SEGOVIA – She has always managed to withhold her tears in even the toughest circumstances, but this time was an exception. As she waved goodbye to her family, friends, and hometown, tears streamed down her face, and she continued to drag the heavy weight of the luggage as she plodded through the airport.

“Flight number 402, heading to Madrid, Spain. Terminal 3. Boarding Now.”

Heavily breathing with a tissue in her hand, she wiped away the sadness, and her plodding slowly turned into sauntering. She looked out the window, and the sadness transitioned into excitement, as she became eager to know how her next stage in life would turn out. She pondered on who she will meet, in this new country full of unfamiliar faces and an unfamiliar language.

A day through orientation week, and she had already met so many people from various backgrounds. Yes, she felt excited to be exposed to such an international and multicultural environment. But, with time, as she introduced herself and her culture to her new friends, she started pinpointing the differences between their cultures. Feeling like no one understood her, she immediately felt the need for her family and friends who she grew up with, and who she could easily click with.

A few days through, and she felt lost and misunderstood. That was until she met her. She had met the other Arab. And from then on, she became localised in an unfamiliar country.

University students, when studying abroad, tend to form their group of friends with others of the same background, even when in an international environment.

“I’d say that is a perfect case of self-selection bias,” said Maha Sabbah, a psychologist residing in Bath, United Kingdom, “With my experience of dealing with university students, specifically first years, I could always tell they only view their friends as those who they can relate to culturally, while others are usually only acquaintances, or familiar faces across campus.”

When at university abroad, students, specifically freshman, attempt to fill that air of melancholy they sense surrounding them for various reasons. This reflects the sociology and psychology behind their actions.

According to the latest research conducted by Association for University and College Counselling Center Directors in 2013, 42% of college students worldwide are worrying about their health, and 36.4% are facing depression.

Moreover, according to the survey conducted by the National Union of Students in 2015, eight of 10 students, said they experienced mental health problems, the majority being depressed. Nonetheless, how are the facts and figures of depression among university students related to cultural-friendship group formation at universities?

As said by Dr. Janan Abu Elayan, a psychologist in Amman, Jordan, “During their first years of attending university, students are more likely to be in the early, less severe stages of depression. In order to fill that void of emptiness and loneliness they feel, they attempt to get themselves out of the depression they’re feeling and are inclined to surround themselves with others of the same cultural background.”

Unlike Dr. Janan, some might argue, as mentioned in Psychology Today’s article written by Kate Theida in 2014, that this would reflect homesickness rather than depression. That is because what most university students are facing tends to be short-term rather than long-term and is resolved after connecting with those they miss.

“One of the main reasons I came all the way here was for the diversity, the multicultural environment,” said Dania Al Majali, a Jordanian first year student at IE University in Segovia, Spain. “But, as contradicting as this may seem, I find myself constantly surrounded by Jordanians. When I come to think of it, the only people I actually consider as my friends are those Jordanians. I suppose it’s because they remind me of home. Yes, that’s it. They’re the ones I turn to when I am, for instance, craving Mansaf [the national dish of Jordan] or so.”

While most students appear to justify their same-culture friendships with homesickness, others may justify it as forming friendships with someone who understands them, and someone who they can relate to:

“Being here all alone, far away from home in Granada, makes it so hard to focus and concentrate sometimes. The times I have sat in my room, crying for not having someone who could understand me are countless. How can I go complain to my American friend about my struggles with, for instance, food, when I know he wouldn’t get it?” said Taleen Zwahereh, a Spanish student at University of Southern California. 

When asked about the definition of the word ‘friend’, most students agreed that a friend is one who they could relate to, one who could understand them and their feelings at times. According to their definition, this term is unknowingly related to culture. One from the same culture is bound to understand you, they presumed.

“I mean, living in Abu Dhabi isn’t bad, well not too bad at least, and you could say I have made friends. Well, actually, to me, I haven’t really. I have seen zero Canadians around campus. I haven’t found a single person who truly understands me. That is a friend.” said Mark Smith, a Canadian student studying at New York University in Abu Dhabi.

What if it wasn’t the lack of the presence of another Canadian student on campus that made him feel misunderstood and alone?

With reference to that, Dr. Carmen Sastre Santos, a professional psychologist in Madrid and Segovia, stated, “With my experience, I have come to a mere conclusion that students who tend to form friendships with others of similar backgrounds have weaker personalities. They have weaker abilities to bear living abroad, all alone, in a new environment. And thus, they resort to those from back home, even if they hadn’t known them previously. They run towards anything they could link to home.”

Students are accustomed to certain trends and traditions within their families for years. They are raised a certain way, surrounded by specific things. Once introduced to a completely unfamiliar environment, one must adapt. However, this adaptation takes time and a cultural shock is bound to happen. With that cultural shock that the student experiences, it is natural for him/her to search for a safe space which would emulate home. While living abroad far away from home, and avoiding going back, they refer to culturally similar students.

As Roger Patulny, a sociology lecturer at University of Wollongong, said, “Students withhold an unconscious attraction to other students who are culturally similar. With attempt to heal the cultural shock they are in, once being introduced to a completely unfamiliar environment, they are bound to find and bond with others with the same backgrounds, or even simply with those who speak the same language.”

When studying abroad, students are most likely to be in an environment where they must practice a language other than their first.

“Being forced to speak a language other than that which you practice at home with your family and friends can prove to be frustrating. You hop on this plane, and suddenly, you are forced to change a habit you’ve been practicing your whole life.” said Juliano Rodriguez, a sociologist in Segovia, Spain.

Not speaking with one’s mother-tongue can prove to be frustrating for other reasons as well, which is why relating to someone from the same country or who speaks the same language seems like a perfect solution.

As a student, s/he might be less willing to have a conversation in the other language, as they are not as strong and fluent in it. Thus, fearing misunderstandings, s/he would rather remain silent than speak out in their second/third/etc. language. Moreover, misconceptions play a role. A student may feel discouraged to walk up to one from a different nationality and talk to him/her due to previously stored stereotypes about that nationality. Thus, they may feel it would be safer to address another student from their same culture, with a background whom they are familiar with. 

Juliano added, “The idea of no cultural abstract plays a role as well; the idea of telling a joke, perhaps a cultural joke, and being understood and laughed with. That is what the student looks for. This lack of cultural abstract makes it easier for the student to communicate with another from the same country or background.”

In regard to Juliano’s analysis, this language-barrier also integrates and acts as a barrier to cross-cultural communication. Students’ preference to feel more comfortable by having someone who thinks, communicates, jokes, and relates in the same cultural perspective refers to one’s cultural emotional connectedness.

As said by Roger, “We must acknowledge that it isn’t because others can’t understand them, but because they have not tried to approach them, or have approached them but without an open mind. Optimism is the secret of success at the end.”