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Three students walking down the stairs. Two female students and one male student.

International Students: Adjusting to a New Culture (Part 1)

By KSU Counseling Services Staff

Studying in a Foreign Country 

Students who leave their home countries to study abroad are often highly privileged students. They come from families or governments which are willing to support their studies; others have earned their own way to scholarships and research assistantships and teaching assistantships to fund their own education. While such students often pay more in out-of-state tuition, because of the non-subsidization of tuition for out-of-state students whose families did not pay into the state taxes supporting higher education, many have found the American system of higher education a bargain (given the economy).

Most international students are multi-lingual and able to function in multiple social environments, including some with very high contrasts in lifestyles, attitudes, and approaches to the world.

Students who study in foreign countries have the excitement of the study abroad trips overseas, but they’re often working with a much longer time horizon. A baccalaureate averages about 4-6 years to complete; a masters may take 3 or more years; a doctorate requires 3 -5 years or even longer.

The Adventures 

Studying out-of-country involves plenty of adventures. The most obvious one is just acclimating to a new country, its peoples, its lifestyles, and the many learning and career opportunities. There are the adventures of traveling in the host country and in the surrounds nearby. There are the many new friends and host family members that will become potentially part of students’ lifelong friends and acquaintances. There are the professional relationships that people can maintain and may benefit future alliances and collaborations.

Another adventure is the strength of learning more about oneself, in the context of a foreign environment. Such experiences help people question their worldviews, their values, their beliefs, and their expectations of the world.

International students are often able to build complex skill sets that would not be possible otherwise. They’ll be honing their language skills. They’ll be approaching an academic field with new eyes—comparing their prior understandings with newly acquired ones.

Life Logistics

Going overseas is an adventure. There is often a feeling of “difference” right at the beginning, upon crossing the border by car or landing at the airport or arriving at the train station.

Depending on how much was pre-arranged, students need to face a range of logistical challenges in regards to their living situation. Some go right to host family situations. Others may move into the dorms. Many have to look for off-campus rental housing with the help of college staff whose roles are to help students settle. Many will rent single apartments, and others will join up with their friends to select housing.

Then, there are the logistics of where to get food and basic life necessities. The various grocery stores and retail outlets are fairly straightforward stateside, without any real need to bargain. However, shopping for more complex objects—like automobiles—may involve more of a need for deeper research and negotiations. Students who end up in smaller towns may find limited transportation options like taxis and private cars; students in larger towns often will have public transportation systems like buses and light rail options.

New environments often involve different laws and rules of engagement. Students need to really understand contracts before they sign them. If they plan to drive, they will need full testing and licensure and insurance coverage. Students may want to consider renter’s insurance to protect their possessions in their rented living spaces. They should make sure that they fully understand all legal agreements before they enter into any of them.

Students who are outside of their family homes for the first time will have to take on a large responsibility: handling their bills and finances. Many may be using credit cards and checking accounts for the first time. This responsibility involves spending within budget and making sure that bills get paid on time. It’s important to maintain a credit-worthiness and strong reputation. It’s important to protect identity and to avoid fraud.

Personal Safety

As in any environment, personal safety is a concern. The usual rules of safety—being with trusted friends, being careful about social relationships, and staying alert to surroundings all apply. It is important to know how to contact law enforcement. It’s also important to know about campus resources that enhance safety such as the emergency contact system for reaching campus security (the blue lights around campus), the SafeRide program to get a ride home if one is too drunk; and security accompaniment across campus if necessary.

Sometimes, the excitement of being abroad may lead to carelessness. It is never a good idea to get into a car with a stranger. It is never a good idea to share personally identifiable information with a stranger. It’s not a good idea to get drunk or high at parties or have an addled sense of judgment. Acquaintances and friends should be chosen carefully.

All risks that existed in a home country exist abroad, and those risks are complicated by the challenges in functioning in a new environment and interpreting risks in a different cultural environment.

In terms of personal possessions, it’s important to always keep bags, books, laptops, and mobile devices within sight—and never to leave these sitting in public. Bicycles used on campus should be registered with the university and locked whenever not in use. It’s a good idea to keep identity papers safely locked away. It’s important to keep an eye on activity on one’s accounts—to make sure that nothing has been compromised. It’s good to err on the side of caution.

Staying Healthy

International students are required to have health insurance, and it is important that they have regular checkups about their health. They will need to maintain a healthy diet and exercise regime in order to stay well while in college. They’ll have to watch out for the “Freshman 15” (the 15 pounds that students are said to gain in their first year at college).

Their student status allows them plenty of access to recreational facilities. There are many local parks that may be accessed for healthy exercise as well.

(Note: The second part deals with international students’ social lives.)

 © All staff articles are used by permission of the respective author(s). Copyright belongs to the University Life Café. No part of this may be used without authorization.

International Students: Adjusting to a New Culture (Part 1) (pdf)