Serving students from around the world is a long-standing tradition in American higher education. In schools of all types, from small colleges to sprawling universities, students from other nations make up an integral part of the population. In fact, more than 800,000 international students enroll at schools in the United States every year. If you’re planning to be one of them, be sure to take advantage of services that the school of your choice offers for international students. Or if you’re considering more than one college or university, you might want to review these offerings before making your final decision.
The first step is to find out exactly what is available on campus. Keep in mind that not all U.S. colleges and universities operate in the same way when it comes to serving students from other countries. While they follow the same laws covering student visas, individual schools offer different combinations of programs and services.
Where to start
The first point of contact for virtually every university is the admission office. This is the place to submit an application to attend the school and obtain answers to questions about becoming a student. Typically even in small schools, at least one staff member is designated to assist students from other countries. The admission office will be featured prominently on the school’s website, along with phone numbers and e-mail addresses for contacting staff, including admission staff who work primarily with international students.
Many universities also have an entire office or department to serve international students. At Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, specialists in the Office of International Student Affairs focus on the needs of students who come to the College from outside the United States. Karen Edwards, Associate Dean and Director of International Student Affairs, says a valuable service for newly arriving international students is the school’s five-day pre-orientation program, which includes educational sessions and small group activities where students get to know one another. They also meet mentors who provide advice on a variety of topics and have one-on-one meetings with staff members during the first semester.
In an optional Grinnell program known as Friends of International Students, local hosts are matched with students so they can make friends in the community. Staff members also advise students on legal requirements they must meet as non-citizens and assist with academic or personal problems. At the same time, other college offices provide services ranging from academic and career advising to help connecting with others who share the same religious beliefs.
Student visas and arrival
At most schools, one of the most important services for international students involves providing information on practical matters such as the legalities of attending an American school. “Our predominant service is assisting international students to comply with U.S. federal regulations regarding studying in the United States,” says Bill Taylor, Director of International Student Services at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Part of this is issuing I-20 and DS-2019 documents so that students can apply for the appropriate visa to enter the country.
Once students arrive on campus, a special conference is held with sessions on applying for scholarships, using the libraries, and understanding the University’s unique traditions. Students also receive tips on adjusting to the local community, getting involved with student organizations, and taking advantage of offerings such as the career center and a writing center. Taylor’s department also offers an online orientation for new international students. It covers areas such as immigration basics, taxes, health care and insurance, living essentials, personal safety, and academic integrity.
At New York University (NYU), the services offered to international students address a number of needs, says Sukyun Lee, Assistant Director of the International Student Support Center at the NYU School of Professional Studies. Through this center, the University offers workshops on developing skills in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Other sessions cover topics related to cultural norms and expectations in an American university classroom, such as American thought patterns, relationships with classmates and professors, and classroom dynamics.
Some services focus on the social side of life more than academics. For example, a Global Network Representative Program connects incoming students to other students with similar interests and provides advice on adjusting to college life in the United States. The center also sponsors an informal writing community called Pen Pals.
Fun on campus and in the community
“International students might be surprised by how much is offered outside the classroom and the expectation that students get involved in these activities,” says Genevieve D. Cook, Director of the Office of International Services at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. Just some of the possibilities available at her school include sports teams, volunteer work, academic clubs, fraternities and sororities, student government, weekend trips, and symposia.
“The idea is to develop the whole person, and international students can benefit from getting involved,” she says. “Academics are the priority, but these activities can provide an opportunity to develop friendships, practice language, and learn about things that perhaps won’t be covered in the classroom.”
The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, takes a similar approach. “We strive to offer interesting programs for our international students,” says Dr. Rosemary Max, Director of International Programs. Through a “family friendship program,” students are encouraged to spend time getting to know local residents. After being matched with a family from the community, they meet at least once a month to share events such as holidays and birthday celebrations. Some experienced students take on roles as international ambassadors, serving as leaders in the international student community within the University. They mentor new students, help with orientation, and advise staff on program planning. With Notre Dame’s International Speakers Bureau, students give presentations about their home countries to groups of school children, senior citizens, and others, polishing their presentation skills while promoting understanding of world cultures.
And that’s just the beginning. U.S. colleges and universities offer many other helpful and fun services not targeted specifically to international students, from academic advising to career counseling to volunteer opportunities. The details vary from one institution to another, but in all schools the overarching goals are the same: enhancing the college experience and helping students succeed. And once you’re enrolled at an American college or university, taking full advantage of them will certainly be an advantage to you.
7 tips for international students at U.S. schools
Grinnell College’s Karen Edwards offers these tips for succeeding at an American college or university.
- Get to know your international student advising office. It is their job to support you.
- Use your instructor’s posted office hours. Ask questions, ask for help, or just show up and talk!
- Don’t wait for U.S. peers to befriend you; take the initiative to get to know them first.
- Join a club, music group, or sports team in addition to your studies.
- Independence is valued in U.S. culture. Stand tall and express who you are.
- Stay in touch with friends and family back home, but try to stay in the United States as much as you can. The more time you spend in your home country, the less time you have to engage in this place with these people!
- Read often and read to understand, everything from your e-mail and the campus newspaper to your class syllabi and immigration papers.