Perspective: Building Community at a University Far From Home

Building Community at a University Far From Home
Flavia Nunez Ludeiro | Autumn 2023 EducationUSA Intern

So you just moved into your new home at an American university. All your bags are unpacked and after a successful Ikea trip, you have a wonderful new lamp and a standing desk that will carry you through many late nights studying. And yet … something feels off. 

It’s the height of summer and the air conditioning is blasting, but you feel cold for a different reason. For a few minutes now, you have been flipping through a booklet you received at orientation. Page after page, you see the faces of many photographed students smiling back at you — and that is when you realize! There are 30,000 people at your new school and you don’t know a single one. What do you do now?

Go to every orientation event possible. 

Many American universities have “back to school” events hosted at orientation or during the first few weeks of school. Some examples include free gym classes, board game nights, mini golf, school-wide sports contests, tie-dye making activities, free food trucks on campus, and even bouncy houses. Every student is invited, and new students are especially encouraged to come. Each college is different, but almost every single one allocates a budget to introduce new students to the culture of the school through activities … and there is no better way to make fun memories or meet new people. You never know where you will meet your future best friend!

At my college, UNC-Chapel Hill, these events were organized under the umbrella of “Weeks of Welcome.” Even when I was tired, I made an effort to go to as many as possible. I had a blast during one particular event where two professional dancers taught a group of 100 students really cool choreography. I can’t say I came out of that event knowing how to dance Salsa, but I did come out with a friend I still keep in touch with today.  

Join clubs. 

During the beginning of the school year, many universities host club fairs where different kinds of clubs come with a table, flyers, and posters to talk to interested students about what they do. At American campuses, you can find a club for anything — affinity clubs, culture clubs, and professional clubs are just the tip of the iceberg. And if you can’t find one, there is always a way to create your own in a topic of your choice! The best part about clubs is that they automatically give you a community of people with whom you are bound to share something in common. And one similarity is all you need to start a conversation. 

Because I came into college as a prospective business major, I joined a business club early in my freshman year. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have made — not only was I able to meet people I otherwise would not have, but I developed some of the deepest friendships I have today. Additionally, I feel incredibly well-supported when pursuing anything business-related because I have a community of mentors to guide me. 

Say “hi” everywhere… 

In elevators. In the dining hall. In class. A lot of my friends from my dormitory came about that way. I would see them in a common area and compliment them — perhaps on a tattoo or the color of a shirt. Conversation would just flow from there. 

As an international student who is accustomed to different cultural norms, it might feel strange to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Remember that Americans tend to be very friendly – especially on college campuses – and are unlikely to be put off. In fact, they may say “hi” to you first!

…And ask to sit near someone else. 

Of course, if you see someone with headphones in or reading a book, then they perhaps might not want to be interrupted. But if you see someone eating lunch or sitting in the auditorium alone, it cannot hurt to kindly ask if they want to sit with you. They might say no, but that is okay! For every no, there is someone who says yes. 

For example, two weeks ago, a girl at the park asked to sit next to me at a bench. Immediately, we struck up a conversation. Now, we text often and are meeting next week for coffee! Perhaps not everyone will be receptive, but it’s worth trying if even just one stranger turns into a friend.

Find other alumni or students from your hometown or home country. 

The ironic thing about experiencing loneliness in a foreign university is that you are not the only one who has felt lonely: so many other people feel or have felt the same way. If you can find someone in a similar boat – either in class or a club, through the alumni or career center, or even on Facebook or Instagram – reach out to them to meet or ask them for recommendations on how to acclimate. You will be surprised by how many people are eager to respond and help, as well as to give advice on how to integrate into the culture of your school. 

At UNC-Chapel Hill, we say “Once a Tar Heel, always a Tar Heel.” I cannot tell you how many alumni I connected with that gave me invaluable advice that helped me thrive at UNC as an out-of-state student. 

Practice saying “yes.” 

The person you just met invited you to go for lunch? Say yes! That assignment on your to-do list can wait 30 minutes. A new group of people invited you to go rock climbing? Say yes! Who cares that you’ve never rock climbed before? Everybody starts somewhere. There is a concert at the lawn in your school and one of your new friends wants to pass by? Say yes! Even if it is further from your home, that extra 10-minute walk won’t wreck your schedule. 

You might regret counting yourself out of activities simply because they are slightly inconvenient at the moment. It goes without saying that pursuing an education is what you are at a university for … but mental health is important too and finding balance between your academic and personal life will go a long way. If you find that balance skewing to disproportionately favor schoolwork over other activities, try taking a break and saying “yes” to an invitation.

And besides, don’t you want to sing along to Taylor Swift’s the 1?  I’m doing good… been saying yes instead of no…

Get to know your professors.

In the USA, many college professors offer regular office hours where students can ask questions about material taught in class, review assignments, or even just drop in for a chat. These office hours are usually offered at a fixed time a few days of the week outside of class time. Go to office hours to review material taught in class, and if possible, schedule one-on-one meetings with your instructor. Professors might be in a different generation than you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t form part of your community. You will spend so much time learning from professors inside of the classroom that you might forget the level of wisdom they hold beyond their area of expertise. 

One of the best conversations I had in my first year happened with my Classical Mythology professor. It was my birthday, and we sat at the bench in a park and talked about his journey to becoming a professor. I always understood he was incredibly intelligent, but I was blown away by his insights. I gained a perspective I didn’t have before and I feel as if I also made a friend. 

Professors have stressful lives, so if they have time to meet, remember to be respectful and kind.

Prioritize “wellness checks”.  

Due to the chaos of college life, you might make friends in your first week that you might not see often as the semester progresses. It’s normal for contact to fade, but  if you don’t want to lose touch, my secret weapon is a “wellness check.”

Essentially, wellness checks are scheduled one-on-one quality time with somebody. It is a way to be intentional about how you are spending time with people that you miss or want to be updated on. Whether getting lunch, coffee, dinner, or studying together, wellness checks are how I keep my community intact. I saved it for last, because it is the greatest tool I have in my arsenal for avoiding loneliness. Even now, as I am studying abroad, my friends and family back home have caught on and I have received a few “sure, let’s do a wellness check!” texts followed by WhatsApp calls. 

Last piece of advice. 

As an introvert, acclimating to college life was difficult for me. These tips I crafted for myself made it easier to form meaningful relationships over time. Now, I cannot imagine going to a different school or living anywhere else. Building a community makes the difference, especially when You’re On Your Own, Kid! for the first time. (If you can’t already tell, I am a big Taylor Swift fan). 

These tips are easier written than done. But just remember that what you are choosing to do – studying in a foreign country – makes you an incredibly brave person already. Not everybody ventures deeply outside of their comfort zone as you have. Building a community when you are so far from home is not going to come easily and trying to balance schoolwork and new friendships during the first few weeks might seem impossible. But if you are determined about finding a community and you don’t give up, it will happen for you! 

So you just moved into your new home at an American university. What do you do now? Put that booklet down and get out there!  There are 30,000 people at your new school, and meeting one is all it takes to begin building your new community.

An intern at the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, Flavia Nunez Ludeiro is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill majoring in Pre-Business Studies. The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the EducationUSA Advising Center or of the U.S. Department of State.