Building a Community Abroad



One aspect I find the most difficult as an introvert is making friends. I’m one of those people that waits for others to approach them and start a conversation. For a person who would normally ask her parents to make appointments in her stead, you might imagine that having to deal with those matters which would be dealt with by them can be unnerving. Although day-to-day life concerns come up to mind, it is also important to think about the social life in your new home.

In my first days in Southampton back in September 2018, I felt I didn’t need anyone else except for myself. I have always been an independent person. It may have something to do with me being an only child, but during my entire life I knew I could only count on myself. My most significant friends come from high school, and I’m glad we still keep in touch. When I moved to the UK, I had no kind of social support net.


I started worrying about this at the end of the academic year The program I was attending was the foundation to start my degree. Along with me, there were other 60 students. In May, we had to confirm for which course we would apply to. It was then that I realised I didn’t know anyone who was carrying on to Neuroscience. I won’t lie to you: I felt a little bit lost. One thing was to spend a year trying to adjust and not focusing on friendships, and another was doing my 4-year degree in solitary mode.


And then I met Lana and Niki. I would lie if I said they did not make my life abroad better. Believe me when I say that friendships are a weird matter. The first one is a Russian lady, married to an English man. She has two children, but still attends Uni. The second is a Cypriot girl, with whom I thought I had nothing in common. Turns out, we are more similar than we think. If you had asked me at the beginning of my journey if I expected to be their friend, I would have said no. Not because of anything in particular, but just for my difficulty to build relationships. I don’t remember exactly how I approached them. I just know that they have made a difference since I started talking to them.


When you are an introverted, almost all the aspects of social life seem so impossible to grasp. Since my childhood, I enjoyed observing people from the distance, but my interaction with them ended there. It became even worse during my teen years. One of my teachers used to tell my mom I have an entire universe inside, but don’t know how to express it in the outside world. I agree with this analysis, so you might imagine how difficult it was for me to communicate with others.


If you are anything like me and you are finding yourself in need of a guide on how to build a stable community abroad, this is the right place to be.

Where can you meet people?

The real question whenever you move to another Country is: where do people go to meet? I’ll use the UK as an example, but you can find similarities for other Western Countries. This brief list includes what I believe to be the best spots to approach your new friends.


The Pub

It’s not a coincidence that I put pubs at the top of the list. They are a big part of UK culture, not only as places to meet friends but also where families gather to have their Sunday roast. Although in the morning you find mainly retired people, after 6 in the afternoon they become a lively venue. Students and workers swarm in, turning the place upside down.


Pubs can be hectic, especially during the weekend. If you live in what I like to call “university town”, you can expect to find them busy on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. These two days are a student favourite, as Wednesdays are normally free from lectures.


The only issue I find with going to a pub is that it’s not the best place to make introductions, at least if you are an introvert like me. I don’t particularly enjoy drunk people – they just are tedious – and I don’t like to be approached by them. You can definitely score a free drink, but on the other hand you have to put up with the weird behaviour of people who are far more than tipsy. However, if this is your style, go for it! For those who want to have fun and find casual conversations, this is definitely the right place.


University Societies

If you are a student and you’d like to start a dialogue with kindred people, society at Uni are the best. The University of Southampton organizes different society fairs during the year. On these occasions, you have the opportunity to look around and see if you enjoy a particular activity that is offered around campus: from sports, to literature; from cooking, to making cocktails; from volunteering, to cultural societies. The Student Union can give more details, even if you miss the fair. Some of them are so big that they organise balls during the Winter and Spring terms.


Societies meet regularly throughout the year. They are the best place to not only find people who share your same interests but also your thoughts. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, they need to be at the top of your list. Being around people familiar to your hobby, whatever that might be, should encourage you to start conversations and engage with the community. You can build up to and make long-lasting friendships, as taking part into activities can only help the relationship between members.


Church

Although I am not a believer and I don’t have first-hand experience, I have asked my religious friends to tell me whether going to their local church was a good way to meet people. As you might expect, they answered that sharing time with those who have your same belief system can improve your chances of meeting new individuals. Many students also attend masses and community meetings, so it’s not just an opportunity for older individuals.


Volunteering

Similarly to societies and church, when you step forward in your local community, you can expect to find people with the same values. What I mean is: if you work for a non-profit organisation that focuses on children welfare, you will interact with those who also think this matter is a priority. The same applies to any other association.


Personally, I volunteer as a mentor for IntoUniversity. They aspire to help youths from disadvantaged backgrounds, by providing a safe learning environment and supporting them throughout their education. I’m new to this and I have lots to learn, but one perk that volunteering has is being in a setting that encourages interactions with other volunteers. The aim of the mentoring scheme are university students, who become mentors of people aged 10 to 17. Although we attend different courses and you might think we have nothing in common, working for the same cause brings us together.


If you want to be involved with your community – and make friends at the same time – volunteering is the choice for you.

How can I approach them?

Be ready to make the first move. Often, I was the one that started conversations. I think I approached Lana. As I mentioned before, I was on the look for a Neuroscience partner, and as soon as I heard she chose that path, I jumped into the chat and introduced myself. We knew each other from classes, but before this moment we had never properly talked. You can feel you are overstepping, but you can’t always expect others to start a conversation with you. The key to is to be brave.


As a university undergraduate, being in contact comes easily. In some lectures I attend, over 300 individuals are present. Although it might seem the perfect opportunity to find people to talk to, I realised that my way of interacting and that of English student in general are at opposite poles. It’s not a surprise that most of my friends are international students. Don’t be disappointed if your approach doesn’t work the first time. Trust me when I say you need to put effort in this.


Listen to what the others are saying and share your thoughts. Even though you might be nervous to express your opinions and thoughts, it’s fundamental to show your interest in the topics discussed. Focus on what the other person is saying. Although it’s a cliché, don’t just wait to answer back, but hear them. Sometimes, in the beginning of a new friendship, sensible subjects can cause a debate. Don’t be afraid to confront them, but remember to keep an open mind. When people from different Countries come together, cultures may clash and opinions diverge. Be respectful of the other’s views and it will be fine.


Remember that making friends takes as much time abroad as it would in a different part of your Country. In the first days in your new home, you might feel alone and that you are not making any progress. Meaningful relationships need to be built slowly. I was surprised at how long it was taking me to find people who shared my passions and values, but then I realised that I had to be more open to try. Sometimes your effort is rewarded, and maybe it’s not, but you won’t know unless you begin from somewhere.


The last aspect I want to touch is flat mates. What if I told you chances are you don’t even like them? Especially in the beginning, you might think you will only form a friendship with those that live with you. This is a mistake I made in my first days in Southampton. I thought it was necessary to be best buddy with every individual in the house, and that meeting people outside was secondary. Although being friendly with your flat mates is important, don’t think they will be your only friends. I was disappointed when I found out that some of them were meeting regularly, even though they had told me they didn’t want to go out. Nowadays, this makes me laugh. In the end, you don’t choose the people you live with, and it’s very possible that you don’t share anything. If it sounds personal, it is. I had first-hand experience with this, and I don’t regret renting a one-bed apartment for the next academic year. Flat mates can be an excellent starting point, but don’t get crystallised on it.

When you finally move to your new Country, social life needs to be as important as any other aspect. Approaching people might be challenging and difficult, especially if you are still trying to master the language. My final tip is to be brave, toughen up and go out there. The worst that can happen is that you are rejected a couple of times, or the conversation ends too soon to be fruitful. Don’t worry, you will find friends and build your community. Just be up to try.

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