International Student Orientation: What's Next?

Dean of International Services and Programs, University of Oklahoma

Nothing compares to actually arriving at university as a first-time student. It’s an exciting experience, especially after the long, sometimes grueling process of applying. But it can be a little overwhelming too. Surrounded by other new students and orientation staff on a campus bustling with activity, you may wonder, what’s next?

Trust the orientation staff

Orientation is your introduction to everything university. It may seem silly or unimportant, but you don’t want to miss these activities; they were designed specifically to address your questions and concerns. The administrators of these orientation programs have many years of combined experience, and some of them were once international students just like you. They understand what it’s like, and it’s these same people who will become your new support system.

Orientation programs vary in detail between different universities and colleges, but they all have the same intent: to give you the tools and the understanding of everyday campus life that you’ll need to be successful on their campus. There will be tours of the entire campus and its facilities: libraries, bookstores, computer centers, gymnasiums, cafeterias, etc. There will also be special interest sessions in which you will meet with academic advisors, counselors, psychological services staff, deans, and more.

Are we having fun yet?

During these get-to-know-your-classmates orientation sessions, remember that you really aren’t alone. All the other students around you are feeling scared, excited, nervous, and anxious too. Look at it this way: sharing a common experience like international student orientation is a great way to make new friends. Your two goals during this period are simple. First, try to enjoy the orientation process, and second, don’t give up. You will get out of your orientation experience exactly what you put into it!

You’re about to embark on a new kind of adventure—a chance to be on your own at last—but it’s an adventure that comes with new responsibilities as well. Start by keeping an open mind. Your ability to adapt will serve you well during your years on campus. It’s important to be tolerant and flexible in new situations; these two qualities are the backbone of success in many aspects of life, particularly in your educational experience.

The emotional journey

You may already expect to experience some culture shock, which means a stunned reaction to unfamiliar situations. Moving to another country and having to adapt to a different culture can be stressful, as the assumptions and values you bring with you from your own culture may not be immediately workable in a new environment. However, while you might feel culture shock in some circumstances, it’s more likely you will experience a variety of different emotions as you adjust to your new life.

Although no one can tell you exactly how you might feel while adapting, just being aware of the adjustment process may make your own course a little easier. Imagine the process as a journey with signs to mark your progress and built-in rest areas along the way. Each person’s road will vary, but remember: you won’t be alone. You’ll meet any number of fellow travelers on the same journey headed for the same destination.

Step one: new and exciting

After you first arrive, everything will seem like a novelty. The food, clothing, and customs may be unfamiliar, maybe even a little strange, but it won’t matter—you’ll just be taken in by all of the different things to see and do. You might feel happy and excited at first, and everything around you will be new and positive. You’ll be enthusiastic and full of anticipation.

Step two: the newness wears off

Sooner or later, the reality of everyday life will creep in. You may begin to feel confused, frustrated, or homesick. You may develop temporary problems like insomnia or have difficulty adjusting to new food. If this happens to you, try to remember that these reactions are normal, and that these problems will most likely pass in a few weeks.

You might also have feelings of anger or vulnerability. You may even start to believe that everything about home is better than anything about where you are right now! These feelings are coping mechanisms, a response to the many changes in your life and a sign that you have a reached a new place in your journey. They too will lessen with time.

Step three: coping

Be sure to use the campus resources available to you to rest and refuel as you continue on your way. Talk about your feelings with a counselor, your advisor, or other students who have been through this process themselves. Ask for help. In time, you will begin to feel more hopeful and confident that you can cope with your new situation. When this happens, you’ll know you’ve reached a major turning point in your journey.

Step four: assimilation

Eventually you’ll achieve a sense of balance, independence, and well-being in your life. You will find food that you like, activities that you enjoy, and friends to support you. You will have completed your journey and learned how to live comfortably in your new surroundings.

Be good to yourself

It is very important that you be kind to yourself when you arrive on campus. Give yourself time to adjust to and succeed in your new environment. Remember that every culture and community has advantages and disadvantages and that we can learn from our life experiences—the challenging ones as well as the more enjoyable ones.

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