Two years ago I travelled from Lebanon, my country of origin, to study in the UK.
I love it here, but it’s hard when other students treat me like I’m different or avoid me because they assume we have nothing in common.
When I moved to London for uni I was eager to get started with the next part of my life, but I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive about studying in a country where I knew no one. Even though I was born in London, Lebanon is my home and I’d be returning with a Lebanese mind. It would be my first time so far away from my family for so long and, as an eighteen-year-old, being a four and a half hour flight away from my parents was scary.
A million questions circled through my head. Would there be others like me, who felt the way I did? Would I be OK getting home at night? Would I know what shopping to buy? Would I be seen the same as everyone else and be able to ‘fit in’?
After my Freshers’ Week I realised a lot of my worries were shared by other international students. I met people who had come from all over the world; India, the USA and Greece to name a few. We bonded over the same struggles, jokingly competed over how far away from home we each were and made light of it when we felt out of place. But, beneath the humour, we all felt the same divide at university between the home students and the international ones. We felt like everyone else thought we were spending our years at university as if we were on a semester abroad – just to have fun, like it was a novelty to us to be here. Everyone assumed we had loads of money, and, even worse, people thought we didn’t have the same difficult requirements to meet get into university in the UK.
Needless to say, this is all false.
When I was finally alone in London I broke down… I had never truly realised how difficult it would be.
I was sitting in class one day, looking through my phone to pass the time during the 10 minute break we had. I overheard some other students talking about how hard A Levels were and how glad they were to have successfully gotten a place at uni. One of them, a friend of mine, turned to me and told me how jealous she was that I had had it easy. I disagreed, and explained that I took the international versions of A Levels in subjects like Maths and Biology.
It annoyed me that it was automatically assumed that I hadn’t worked as hard because I didn’t go to school in the UK. I spent nights memorising mathematical formulas that I would never use again so that I could get a certain grade and meet my offer – just like any home student. I spent hours worrying about what would happen if I didn’t get those grades; it was a really stressful time. But the joy I felt when I got into the university of my dreams made all the stressful, sleepless nights worth it. And my family couldn’t have been prouder to see me go.
Leaving is always the hardest part, it just doesn’t feel right. The first time was the worst; I didn’t want to show my family how upset I was, so I put on a brave face and said my goodbyes. But when I was finally alone in London I broke down. After months of planning, it was actually happening and I had never truly realised how difficult it would be.
I still couldn’t shake the feeling that people were looking at me differently.
Every day brought a new challenge. If it wasn’t remembering what temperature to put the washing on, it was holding back tears when I really needed a hug from my family and knowing I couldn’t just pop back for a visit that weekend. Or it was wishing my best friend was a short car ride away so I could properly debrief her about some new gossip I had heard. It wasn’t enough to see the people I loved on a screen and it was difficult to update them on all the new things happening in my life. When you’re used to seeing someone every day, whether it be at home or at school, it’s the strangest feeling to be so far away from them. It put unneeded stress on my relationships and it really made me appreciate the people I have in my life.
Hearing bad news from your family and friends, who are oceans away, is especially unsettling. My best friend broke off her relationship, my brother was struggling with his A Levels, my parents had minor health scares – I was on edge every time the phone rang unexpectedly, fearful something had happened and that I was on the other side of the world for it. There would be nights where I couldn’t fall asleep, worried about my family and how they were. I wished so badly that I could be in two places at the same time. I had to deal with all of this happening internally, and, meanwhile, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that people were looking at me differently.
I worked hard to be here, I want to be here, and I’m probably more similar to you than you think.
I’ll never regret coming to uni in the UK. I get to live in an incredible city and I’m in the birthplace of the English language and English literature, which is what I study at uni. I have made lifelong friendships with home students, but there are still those who make assumptions about me because I’m ‘foreign’. Really, I’m here for the same reasons any student is – to have fun and study something I’m enthusiastic about. I share many of the same apprehensions as any home student too – of being away from my mother, about my future, and university tests and essays.
Of course, I never mind people asking questions about Lebanon, and I’ll happily answer anything about my life there – I just wish people wouldn’t assume I don’t understand anything or am insurmountably different to them. I’ve done my research on where I’ve come to and I care a lot about my new home here in London.
I worked hard to be here, I want to be here, and I’m probably more similar to you than you think. Our accents aren’t the same, but I hope that doesn’t stop you from getting to know me.