Congratulations on committing to your college! You are now officially a college student. This is a time to celebrate all your hard work and accomplishments, and it is also a time to start planning your move to a totally different country. In between your high school graduation and packing adventure, you will find yourself on a plane taking you thousands of miles away from home. Now would be a good time to start getting ready for what lies ahead.
Transitioning to college is hard, and college itself is a foreign culture for everyone. Nobody is usually thrilled to be leaving their loved ones behind or walking into a big unknown. Especially for an international student who has chosen to pursue higher education abroad like yourself, it comes with even more challenges. In order to be able to make that transition as smooth as possible, you need to understand that you will be experiencing a wide variety of emotions, which are all part of what is called “culture shock.” How about we explore this uncharted territory together? Ready?
Culture shock is the feeling of anxiety, disorientation, or insecurity that results from being continuously in a new and unfamiliar culture. The first stage known as the honeymoon stage is the period of excitement of finally being at college campus, so this feeling of happiness might override any initial challenges and dull some of your symptoms. What follows is usually the anxiety stage, the stage when self-doubts and negative thoughts might start to kick in, including the things you have realized are different from home. The third stage is called the adjustment stage, the period when you become more and more comfortable in your surroundings and start to feel more at home. The final stage which is known as the acceptance stage is when you accept the new culture that you are in for what it is. Based on your learning experience, you have now come to the conclusion that there is not any one better culture, and each culture has its own unique value. If you need further information about the stages of culture shock, these two articles would be good resources to start with: “Adjustments and Culture Shock” and “Culture Shock.” In addition, you can watch this short video about five international students and listen to their first encounter with culture shock.
You must be wondering if culture shock can be eliminated. To be honest, it is almost impossible to avoid it although there are ways to cope up with it. Here are some tips that will help you ease into the transition to college life abroad.
- Be your own advocate: You will be away from the protection of your family, relatives, and friends, so it is crucial that you learn how to take responsibility for your own actions. Do not hesitate to ask questions if you have a hard time understanding something. Follow up on your question if you do not receive a response in a timely manner. Everyone in college is there to make your college experience a great one.
- Be in control of your monthly budget: Managing finances is a big challenge for every college freshman. When you are an international student, consider the added stress of having to calculate all your expenses in terms of U.S. dollars, so I would strongly advise familiarizing yourself with the value of the U.S. dollar. Before you arrive in the U.S., try to keep track of the currency exchange rates in your country and get a sense of how much the U.S. dollar will value against your country’s currency. You can also download this excel sheet on your computer and fill it out to see how much budget you have or will need to be able to pay for all of your expenses. Since it is an interactive sheet, all the numbers you put in will be used to calculate your budget automatically. Refer to this excel sheet at the end of every month to check if you have been able to finish the month on budget.
- Learn to manage your time wisely: College is a very exciting adventure that offers you the freedom to make decisions for yourself. As thrilling as this sounds, if you do not balance work and play, you will risk losing the benefits of a great college education. Always remember the number one reason why you came to college: to get a good education and improve yourself intellectually. This requires active academic involvement and good study habits. Before you start each course, go over the syllabus. Especially, if you are taking a challenging class, you will find it very beneficial to begin reading the material ahead of time to keep up with the fast pace. Go to every class prepared; look at the slides or read the lecture beforehand to anticipate which areas might be challenging for you. Take notes in each class. I would recommend using Cornell Notes, which will help you summarize and internalize what you have learned in class. Keep in mind that this is not high school, so professors will not remind you about the upcoming deadlines, test dates, etc… Set up reminders on your phone to be alerted to some important dates.
- Understand the basics of the American education system: The American education system is probably different from what you have experienced in your country, so familiarize yourself with the college courses and the unique requirements of each professor. If you have any questions about the grading system, GPA calculation, general education classes, electives, the Honor Code, plagiarism, etc…, set up an appointment with your academic advisor or reach out to your professor. Every professor has office hours, which are designated hours to allow students to stop by and talk to the professor for any questions or discuss some class-related topics.
- Get to know your roommate well: It takes a village to educate a person, so start establishing your village from day one when you meet your roommate. Before you arrive on campus, you will be asked to fill out a survey to be matched with a roommate who will be a good fit for you personally. Answer the survey questions as honestly as possible so that you can be matched with someone who might have values, interests, and hobbies similar to yours. Your roommate will be the one you will be spending your freshman year with, so starting your relationship on a positive note will go a long way. Harlan Cohen’s The Naked Roommate is a wonderful book to include in your summer reading list. You will hear from real-life college students and their different experiences with their roommates. Each story and each survival tip will prepare you for college life in the U.S., which might differ slightly or drastically from the one in your country.
- Find your support system: Your roommate will be a new college student just like you, so you cannot expect to find answers to all of your questions with the help of your roommate. Other resources where you can go for help include the Student Union, International Student Center, Academic Advising, and the Counseling Department. Research these different resources and identify three places before you arrive on campus. This will allow you to know where to find the appropriate support mechanism when you need it.
- Get involved in campus activities: There is no better way to cure homesickness than meeting new people. When you live on a campus, making friends is a lot easier with the help of activities that you can take part in. College life is a lot of fun if you explore and find the right social life for you. There are many student organizations to choose from. You can even look for the student organization run by students from your country. Many colleges have international student organizations where you will feel at home, listen to music in your native language, and eat the food your mom used to make for you. Who would not miss a homecooked meal?
- Attend a virtual campus visit before you arrive: If you have not seen the campus before, watch a college tour on YouTube , which is the easiest way to see a college virtually. You can also watch virtual college tours on websites such as YouVisit, CampusReel, and eCampusTours. Some of these virtual college tours are so informative that you will think you have seen the campus for real!
- Attend the International Student Orientation: You will be invited to attend the International Student Orientation, which is usually optional and takes place one week before the actual Freshman Orientation. Make every effort to book your flight accordingly, arrive on campus one week early, and attend this orientation which is specifically designed for international students like you. This will give you a chance to meet other international students and maybe even some from your country. Instantly, your village will start to form without even waiting for classes to start. I know many students who have made friendships for life this way.
Nothing can replace the warmth of home, but if you plan this daunting transition process well in advance and prepare yourself for what is to come, you will see that college will be your second home in no time. Know that you are not alone, and you certainly do not have to go it alone. Being at the right place at the right time with the right people is what you need to be able transition to college life smoothly. Oh, and of course, a smoothie shared with a good friend tastes better, too! Just be patient and enjoy the ride! Welcome to your home away from home! Wishing you the best of luck in your freshman year and beyond…
Burcak Deniz Cakir, M.A., M.B.A.
Founder and President | EdMission Possible