If you’re coming to study in the United States, no one knows better than your family what the costs will be to make your journey happen. The time, emotional energy and financial costs involved are high. Increasingly, U.S. universities and colleges that value what you bring to their campuses also commit significant resources to set incoming international students up for success.
Recently, U.S. News & World Report released its first Top Universities for International Students list that uses various criteria to assess whether U.S. colleges provide an international student-friendly campus environment. Several of the criteria used involve what students have access to when they arrive at their intended college or university. So, what do you need to know as a new international student in your first few days and weeks in the United States?
What to expect
Even before an international student sets foot on campus, U.S. colleges are preparing incoming students for what their transition will involve. Whether it is pre-departure orientations held virtually or in-country or a series of information emails detailing what to expect, international offices on college campuses want to provide enough information to new students to get them ready for the transition to life in the United States.
Making new students feel welcome is a significant goal of international student offices at U.S. colleges. In her journey from being an international student from Jamaica to now directing global education efforts at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, Dr. Patriece Campbell has seen several versions of how orientation programs can work best. Campbell concludes that U.S. colleges try to deliver three simple messages to new students during orientation: “(1) you have made the right decision in choosing us, (2) you are now a part of a supportive community, and (3) here are the offices and services that will be with you on your journey to success.”
While some institutions hold day-long, three-day or even one-week orientations for new international students before classes begin, others host ongoing orientation sessions throughout the first semester or year. These sessions contain information designed to help you make the most of your time at college. Marie Whalen, Associate Director of International Admissions and Recruitment at Whitworth University in Washington State, explains that international orientations “provide key opportunities for international students that can make the difference between thriving and struggling at their new colleges. These opportunities include creating relationships and a support system, getting to know staff and faculty involved with orientation, and learning about academic expectations and how things work on campus.”
English language testing and academic advising
If overseas students coming to colleges and universities have not met the English language test requirements for direct admission into their academic programs, an English language test will happen in the first few days. This test is typically a placement test that determines where a student’s English ability might benefit from coursework in writing, speaking, reading and/or listening skills. While some students’ results may test them out of having to take additional English language support classes, others may have one or two classes or a whole semester or year of courses in which they study English before beginning a full academic set of classes.
Of course, knowing what courses to take is an important part of any student’s first semester at college. All students meet with academic advisors and/or professors after all testing has been completed and any transfer credit awarded, to decide on what courses are needed. For some students, the courses needed will be based on English placement tests or academic requirements for first-year students (as undergraduates). However, for other students there may be opportunities to select a course or two in their expected academic programs.
Many institutions in recent years have added academic integrity sessions to their orientation programs. Academic integrity may not be a topic you know much about, but it represents a very real issue for U.S. colleges. For professors, there is an expectation that students know how to conduct research on their own; how to properly cite sources; and how to produce their own work, not someone else’s, for class. Academic integrity is taken very seriously by U.S. colleges and universities. Knowing the expectations of your professors is critical to your academic success.
Getting involved in campus life
Perhaps the most significant differences international students notice in their new home on campus are the incredible number of activities, groups, events and opportunities to get involved. Student organizations, bands, social gatherings, service projects and more all compete for a new student’s attention in the first few days and weeks on campus. While there are certainly more events at the start of the academic year during orientation programs, new international students can expect a steady flow of ways to become active in what happens outside the classroom.
Most U.S. colleges will have dozens to hundreds of clubs and organizations available for students to join. Often, international student-friendly campuses will have one or more international student groups to help in your transition to university life and give you opportunities to share your culture with American students on campus.
An important part of any international students stay in the United States is knowledge of the various regulations that impact their student visa status. While rarely a very exciting topic for jet-lagged students to sit through during orientation programs, the content of these sessions on immigration regulations is essential. As Reon Sines-Sheaff, Director of International Admissions at the College of Wooster in Ohio, shared, “students today actually seem to pay a lot more attention . . . because they want to be in compliance and the topic of immigration can be high-anxiety these days. I think that can be a good thing, because then students are more likely to pay attention and avoid common pitfalls.” To keep sessions like this interesting, Sines-Sheaff finishes with a fun game to confirm the knowledge students need.
Role for parents
Many institutions recognize how important the parents of incoming international students are in the process, and they dedicate parts of their international orientation programs to parents. Last month, a U.S. News Education article focused on exactly that topic. Your mom and dad will need reassurance that you will be well taken care of while you are a student, so if your college offers a separate parents’ orientation and they can join you, make it happen!
In the end, new international students have the responsibility to make the most of the orientation programs at their colleges or universities. Take advantage of what your institution is providing in these early days because the experiences and understanding you gain can give a firm foundation for your success in the months and years to come. As Laura Rodríguez López, Program Planner-Analyst at the University of South Florida remarks, for a new international student “starting a degree in the U.S. without participating in orientation is like trying to run without knowing how to walk.”
Learn to walk first!