Finding friends while abroad may be easy, but making friends with the locals is an entirely different challenge.
While study abroad is often seen as an “immersive” experience, many students studying abroad say that, while abroad, they tend to find more connections among other American or international students than local students.
The Penn Abroad website boasts that students “get to take advantage of opportunities available to your fellow students such as student clubs, sports, and community engagement,” and that “you will experience life, as much as possible, as local students do.” Students interviewed said that orientations and information received prior to going abroad made it seem easy to find local friends abroad.
But students’ experiences tell a very different story.
Making American Friends Abroad:
College junior and Daily Pennsylvanian copy associate Jen Kopp is studying abroad in Dublin this semester and described the process of finding Irish friends as “really impossible.”
Kopp said that in general, she had found friends in other international students studying at Trinity College, where she is spending the semester.
She attributed this difference in many ways to presence on campus. She said that while most Irish students either commute to school every day or will return home to be with their families for the weekends, international students and exchange students generally remain on campus. “It’s for that reason, I think, it’s even easier to foster friendships with Americans and students from other countries besides Ireland — because we stick around on the weekends when people have time to hang out,” she said.
College and Wharton junior Cora Neumann, who is studying in St. Petersburg, Russia this semester, echoed Kopp’s sentiments. She said “it was kind of inevitable” that she wouldn’t have as many local friends given the fact that she was not even directly enrolled in her school. As part of an exchange program, she said she spends most of her time with American students.
Neumann also said that “the Russian culture is very different when it comes to the term friend,” she said, explaining that Russians tend to only classify people as friends once they have gotten to know them very well.
However, Neumann has found that getting involved with extracurricular activities at the local university has helped her make some friends, something that College junior Alison Elliot agreed with. Elliot is on the same program at Trinity College in Dublin as Kopp, but has had an entirely different experience since joining the university’s ultimate frisbee team.
“It’s been an incredible experience getting to know the ultimate team. One thing I love about ultimate is that there is a real sense of community that comes alongside it no matter where you go,” she said. She added that having that shared interest has made it significantly easier to bond with Irish students.
While Elliot has become close to her teammates, she still said that she considered her closest friends on the program to be her fellow American students. “My American friends are the ones that I’ll travel and plan trips with,” she said. “Since we’re all only here for a semester, we all definitely want to make the most of it.”
College junior Vidya Daryanani, who is in Stockholm, has also actively tried to join clubs to meet Swedish students. But even though Daryanani said she has made some Swedish friends, her closest friends are American.
For Neumann, the language barrier made it more challenging to befriend locals because all of her classes are taken with exchange students. College junior Rhiannon Grodnik, who is studying in Paris, agreed. “The language barrier makes some things harder, but it doesn’t make friendships impossible,” she said. “It just becomes harder to fully express yourself when you aren’t totally comfortable in the language.”
As a result, while Grodnik does take some of her classes with French students, she said that her relationships with French students tend to be more formal and generally revolve around the course material.
Not As Advertised:
Nearly all of the students interviewed said that they felt unprepared for the experience of making local friends or that the experience did not meet their expectations.
“I think I thought it would be easier to make Swedish friends,” Daryanani said. “I guess for some reason I thought they would just be there waiting to befriend us. But it’s definitely an effort you have to make to go to things and meet people.”
Elliot agreed, saying that even though she has made friends with local students through her ultimate frisbee team, she “certainly had to push [herself] to get more involved.”
While Kopp didn’t join any clubs, her experience of making friends was even further complicated by the fact that most Irish students have known each other for years, “so they’re kind of set with their friend groups already,” she said. She explained that she had not expected or been prepared for that going into the program.
Staying in touch with friends after the end of the semester also presents a unique challenge for friendships students form with people who will not be following them back to the United States in a few months. While nearly all students said that they hoped they would stay in touch with the local friends they had made, they admitted that it would be more difficult to stay in touch with them than with American students.
“For the Irish students, it’s a little bit sadder because obviously once the semester ends it would be a lot harder to visit them than my American friends who go to other schools,” Elliot said. “Social media is a great tool for keeping in touch, if nothing else.”
Daryanani agreed. ”[With my American friends] we make plans to meet up next semester or during breaks and stuff like that, while I don’t have that kind of long-term thing as much with the Swedes she said.”
For Kopp, the lack of permanence in her experience abroad has been a challenge. “It’s really hard to legitimize meaningful friendships with people here because in a few weeks, I go back to the States and we’ll never see each other again,” she said.
While none of the students said that their weaker-than-expected relationships with locals would have changed their decision to go abroad, Kopp still wishes she had been prepared for it.
“I think it would have been nice to know, just so I could have lowered my expectations a little bit,” she said. “But it’s not something so crushing that I would have changed my decision to go abroad or anything like that.”
“It’s honestly just so cool to be living here and meeting all these new people and having all these crazy experiences that I don’t mind if I don’t come out of it with a ton of Irish best friends,” she added.
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