Help! I don’t know anyone in my study abroad program!

Will I be lonely during study abroad?

The short answer: If you don’t want to be, no!

One of the first questions people asked me when I told them I was studying abroad was, “Are you going with other people from your school?”

An acquaintance of mine participated in a study abroad program in Italy as part of her design major. She was with other students from our university, so she knew many of them through her classes, and new friends from her program would be coming back home with her at the end.

My program was a little different. It was also through my major, English, but it wasn’t required, so most English majors either didn’t do it or chose other programs instead. One other guy, who I had never met, planned to participate the same semester as me, but in the end he was unable to go. So I went by myself.

If you’re beginning your program alone like I was, here are a few suggestions to help you meet people during your time abroad.

1) Attend orientation events

Remember freshman orientation? It’s like that, but in another country.

I received this advice from a student who had gone on my program the year before I did, and it was the tip that helped me the most during my semester abroad. Like orientation at your home university, welcome events for international students might seem kind of lame. It’s easy to want to skip them—you are probably tired from traveling, jetlagged, and overwhelmed by your new surroundings. The last thing you want is to make small talk or sit in a lengthy seminar introducing you to your new school when you could be out exploring or (more likely) unpacking and sleeping.

But go anyway.

This is the time when most of the other international students will be getting to know one another. Become a familiar face—meet people to say hi to and sit with at other orientation events.

By the end of orientation week, everyone around me was already splitting off into friend groups. Since you only have a few months together, study abroad friendships move at a fast pace, and getting a head start is helpful.

2) Reach out

You can assume that most of the other study abroad students are in the same boat as you and also want to make friends. Be the person that asks others to hang out—it will probably be a relief to them!

When my art history class took a trip to Venice, I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore the rest of Italy as well, but I didn’t want to go alone. Even though I didn’t know her very well, I asked another international student in my class if she would like to travel with me, and she thanked me for asking her because the same thought had been in her mind. As it turned out, a few British students were also traveling in Italy after our class trip ended, and we were able to meet up with them too. It never hurts to reach out and ask to hang out or travel together—you could end up getting some great friends out of the deal.

3) Think of creative ways to spend time with others

After meeting a few other girls at an orientation pizza night and adding each other on Facebook, one of them messaged to ask if we wanted to get groceries together that weekend. Since it was something we all needed to do, it was a perfect way to be productive and get to know each other at the same time. Look for opportunities to invite others along with you wherever you are going on a particular day.

Tasks like getting groceries are more fun when you do them with friends anyway.

4) Use social media

If your program, housing, or university has a Facebook group, take advantage of it! I met one of my study abroad friends because she posted on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to visit a nearby city with her. If you plan to see a movie, try a restaurant or club, or take a day trip and want to go with someone, see if anyone in your Facebook group is up for going.

5) Meet people in your housing

I didn’t have a roommate, and while having a room to myself was nice, I kind of regret it. A roommate means having someone to go to events and parties with. My friends with an international roommate or flatmate became really close with them.

I haven’t stayed in touch with my British flatmates, but a few of my friends have. If there are communal areas in your housing, such as kitchens or lounges, study there instead of in your room. Start conversations with the people who live around you. If they’re going out, ask if you can tag along. See if they have recommendations for places to visit, either on campus or in the surrounding area, and ask if they would like to go with you.

6) Contact the study abroad office

My university had a “buddy program” to introduce you to a British student or two who could help you navigate life at your new school. Even if your university doesn’t advertise something like this, they might have suggestions to help you meet new people. Email your study abroad contact to see if they know of groups, clubs, or activities you could join to meet other students and make friends.

7) Find things to do that will put you around other people

At home or abroad, in order to meet people, you have to be out in the world and doing things. This tip also makes it easier to meet locals if that’s your goal. Find things that you enjoy and go alone—a class, a lecture, a tour of the town. One of my hobbies is swing dancing, so when I was studying abroad, I looked up swing dance clubs in my town, Norwich, and went to their meetings. I also attended a few different local churches. I met a lot of older people there and had interesting conversations about their lives in England.

8) Being alone is okay too

It took me a while to feel comfortable traveling alone, but one of the friends I made at orientation loved it right away. She preferred not to travel with others so she could set her own schedule and pace. If that’s your thing, go for it! And even if you feel like it’s not your thing, it’s worth giving it a shot. I was surprised to find that I really like traveling alone, and even spending time alone on campus was enjoyable once I got used to it. Spending time alone helps you become more comfortable with yourself.

9) The best way to make a friend is to be a friend

Particularly during orientation and international student events, just going up to someone and starting a conversation can lead to a new friend. I learned that you don’t really need much in common to be friends with someone—all you need is the mutual desire to be friends.

Pro-tip #1:

When I was staying in a hostel by myself for New Year’s in Scotland, I told the person at the front desk that I was worried because I wouldn’t know anyone at the New Year’s celebration. He told me, “Friends will find you.” And they did, even though I’m shy. I wasn’t alone on New Year’s. I’ll say the same thing to you: Friends will find you when you study abroad.

Pro-tip #2:

If you are trying to think of topics of conversation when meeting other international students, try to find the similarities and differences between your home countries or regions. Those conversations can go on forever—and you’ll learn a lot!

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