How International Students Can Culturally Prepare for Studying in the United States

Student, Northwestern University

Oct   2015



How International Students Can Culturally Prepare for Studying in the United States

Studying abroad is an adventure. It’s both exciting and challenging. You are going to leave your homeland to learn and live in another country. At the same time, you are about to face some challenges you may not have imagined before.

Besides packing your luggage, you may be anxious about what else you need to do to prepare, like getting to know the country’s customs and culture. As an international student, I totally understand. Here is a list of mental preparations you should think through before you leave.  

Language barrier

One of the biggest challenges to studying abroad is the language barrier. Without clear communication, students cannot achieve in class, make friends, and blend into the new culture. Although international students must take and pass standard tests like TOEFL and SAT before they are admitted, they may still not be able to successfully communicate after they arrive on campus. This is also a serious problem because you will need to speak with almost everyone, including professors, TAs, school officers, and students, using your new language. When you’re studying in the United States, English is your basic tool to learn the culture.

One of my best friends in college, Ashley, who is also an international student, was an exchange student in the States for a year when she was in high school. When she got into college, her pronunciation and tone sounded just like an American. Whenever I see her talking with Americans, she is always smiling confidently. Not only that, but as a freshman, she has a perfect GPA, a part-time job, and an American boyfriend. She worked hard at her English speaking skills!

If you can already speak English fluently, well done! You will impress your American peers. If you do not speak English perfectly, it is not too late to practice and improve. Remember, practice makes perfect. Strive for strong and concise sentences that your new American friends and teachers can understand clearly and easily.

Related: Cultural Immersion Through ESL, Host Families, and More!

Make friends

A mistake international students often make is staying within their “comfort zone” of a small circle of friends who share their nationality, because they are afraid to make friends with foreigners. This is often due to language and culture barriers; it can be awkward to start a conversation in your new language and embarrassing if you cannot keep it going as a non-native speaker. After a few attempts, it is easy to lose confidence. But you cannot give up!

For example, the first intense situation international students will face is the orientation at the beginning of freshman year. During orientation, you will be assigned to a small group, where you’ll socialize with other new freshmen. You might be the only international student in the group, and you might feel left out. But pushing forward to gain social skills is essential, especially freshman year. It is hard for international students, but they need to try their best because only in this way can their study abroad experience be meaningful as they truly learn and understand the culture.

So, how to make friends with foreigners? The easiest way is also the hardest: start the first sentence. Americans often start their conversations with “Hey, what’s up?” or “Hi, how are you?” as greetings. In this way, the person you are talking to can respond with his/her feelings at that time and start a small talk.

To keep the conversation going, it is important for the speaker to listen attentively and find common interests. Besides talking about your class and schedule (this only works if you take the same class), you may want to talk about some non-academic things like music, movies, and sport. However, culture difference makes it harder. For example, you will find your American friends often talk about some TV shows like Game of Thrones that you may have not watched before. My suggestion is that international students need to keep an eye on the latest news happening in the United States and try to watch some popular American TV shows. I remember that I once watched a movie with a sophomore in my residential hall and we often talked about that movie after that night. In this way, we became closer.

Another suggestion is to join your dorm activities. Freshmen are often required to live on campus because the first year is an important time to make friends. Your residential hall will hold many social activities. Join them, and you will meet many friends there.

Another good way to make friends is to join a club you are interested in. Your university will hold an activity fair at the beginning of each year, with all the clubs and student organizations available for you to sign up. Joining a club and taking part in extracurricular activities can help you find friends who have the same interest with you.

Share your opinions

A distinctive feature in American colleges is their respect to free speech. This is the reason why participation is often a large percentage, from 20%–40%, in the grading of many courses, especially in liberal arts classes. Students are encouraged and sometimes required to actively participate in the class discussion, but this may be hard for international students. From my personal experience, at the beginning, it is very difficult to jump in the discussion when other native students are talking about their thoughts constantly.

The same scene also happens the dining hall. According to my observation, many people in the United States care about politics and often talk about their political opinions when they have their dinner. You can learn a little bit about American politics to follow along and add to their conversation, and you can compare and contrast it with your experiences in your home country. Whether in class or elsewhere, international students should try to be bold and share their thoughtful opinions.

Culture shock

Many international students are afraid of the well-known “culture shock.” They think they will not be able to adapt to the different culture. You will probably encounter some things you find strange, compared to what you grew up with. Here are some cultural “shocks” I have encountered when I was a freshman in an American college:

  • Dating. Boys and girls in the United State can start dating before they confirm that they are in a relationship. In my country, couples usually stay together after the confirmation.
  • Drinking. College students are prohibited from alcohol before they turned to 21 years old. Therefore, there won’t be alcohol at any parties the school holds. However, this may not stop them from drinking at their own parties.
  • Greek life. Many universities have their own fraternity and sorority houses on campus. These fraternity and sorority houses are like unique organizations with their own symbols, theme, and Greek name (like Gamma Sigma Alpha).

A good way to deal with these culture shocks is to get to know more about them by asking your American friends. The best way to learn a culture is not from books or online but from local people. At the same time, be generous and do not forget to share some interesting culture of your own country with them. When you study abroad, always be ready to introduce your home country; your American friends will ask you about it, because they want to know more about where you come from too!

Related: Understanding Culture Shock

Ask for help

Studying abroad is not easy. You will feel lonely and helpless sometimes—but you are not alone and help is out there. International students often feel they should be independent, but a way to become independent is to wisely use the resources your school provides. When you have trouble with your class work, make good use of office hours and ask your professors and TAs for help. When you have trouble with your visa, send an e-mail to the international students office. When you have problem with a paper or essay, set up an appointment with the writing center in your school. When you have trouble with your living situation, ask you RA (Residential Assistant) or your friends.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether by e-mail, text, or face to face. No one will laugh at you. They understand that you are an international student who traveled a long way to get your education.

Enjoy life

There is a saying in my school: “Studying hard. Playing hard.” It is important to find some interests outside the classroom during your time abroad. Besides studying hard, international students should also learn to enjoy their lives. For example, learning to cook is a good way to live better. When you feel homesick, you can cook dishes you know. And you can do this and still learn from the different culture as you study abroad.

Perhaps above all, to culturally prepare for a study abroad experience, simply be brave. Try to make yourself a better person. Good luck on your journey.

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About Wei Wei

Writer, Communicator, Storyteller