Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's is gloomy, and international students would like a heads-up

Newfoundland and Labrador isn't really known for its abundance of sunshine, but for students moving here, the amount of darkness is still a surprise.

This issue has brought some students at MUN together

Dark winters in St. John's can take a toll on newcomers, including international students. (suriyachan/Shutterstock)

Newfoundland and Labrador isn't known for its abundance of sunshine, but for students moving here, the amount of darkness is still a surprise.

Sabina Akhter was born in Bangladesh, and grew up in Qatar. Now, she's an international student at Memorial University in St. John's.

When she moved here, she didn't realize just how grey things could get.

"The days were shorter when I arrived. In the beginning it was not that bad, but once we moved towards November I started feeling depressed and a lack of energy. I was not as efficient as I used to be before, so I'm guessing that affected my mood."

Akhter didn't know about what doctors refer to as "depressive disorder with seasonal pattern," formerly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a form of depression that affects 15 per cent of Canadians.

Hard time adjusting

When she was growing up in Qatar, Akhter said, temperatures started getting above 30 C by late February, and sunshine was usually a given.

"You don't have to look for sunshine. You can be just inside a room.… If you have a glass door or a window, you would still get a lot of sunshine," she said.

A lot of fog, but not a lot of sunlight in this picture, and in real life a lot of the time in St. John's. (Submitted by Anne Madden)

"But during that time no one wants to walk outside to get the sunshine — you will get sunburn."

When she moved to St. John's for school, she had a hard time adjusting.

"I had to go for counselling sessions in the wellness clinic in MUN centre. I was seeing counsellors and I was talking about it and I tried to get into meditation," she told CBC's On The Go.

"I was trying to be outside as much as possible during the day, but that didn't quite help. It was really gloomy, even during the day. So I had a hard time at the beginning."

In the counselling office, there was a sunshine lamp, which simulated the effects of the sun.

A common venting point

Akhter would spend plenty of time there soaking up the artificial rays, and that's when she realized she wasn't the only international student having a hard time adjusting to the frequency of the grey foggy days.

"People who have lived in warmer climates before, if I run into them they would share the same experience that I had here. They would say, 'Oh, I don't feel that great, I'm depressed, I'm sad.' And sometimes they couldn't figure out why that was so," she said.

To help each other out, Akhter said, the international students from warmer, sunnier places would get together to chat and vent about the weather.

We should be let known that here the climate is not as we have experienced it before in our home countries.- Sabina Akhter

"They shared the same experience, stating that, 'I don't feel like studying anymore, I feel I want to go back home. It's so windy here. I can't focus on my studies,'" Akhter said.

"A lot of complaining."

It's complaining that Akhter said could be avoided if there was a blunt weather explainer given to students before they made the move.

At least then the lack of sunshine wouldn't be such a surprise, she said.

"Before we come here, yeah, we should be briefed about it, we should be let known that here the climate is not as we have experienced it before in our home countries. And preparing mentally — mental preparation, that is — is very important before moving to a climate where you are not used to," she said.

There are information packets given to international students when they arrive, but discussions on details about the weather don't quite paint the full and honest picture.

"I know they are happening but I'm not really sure if they're happening on a larger scale, so that would be a good idea."

On a brighter note, Akhter said, at least the summer is manageable for her and her fellow students from warmer climes.

"It's never too hot," she said with a laugh.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go