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

The US university experience is about more than studying. Here's why international students should join clubs and organizations to get connected on campus.

All colleges and universities in the United States want you to have an exceptional academic experience. But don’t forget that the university experience in the United States is about more than just studying. By becoming involved in student clubs and organizations, you will have the chance to meet new people and engage with them on a personal basis. Coming together through a common interest or activity is a wonderful way to make meaningful cross-cultural friendships that can last a lifetime.

What kinds of activities will I find on my campus?

No matter the size of the university you attend, you will find many student clubs and organizations in which to participate. Some of these clubs will be focused on academic departments, like biology, history, or business. Others may focus on social issues like the environment, activities like drawing or dancing, intramural sports like yoga or water polo, journalism, student government, or political activism. Still others may focus on providing a friendly place for groups of students with shared backgrounds or interests, like an international student club, to meet and plan activities. Because most clubs are open to all students, it can be a great way to explore your interests outside of the classroom. For example, if you are studying biology but also love to dance, you could join a swing dance or salsa club.

Related: Exploring Extracurricular Activities in College: How to Find the Best Opportunities

How do I get involved?

To become involved in student clubs and activities, you need to take the initiative to join. Usually, the university office in charge of student clubs will host a large campus activities fair at the beginning of the academic year. Each club will have a table or booth. You should talk to the person at the table, usually a student, to find out more about what the mission of their group is and what activities they will host throughout the year. Put your name on their sign-up sheet so they will include you in any announcements. If you don’t get the chance to talk to the club representative at the campus activities fair, email the student group leader. Many clubs will have regular meetings or activities that you can join.

The most important club for all new international students to join is the international student club. You can connect with other international students who know what it is like to go through the adjustment process. They will really understand what you are going through, and you may feel more comfortable asking them questions about adjusting to American life. At larger universities, you may even find a club for students from your region or country. These kinds of connections can become a lifeline for support and fun throughout your studies. As Leslie Muzulu from Zimbabwe explains, “Participation in clubs enabled me to interact with many new people and reduced any tendencies to drift into homesickness.”

Here’s some advice—be realistic about what you can commit to doing, especially your first semester as you adjust to life in this new setting. Many professors in the United States assign a lot of homework, so balancing this level of schoolwork might be new for you. Try to make time to participate in one or two clubs the first semester, and see how it goes. As you get more accustomed to the pace of your life as a student, you can add more activities.

A great way to become a leader

While you won’t be leading a student club immediately upon arrival at your university, participating in different campus activities will give you insight into how different groups are led and organized. By the time you are in your final year, you will have built a network of colleagues and the opportunity to develop your leadership skills. Latifah Kiribedda from Uganda shares her experience: “Through my involvement in several clubs and organizations, I attained the confidence to campaign for the position of University Student Senate President. My friends and various students with whom I interacted in these clubs encouraged me and tremendously helped me during the campaigns. I am proud to say I became the elected Student Senate President for the 2011–2012 academic year, and I was excited to serve my fellow students.” These kinds of experiences, in addition to your academic accomplishments, demonstrate to future employers ideas of your interests and abilities. You should plan to include any student club leadership roles on your résumé or CV.

Related: 8 Leadership Qualities All Students Should Have

Start your own club!

If you don’t see a club that interests you, join together with a few friends to create a new one. Usually the process is not that complicated, and there will be a staff member assigned to advise clubs—seek this person out. There are many benefits to being an official student club. Usually, your club will get some university funds for projects and activities, and you will be able to recruit new members with additional publicity through the campus activities office. At St. Catherine University, each student club has its own storage locker and club mailbox, plus access to banner paper, printers, computers, a copier, and meeting and project space.

A glimpse into American life

Student clubs can also give you a glimpse of American life off campus through events and outings in the local community. For example, the student activities office may offer discounted rates for theater and musical events in your area. According to Afnan Alowayyid from Saudi Arabia, “If I do not know what is going on around campus or the city, participation in clubs and activities keeps me connected with others. This enhances my unique experience in the US.” While much of your time will be spent at your university, make sure to explore the area around the campus so you can see what daily life is like for Americans who are not university students. “One of my university friends from Greece loved to go to the local buffet restaurant where he could see ‘real Americans!’ Of course, American students are real Americans, but he loved to see a larger slice of life,” Alowayyid says.

Sometimes, university offices may even arrange off-campus trips. For example, because of St. Catherine University’s commitment to social justice, students have the option to take a trip to Denver, Colorado, during spring break to explore issues of poverty in the United States. This type of activity can show you a different side of life in the United States, one that is not often shown in Hollywood movies. Additionally, many universities have a volunteer center where you can research ways to get involved in the local community in a meaningful way.

Related: College Search Differences: US vs. International Students

In the beginning, it may feel like you will be studying forever, but the time will fly by. Make the most of your experience in the United States by participating in student clubs and organizations! It is a wonderful way to build your leadership skills, make connections with your fellow students, and experience American life. Through your participation, you will enhance your academic pursuits and hopefully have a bit of fun at the same time. 

Learn more about life at US colleges and universities with the blogs and articles in our International Students section. 

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