus.
MRU International Education will host their first campus-wide International Education Week from Monday, Oct. 29 to Friday, Nov. 2. As part of the celebration, they will host an International Festival on Tuesday, Oct. 30 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- By Rodolfo Neyra and Vinyet Miró Pujadas