One aspect of being an international student that is easy to overlook is the sense of disorientation that can set in once you begin to buckle down to the work you came to do. Wherever you were before and whatever you were doing, you had a certain identity, a peer group, a sense of yourself and your place in the world. After getting past the anticipation and excitement of moving abroad and starting a new adventure, you confront the realization that you must rebuild all of that at the same time that you are struggling to get yours arms around the breadth and the depth of your new academic challenge. The sudden lack of confidence and equilibrium can be daunting.
I was born in the Netherlands, I have family here, and I speak Dutch (and can read just enough to be dangerous!). So in a sense it was a homecoming as much as it was leaving home. My cultural adjustment was perhaps easier than most. But the academic adjustment is another matter. Going back to school after 25 years of practicing law sounds much easier than it actually is! After spending years learning through trial and error (literally!), earning respect and credibility, mastering the complexities of your area and ultimately being regarded as an expert and a mentor, it is hard to suddenly find yourself a rank beginner with no reserve of instinctive knowledge or even a true peer group. I have heard much the same from far younger students from various disciplines.
So, how to cope? First, recognize that you are not alone and you do have peers –see those sleep-deprived people with the glazed-over eyes from waaay too many hours spent reading? Those would be your fellow students, like you, struggling mightily to balance the discipline and structure needed to learn so much in so short a period of time. Second, allow yourself time to socialize. Not only with your peers, but with “normal” people! Sometimes you just need to take a break from all things school. There are many ex pat groups and a wealth of opportunity to meet people from all over the world as well as a few from the world you just left. And “go local” as well, make Dutch friends, explore Utrecht! Third, indulge in those “Twinkies for the brain.” Comfort foods, mindless TV, your favorite books, movies and music. Finally, remind yourself of who you are and what you have already accomplished, and stay in touch with those who can help remind you. (What DID we do before Skype and Facebook?)
We all have our reasons for leaving our comfort zone and those reasons have a way of manifesting when we least expect it. For me, this was going to a two-day conference on the International Criminal Court at the Peace Palace. Yes, the Peace Palace! Where else could you possibly do this? This is THE place, the hub. Perhaps I will find my place here after all…