When Dev Saxena, a freshman from New Delhi, India, at the University of South Carolina (class of 2021), first arrived, he was a little overwhelmed. “The first semester has to be the biggest learning experience of all four years of college,” says the economics major who, despite being a self-described introvert, immersed himself in the experience. It paid off. Dev reports that his first year has been “social and positive.” To learn what has made it successful, we asked Dev — along with three international student advisors — for their advice on how to make the most of your first year.
BEFORE YOU ARRIVE
Talk to a peer
“Talking to a student who has already gone through the process you’re about to start can put you at ease,” says Jason Vokral, Director of International Student Services for the University of South Carolina. Like U of SC, most schools have programs that connect incoming students with current international students via Skype, WhatsApp or another platform. “You can ask about the weather, what kinds of clothes to pack, what public transportation is like, if you should wait to get a new laptop, the dorms, people, anything,” Vokral says. It’ll give you a stronger idea of what to expect. Plus, you’ll arrive already knowing another student.
Talk to an advisor
You’ll get a few pre-arrival emails with instructions about filling out paperwork, completing your academic placement tests, and other items. If you’re uncertain about what to do, call an advisor, says Vokral. Advisors are here to help, and getting the help you need beforehand can ensure that you arrive prepared and excited rather than unprepared and worried.
YOUR FIRST SEMESTER
Go to everything during orientation
“I learned my first semester that everything came down to friendships and that I had to make those friends,” says Dev. The best way to do that is to attend as many events as possible during orientation. “Consider this,” says Ibrahim Kareem, a student advisor for Auburn University’s global program. “In that week or two, everyone you meet is also looking for a friend. You may have to get out of your comfort zone and speak when you might not otherwise, but do it. Often the students you meet during orientation become friends for all four years, or life.”
Join organizations and clubs
What the University of South Carolina hears most from its international students is that students who get involved feel a sense of belonging and have stronger first years. “I can’t overstate how important it is to just get out there,” says Lauren Buckingham, Marketing Coordinator for the University of South Carolina’s International Program. Most schools have multiple clubs of varied interest — sports, politics, social, academic. Attend events. Go on excursions. Try something new.
Meet people every day
“When I first arrived, I wasn’t sure who I was going to hang out with,” says Dev. So he attended multiple functions and sporting events and starting meeting other students from “everywhere” — Mexico, France, Germany, America. And he made a point to talk to other students in the class. “I met a guy in English class, and we now study together,” he says. He has another group he meets for meals and coffee, and to just hang out. Meeting a variety of people helps you find the right group, Dev says.
Language is one the greatest challenges for international students, and it’s easy to fall into the habit of speaking English in class and shutting it off outside, says Kareem at Auburn University. Practice English every chance you get: at the grocery store, through clubs and organizations, by watching television. Students who use every interaction as a way to improve their English end up feeling more comfortable and engaged, he says.
Embrace American culture — but don’t forget about your own
“Getting involved is key, but you don’t have to become American,” says U of SC’s Buckingham. You’re here to learn, but you’re also here to teach and share. Show off your culture through clubs, events and other social outlets and share your traditions with other students, both foreign and domestic.
Take care of yourself
Poor sleeping and eating habits made Dev moody his first semester. So, second semester, he committed to a healthier diet, a regular sleeping schedule, and frequent exercise. “It’ll really help you function normally and feel better mentally,” he says.
“My first semester, I tried to fit in, put on a mask,” says Dev. “But I talked to my advisor, who told me to just be myself and that was the best advice. I have stronger relationships now because of it. So if you don’t fit in, that’s all right. Stand out! Be you.”