Adjusting to life as an international student in the United States

In an increasingly globalized world, international students who attend school in the United States get an early start in forming multi-cultural relationships, gaining new perspectives, developing new ways to innovate and problem-solve, and in becoming future ambassadors. 

The experience of attending school in another country also introduces challenges, such as culture shock and homesickness, visa requirements, language barriers, and making new friends. However, these obstacles are only temporary and set you up for future success. Not only will you have the accomplishment of attending some of the best educational programs in the world, but it will also bring value to your professional development, enhance your career, and prepare you for leadership. 

There are a few things you should know that will help you make the best use of your time as a student in the U.S.

Visa requirements

Applying for a United States student visa can be a time-consuming process, involving paperwork and interviews. Apply for your visa at least three to five months before your classes begin. Keep in mind; you’ll need to gain acceptance into a U.S. college or university before you can apply for your visa. 

According to USCIS, there are two types of visas for studying in the United States, the F-1 and M-1, and you’ll need to meet the following criteria:

  • You must be enrolled in an “academic” educational program, a language-training program, or a vocational program
  • Your school must be approved by the Student and Exchange Visitors Program, Immigration & Customs Enforcement
  • You must be enrolled as a full-time student at the institution
  • You must be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses leading to English proficiency
  • You must have sufficient funds available for self-support during the entire proposed course of study
  • You must maintain a residence abroad which you have no intention of giving up

Once approved, you can enter the U.S. as early as 30 days before the start of your classes. It’s a good idea to use this time to acquaint yourself with your new town and to attend any of the orientations or new student welcoming events. These events can give you a better idea of what to expect, who you’ll meet, and answer any early questions you may have. 

Know before you go

Many colleges or universities will require you to show proof of health insurance and an American bank account. It’s a good idea to have this arranged before you move to the United States as your first few weeks will be very hectic as you become oriented to campus life. 

Work with the international student office to understand your options for selecting health insurance and the services that the campus health center provides. When considering banks, think about choosing one that is within walking distance from campus and offers low or no monthly service fees for a checking account. 

You’ll also need to think about your cell-phone plan when living in the United States. It can be very costly to maintain the same plan you’ve had in your home country, and your service may be minimal. You can also take advantage of free desktop and mobile apps, like Facebook Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, and WeChat to keep in contact with your friends and family all over the world. 

Sticking to a budget

Attending school in the United States is expensive, even more so for international students who may not be eligible for in-state tuition. You will also face working limitations due to your student visa. It can be very easy to pile on credit card debt or run into a tight financial situation if you don’t stick to a budget. Here are some tips to help you enjoy your college experience without running out of money:

  • Avoid new textbooks— You’ll learn fast how expensive textbooks can be. Check social media groups to see if you can borrow a textbook from a previous student or consider renting from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or 
  • Cook your food— Not only can you save money by cooking at home, but you can also enjoy meals that remind you of your home country to help ease homesickness. Consider preparing a meal for your new American friends to help encourage conversation and the sharing of new cultures. 
  • Take advantage of campus services— Many campuses offer free services that can help you save money while still making the most of your campus life such as free movies, pizza night, concerts, transportation, activities, and even free counseling. 
  • Use your discount— Your student I.D. gives you access to many perks and discounts. When you’re shopping, don’t be afraid to ask if a student discount is offered and always keep your I.D. handy. 
  • Use a budgeting app— Apps like Wally, Mint, and PocketGuard can help you keep track of your finances and keep you from overspending. 

Understanding the Structure of an American University

Flexible education options—American colleges and universities offer a flexible course system and do not require you to declare your major or concentration upon entry. Many students don’t figure out how they want to focus their education until their second or third year. This allows you to take many different courses in a variety of areas to decide what interests you. 

You’re encouraged to take courses outside of your major to gain a well-rounded education on many different subjects. Even after you declare your major, you still have the flexibility of choosing electives outside of your core concentration. Enjoy enrolling in a wide variety of elective courses as long as they meet your requirements to graduate. 

Syllabus—The syllabus is a valuable resource that outlines what is expected of you for each class. Your professor will share the document with you shortly before the semester begins or on your first day, and it will set expectations on important due dates, testing days, and answers many common questions regarding the topics covered within the course. 

Class participation—One of the significant differences in the class structure of an American university versus a university elsewhere is the importance of class participation. You are encouraged to take part in class discussions; in fact, a small portion of your total grade for the course is based on your engagement. 

If you are nervous about speaking in class because English is not your first language, think ahead of possible talking points that you can share based on class assignments. Prepare what you want to say and take a few minutes the night before to practice out loud. 

Grading system—Your success in an American college or university is based on your G.P.A., or grade point average. The numerical average is a compilation of your class participation, attendance, projects, tests, quizzes, and many other factors. The highest G.P.A. in the American education system is a 4.0.

Getting Involved

Make the most of your time in the United States by getting involved in social activities, events, and clubs. You have the opportunity to learn from meeting new people, networking, extracurricular activities, and volunteering. The people you meet and the connections you make through all avenues of your college experience can have a significant impact on your future employment potential. 

Participating in campus life can help you feel at home in your new country. While maintaining classes should be your top priority, any clubs, teams, and groups you join can be just as important as the knowledge you receive inside of the classroom. The perks that come with your involvement will ease any homesickness or culture shock you experience, help you discover new interests, learn more about the American culture, and give you a more well-rounded college experience. Check out your school’s student associations or Meetup to see what’s offered near you.

Dealing with homesickness and culture shock

No matter how excited you are to come to the United States, start school, and meet new people, there will come a time when the places and people you miss will feel overwhelming. It’s ok. This is common, and you’re not alone. Culture shock often happens when you start to feel disillusioned by your new situation, and you miss the way things used to be. 

Getting involved in the campus social life can help play a huge role in how long your culture shock will last. It’s ok to want to be around people who understand you and where you come from, but in the end, it will highlight how different you feel and isolate you from the new experiences you could be enjoying. Talk to your roommates and classmates about growing up in a different part of the world and your experiences. This is what makes you unique, and your new friends will find interest in your stories. 

Don’t let a language barrier hold you back from meeting new people. Ask questions, speak slowly, and be patient. Your new friends will be understanding, and the more you talk, the more you will learn. American students can teach you a lot about American culture and will open you to new experiences that you may not have if you only build friendships with others from your home country. 

If you feel lonely or homesick, reach out to the international student department for help. They are there to make sure you have a smooth transition into campus life. They can recommend other students who may have similar experiences or diverse groups and activities that will make you feel included. Once you’re able to identify that the loneliness and frustration you feel is normal and temporary, you can focus on what you need to do to pull yourself out and start to really enjoy your time as a student in the U.S.

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