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10 Common Mistakes for First-Year International Students to Avoid

Going abroad for university can be stressful enough without worrying about having a bad experience. Here are 10 mistakes to avoid for a great first year.

The percentage of international students attending college in the US will only continue to increase over time as more and more college graduates prove the value of a US education. The opportunity to expand knowledge and cultural boundaries is an important opportunity for many, although there can be various obstacles along the way. Just like other first-year university students, international students must adjust to a brand-new atmosphere and culture while trying to make friends and get a good education. Here are 10 common campus life mistakes to avoid when you’re studying in a foreign country.

1. Spending too much time with students from your country

As humans, we’re naturally drawn to people who are similar to us. While there’s nothing wrong with developing strong friendships with people who share the same culture, language, and identity, the challenge is learning how to break out of that circle to meet different people. University is the ideal time to meet people from all over the world with different perspectives and lifestyles. One possible way to avoid the temptation to spend time with only people from home is to have different friend groups that you rotate your time around.

2. Too much communication with family and friends from home

Similarly, it’s normal to be homesick and want to stay in touch with your family and friends from back home when you first move to a new country. With social media, it’s so easy to talk with anyone at any time, but you may lose the opportunity to broaden your horizons in the community you’re currently in. Instead of cutting off all communication with people from home, set a schedule where you only talk with them a few times a week, ensuring your communication doesn’t hinder your friend-making opportunities on campus.

3. Maintaining a poor work-life balance

When in a new country or academic environment, students can either be too focused on education or on having fun. You should strive to find a healthy middle ground to balance school with other important aspects of university life like socializing, religion, clubs, or a job. A great way to have a good work-life balance is to keep scheduled, using a traditional hand-written agenda or phone. You should also be realistic about how much time you need to accomplish certain activities and not feel ashamed if you need to cut back on the quantity of your responsibilities. Part of university is learning to take control of your schedule and manage your time wisely.

Related: The Best Ways for International Students to Get Involved at US Universities

4. Staying on campus too much

Every university is different: Some are centered in a more urban environment where everything is within walking distance, whereas others are more spread out and require cars or public transit for easy transportation. You may be concerned about how you’ll get around if you can’t get a license or a personal vehicle. Between ride-share options, carpooling with friends, public transportation, and campus shuttles, there are still ways to explore the area around campus. Students should research the area and ask upperclassmen about the best spots to visit in the area.

5. Not seeking help when you need it

Not understanding something, whether in the classroom or about university procedures in general, can lead some students to feel ashamed or embarrassed. As a result, many simply fail to ask for help out of fear they’ll be ridiculed or looked down upon, which is a common experience among international students. By not asking questions, you miss out on the opportunity to learn and grow in confidence. Although self-reliance is important, it’s better to ask a professor, faculty member, or fellow student to avoid unnecessary mistakes and get support when you're struggling. In general, people on university campuses are willing and happy to help. College isn’t meant to be a journey you do on your own!

Related: The Best On-Campus Resources for International Students

6. Being afraid to share your opinion in class

As universities shift to more discussion-based classes, some students may be afraid to voice their opinions in class. You may hesitate to ask questions out of fear of being ridiculed for not understanding. But remember, you wouldn't be here if the college didn't believe you could keep up in English-speaking classrooms. Likewise, other US students may hesitate to voice their opinions just for fear of being too radically different. But college should be a place where students can disagree and learn from different perspectives. Make it a goal to participate at least once every class—especially if classes require participation for your grade. And if you feel the environment isn’t welcoming to a diverse set of opinions, talk to the professor after class about changing the atmosphere.

7. Communicating unprofessionally with professors

Unlike secondary school, you’ll often need to communicate with your professors outside the classroom via email or phone. Because this skill isn’t really necessary before university, many students struggle with basic professionalism and may inadvertently create a bad impression of themselves. In addition, those who still don’t feel confident with their English may worry about sending professional emails. In this case, you should ask a peer to edit your emails before you send them. It may also be helpful to write a list of questions beforehand to ask your professor in person if you’re worried about what to say.

8. Overlooking available internships or scholarships

Unfortunately, many internships or scholarships are only for American citizens, but that doesn't mean they all are. Some students don’t bother to look into specific opportunities available for international students. While most government-sponsored programs are only for Americans, many privately sponsored opportunities are open to all students and offered by individual colleges, universities, and other organizations. You should use databases like our Scholarship Search tool to find opportunities or ask your college for specific resources.

Related: Great Scholarships, Fellowships, and Grants for International Students

9. Bringing too many things from home

While this temptation isn’t as strong for international students, it’s easy to want to take many comforts of home to your campus dormitory. The reality is that you won’t end up needing most of the stuff you think you’ll need. Having a crowded room can be overwhelming (and troublesome for your roommates) and can also create unnecessary stress during the move-in process. Additionally, most international students will need to find storage in the summer, and storing a lot of things can be costly. To avoid this, create a list and think honestly about how many times a school year you’ll actually use an item.

10. Going over your budget

When moving to a new country, it’s normal to not know how much you’ll spend on things—and getting into currency exchange rates makes it all the more complicated. To prevent going over budget, students should write down estimated monthly costs and how much they plan on receiving. Will you be making money from an on-campus or part-time job? Will your parents be giving you a set monthly allowance?  It’s important to know exactly how much money you think you’ll receive and how much you think you’ll spend, always overestimating your spending. You should separate expenses into categories (food, clothes, entertainment) and stick to them so you don't add extra stress to your school year.

Related: Budgeting Best Practices All Students Need to Learn

Many international students have made the journey overseas in pursuit of education before you—learn from their mistakes! There are a lot of simple things you can do with some intentional planning to make your university life a whole lot easier. Remember to utilize your resources on campus, lean on the friends you make for support, and try to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

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