Each year tens of thousands of international students travel to the United States to attend a college or university. Some travel great distances, across more than four times zones and two continents, while others may cross only one border.
During an undergraduate or graduate program, many changes occur in an international student’s life. They experience new customs, food, music, people, and educational system all at once. As the years progress, students become more involved on campus in a number of activities and organizations, all with an increasingly busy class schedule. These experiences are often exciting, but at other times can be daunting, so sharing these moments with friends and family is essential to the well-being of an international student.
In the not so distant past, I was an international student and faced the unique challenge of maintaining relationships with friends and family from the other side of the globe. It was often hard to phone friends and family, or even return their calls, because of the time zone difference, my busy class schedule, and commitments with activities. I didn’t even have time to go home. Not to mention, like most students, I was on a tight budget.
Today, as an international student advisor, I often have conversations with new students about how they are adjusting to life in the United States. We inevitably end up discussing the ways they stay connected, which helps them feel less alone when they first arrive in a different country.
Alex Olubajo, a junior from Nigeria, shared this with me, “I love staying connected back home. Especially when I feel dejected or isolated, I know my family is always there to receive me.” Staying connected is not only vital when adjusting to a new culture, but it is also important for the eventual return home. By maintaining connections with people back home, international students find that by the time they return to their country, they are less likely to feel that everyone else has moved on or left their relationships with the student in the past.
When I finally returned home after four years, I was not able to relate or jump right back into my friendships. As a result, I experienced a period of reverse culture shock that lasted nearly six months. Similar to culture shock—which results from a sudden loss of familiarity when encountering a new environment—reverse culture shock can occur when an international student returns home and feels disconnected from his or her own culture after being away for many years.
At the time, I didn’t realize how important it was to maintain my relationships back home. As an international student advisor, I make it a point to address the obstacles students may encounter as they try to stay connected with friends and family, and I provide tools to help them maintain these relationships. Recently, I surveyed the international students at Slippery Rock University to get a better understanding of the ways they are keeping in touch with their loved ones and the challenges they are facing today. Here are their stories and helpful tips for staying connected with friends and family.
“I try my best to keep in touch as often as I can. But most of my friends are scattered all over the world, which makes it tough in reaching them because of the time zone differences,” says Kavinda Ratnayake, a senior from Sri Lanka. “Nevertheless, I find it extremely important to stay connected with my family and friends from back home as often as I can.” With the advancements in cell phones and applications (“apps”), most students are able to use additional clock settings on their phones or computers to check the time in their home country before calling home. There are even websites like www.timeanddate.com, where students can access the world clock.
For the majority of international students, combating the time zone difference is their #1 obstacle when trying to stay connected with friends and family. There never seems to be a good time to make or receive calls when you are 10 hours ahead of everyone you know. For new international students I regularly recommend that once they’ve gotten into a routine and learned their schedule, find a time in the day that is good for both them and their friends and family to communicate. This time will likely change over the years, but setting aside at least few minutes will help to avoid accidentally waking up Mom or Dad at 3:00 a.m.—save those calls for emergencies.
Paying your way
Another communication barrier relates to the high cost of long-distance phone calls and, sometimes, bad network clarity. “I think every international student should keep in touch with their home country because this allows them to be informed about events back home and closer to their heritage even when they may be seven seas away,” says Jeremiah Ezeribe, a sophomore from Nigeria. “Often calling home can be expensive, but I’ve found plenty of inexpensive ways to keep in touch.”
For example, some students add an international texting feature to their phone plan, which can cost as little as $10.00 per month, allowing them to send up to 100 international texts every month. Others rely on pre-paid calling cards, which can be purchased just about anywhere, from local grocery stores to the Internet.
Video-calling and media
The most popular and inexpensive way of keeping in touch these days is through video conferencing over the Internet using Skype. Skype is a free service when “calling” from computer to computer. “In my experience modern technology works wonders, and I have had no trouble staying connected with my family,” says Beata Rajewska, a senior from Poland. “The only problem is when occasionally there are so many people using Skype at the same time that it causes Skype to become slow or unresponsive.”
Even with the few dropped video calls, nearly all the international students I know use Skype to communicate with friends and family from all over the world. I’ve even incorporated Skype into my work with students as another option for my communication. But there are plenty of other free options for chatting with friends and family as well, such as e-mail, Windows Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messaging, AOL IM, Twitter, and Facebook. “With the advances in technology today, I believe that staying connected with people from all over the world is no problem at all. It is faster and more convenient than ever,” says Beata.
Out of the loop
Still, there are moments when international students feel disconnected from everyday life back home. I’ll hear them say that they feel isolated or don’t have much to talk about with friends and family since they’ve been gone for extended periods of time. They share things like, “It’s been more than a year since I was last home, and I feel left out of everything. It’s hard sometimes to make conversation because I don’t know what is going on.” The feeling of being out of the loop is not uncommon for international students with regards to current events and the activities friends and family are participating in back home. I often suggest students watch or read the news or browse local websites for information about events occurring at home to help spark conversations with their loved ones. Through the easy access to most international newspapers and news broadcasts online, international students can use media to keep up-to-date on events back home.
Staying connected in the 20th century has definitely taken on a new meaning. Everyone is either Tweeting or on Facebook, the world’s fastest-growing social media networking website, which helps people connect and share with their friends and loved ones. It has even become a way for international offices to stay connected to international alumni, current students, and prospective international students. In a recent survey I conducted, 53% of students said they use Facebook daily to stay connected with friends and family by updating their statuses or posting their latest location. International students can use wall posts and status updates to share the activities of their everyday life, from their latest accomplishments to what they are eating and watching on TV to who they are hanging out with and much more.
Yes, there are still people out there that rely on handwritten letters and postcards. Although they are few and far between, these individuals tend to be students with family or friends in parts of the world that don’t have easy access to the Internet, or where it’s not reliable.
When I asked international students if they use snail mail, I was surprised that 33% said they still write letters and send postcards to their loved ones. I think we all enjoy receiving those exotic postcards from far away destinations. For many who work in international education, we are constantly receiving postcards from all over the world when our students travel home. We have amassed quite a collection. While international mail may take a few weeks to arrive, there is definitely something special, and very personal, when someone you care for takes the time to write you by hand.
As you can see, there are many ways for international students to stay connected with their friends and family while studying in the United States. Despite the time zone differences, long-distance charges, or poor call quality, students are willing to endure it all. “Staying in touch with family and friends while abroad is extremely important,” says Chamathka U. Gamage, a senior from Sri Lanka. “Keeping in touch and being well informed plays a key role in my life. Family always comes first, so I try and remember them through a small e-mail or a phone call. This makes all the difference.”