Remember the first night you spent away from your parents as a child? Maybe a sleepover at a friend’s house or an overnight camp? Did you feel excited, nervous, fearful and anxious, perhaps? For international students about to make the journey to study in the United States, many of these emotions are possible. Most students find the separation from family, friends and familiar surroundings challenging, especially during the first few months in the United States.
However, preparing well for this transition to a new life in a new country can help smooth out the unavoidable bumps. A wealth of options are available to help you: from family and friends, classmates who have recently studied abroad, and in-country resources, to the U.S. colleges and universities that eagerly seek out and provide for international students.
Family and Friends
Spending as much time as possible with your family and friends before leaving is key and cannot be underestimated. Consider too that international students frequently say familiar food is one of the things they miss most. Whatever meal you enjoy most, make sure you have it often before you leave. As Barry Vogel, Managing Director of FIU Global First Year, Florida International University, comments, “Eat your favorite foods, spend time with friends and family doing the things you enjoy the most. Have some fun and relax.”
The meals, conversations and laughter you share at home will create memories to help you get through the hard times. Josh Sine, Managing Director at Utah Global, University of Utah, suggests that you “sit down with your parents and friends and tell them the things you want to hear about back home, and the things you don’t, because it might evoke some unwanted home sickness. Ask them to always be an advocate for this journey and support you through this by always being a listener first, and not jumping to conclusions.”
You may already have some friends or family who have studied in the United States or who currently live there. What better point of reference than someone close to you who can provide an important connection to life back home?
Are there others you know who are also making the journey for their higher education studies? Are any of your classmates attending a U.S. college or university? If so, connecting with them before you leave, exchanging telephone numbers or social media profiles, and making plans to meet up during a school break can make the transition more bearable and give you something to look forward to in the coming months.
Shared experiences with a former classmate, even if you are not at the same institution, can be a big advantage. Both through good times and bad, having someone who can relate to your journey can provide a useful emotional safety net for you. So keeping up with your classmates in the weeks and months before you fly off to your new adventure makes perfect sense.
Seek out opportunities to attend events near you that will help prepare you for your journey to the United States. EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network of 400+ advising centers in 170 countries, provides great resources for students about to leave for U.S. study. Each major center hosts pre-departure orientations for those headed to the United States and offers sessions on how to get ready for the trip, what to bring, and what to know about U.S. culture and about how day-to-day life in America differs from life in your country. You may also hear from recent alumni of U.S. colleges and universities about their survival tips and best practices for life on campus.
In addition to EducationUSA, other organizations or agencies may provide pre-departure assistance or sessions. If you are going to an institution that attracts many students from your country or city, that school may host admitted student receptions, perhaps hosted by alumni of that university or college who live locally. You could not ask for a better head start on your journey than having a chance to connect with others from your country who will be attending the same college.
U.S. colleges and universities
To be clear, beside you and your family, the ones most invested in your eventual success are the colleges and universities you attend. The best institutions in the United States for international students are the ones that intentionally plan for your needs. Interestingly, U.S. News & World Report (USN&WR) recently produced its first list of Top Universities for International Students. In producing this list (which is not a ranking of institutions), USN&WR looked at a variety of factors that relate to how well these colleges and universities provide for the needs of their international students. One of those factors involves having international student orientations. Moreover, many colleges now hold virtual pre-arrival sessions to get the most critical information into your hands before you leave home.
Much of the advice that representatives give to incoming international students has to do with being organized in the weeks and months before departing for the United States. Making lists of what you need to bring, becoming familiar with the airports you might be flying into, reading about your academic program and learning as much about where you might be living are at the top of the list. Harry Swartz, Student Services Adviser at the University of Kansas’s Academic Accelerator Program, shares a particularly useful tip: “Look at Google maps before leaving. They have a cool feature called ‘Street View’ that allows you to navigate through actual pictures of city streets and see what buildings look like. If you know you are going to have to go somewhere unknown such as a hotel or campus building, you can get a very good feel for what the place looks like before you ever get there.”
Having a “self-care plan” may be a bit unfamiliar for international students to grasp, but this plan can be so critical to a student’s emotional success while in the United States. Lauren Van Sant, Student Services Director at FIU, indicates “every international student going abroad will have that moment where they get homesick or become overwhelmed by school work or feel lonely. Instead of waiting for that situation to arrive and hoping you will figure it out when it happens, make a plan! Think about what the warning signs are you exhibit when you are feeling overwhelmed. Then, write down how you plan to address those things. Thinking about this in advance will help you handle tough situations that may arise and will help make sure you get the resources you need to help you through it.”
Close communications with family members is essential in any international student’s journey, particularly in tough times. Katelynn Girardo, Student Services Advisor at the University of Kansas’s Academic Accelerator Program, suggests that students make a communication plan with their families. Because students are often up late studying and due to some significant time differences, Girardo advises students “to talk with their family and set expectations on what time and how frequently they can commit to calling home. If the student sets the expectation before leaving, everyone will start on the same page when the student arrives on campus.”
A final tip that most universities say is essential for a smoother transition to U.S. life is to practice your English. Vogel recommends students should “watch English language television programs, read English language books/magazines/newspapers, speak in English whenever you can. Confidence in your abilities is as important as your competence so keep practicing.”
What to bring?
Many of our U.S. campus experts comment that when it comes to preparing for a long journey to and long stay in the United States, making lists is an important best practice. From the documents and items you need to carry on the plane (transcripts, passport, I-20, admission letters, financial documents, medicine, contact information for the international students office on your college’s campus), to what you should pack in your checked luggage (photos/flash drives, mementos, etc.), there is much to consider. As Sine suggests, “the last thing I would do is pack a bottle of your favorite spices, seasoning, or sauce, and some snacks/goodies to introduce your new friends to your culture. Food is always a great ice breaker!”
While the practical items to bring with you are critical, there is great value in preparing yourself emotionally for where you will be living. Lauren Stone, Managing Director of the University of South Carolina’s International Accelerator Program, comments, “I like to let my head and heart travel before my body leaves home too! I do that by reading about the place I am going to. I like to read about local customs but also enjoy reading novels set in the place I am going. Those stories let me understand things about the culture which are hard to capture on a checklist.”
With only a few weeks remaining before the start of the next academic year in the United States,
Swartz says “enjoy the journey. Moving to another country by yourself can be scary or intimidating, but those feelings are normal and there will be plenty of friendly people to help you along the way.” For many students, the move to an American college or university is the biggest transition they have ever made. Without question, it is important to take a step back to gain some perspective on what is happening. As Tricia Ortega, Director of Admissions at FIU’s Global First Year, concludes, “always remember to breathe and take it all in! This is such an exciting time as you embark on an amazing new educational journey. Trust in the process even when it’s overwhelming and know that there’s a team of people on campus waiting to help you through it.” Excellent advice!