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Challenges International Students Face in Adjusting to their New Environment: My Personal Story
The purpose of this article is to describe my personal experience in the American graduate schools I attended as a foreign exchange scholar and to make suggestions to prospective international students. It is hoped that these suggestions would equip them with the knowledge of how to adjust to their new living and learning environment in a foreign country. These recommendations are needed to the extent that the smooth transition into their new environment requires that they receive adequate and accurate information prior to their departure to a host nation, on their arrival on college campuses, and throughout their academic programs. While there is a plethora of challenges that international students face in a foreign country, the focus of this article is on those that are common to all including culture shock, food cravings, adverse weather conditions, academic hurdles, language barriers, healthcare insecurity, stereotyping, financial difficulties and loneliness.
1. Culture shock
Excitement, enthusiasm and eagerness are the best nouns to describe the way I felt when I received a scholarship to study in the United States of America. I was particularly excited about the prospects of immersing in a new culture and experiencing what the outside world had to offer in terms of education, networking, and employment. But as I started to interact with people, it became clear that I had a lot to learn about my new environment. It took me a reasonable amount of time to start tolerating and accepting the way things are done. I noticed that young people hug a lot, smile a lot, talk easily and share their personal stories to strangers while older people are somewhat cold and distant. It was difficult for me at first to understand why homosexuality was protected by law; the idea behind gay parades; why leaving a restaurant without paying a tip was considered rude or impolite and yet workers are paid a salary; the criteria used to determine and impose restrictions on the drinking age; and why it was acceptable for children to talk freely with and to their parents. Although I came determined to do everything possible to cope with the new environment, the ups and downs of adjusting to the new culture challenged me exceedingly. At times I found myself rejecting everything around me. But with time, I came back to my senses; I realized that achieving my educational goals took precedence over worrying much about other people's way of life. Talking to other international students, I found out that most of them experienced similar culture shock episodes. To cope with the challenges of the new culture, I convinced myself that everything was normal. I also tried to keep in touch with friends and family back home, joined faith and religious associations, participated in activities of interest such as playing soccer with my friends and maintained a certain level of confidence in myself. There are other things that international students can do to alleviate themselves from culture shock such as keeping an open mind; not assuming or interpreting behavior basing on their own culture; getting to know people in their new environment; taking a break from study and taking part in social activities; asking questions about social customs of the host nation from people with whom they feel comfortable; exercising and keeping fit physically; and maintaining a sense of humor.
2. Food cravings
Adjusting to foreign food was a major challenge for me. On one Thanksgiving Day, an acquaintance of mine invited me to a restaurant that specialized in serving raw fish. I left without eating dinner, which disappointed my friend; I just didn't understand why people ate uncooked fish. Another day the university organized a party for new associates and I was also invited. I picked a plate and went to the food menu picking on each and every type of food they had prepared; and the next thing I knew, I was on the section with the label "frog legs." When he saw me looking disoriented by reading the label over and over, the chief cook came to talk to me. " life is too short not to try out everything," he said. "Are those really frog legs?" I asked. "Yes! And they test like chicken!" It was incomprehensible to me that some people could cook frogs. When I shared the story with my friend from China, he told me that in China they have a saying that, "everything that flies in the air, everything that lives in water or on land is edible." Talking to the majority of the foreign students, I learned that finding the food they liked was one of their major adjustment deterrents. My problem with the American food was solved when the volunteers from the International Student Services introduced me to one African community organization in Portland. Through that organization, I found friends from various parts of Africa who gave me valuable information on where to find large grocery stores that dedicate to foreign foods. They also recommendation that I visit oriental, African, Indian, Mexican, and Italian restaurants that served a variety of exotic foods. In my struggle to adjust to foreign food, I met nice people and helpful social services agencies that were available to assist foreign students with necessary information. Therefore, international students need to make efforts to reach out to these agencies because they sometimes serve as information clearinghouses for foreign visitors.
3. Weather conditions
At the time of my arrival in the US, the weather was not much different from the weather in the region of my country which I grew up in. But as winter set in at the end of November, life became unbearable. I learned that if I had to stay warm during winter, I had to put on layers of clothes all the time, which always made me very uncomfortable. Winter was the most unpleasant season of the year for me; summers were equally as distressing especially during days when temperatures went over eighty degrees. My advice to foreign scholars is that they should seek adequate information about their new colleges a few months in advance to find out about weather conditions so that they can have an idea of what to pack and how to plan to deal with weather changes.
4. Language barriers
In some of the courses I took with students from other continents such as Asia, Africa, and Europe, I noticed their difficulty in following assignment instructions. One student intimidated that she seldom raised her hand to ask or answer questions for the fear of being humiliated in case the professor refused to acknowledge her. The problem was compounded by the fact that English was not the first language of many foreign students and yet speaking proficiently and writing correctly are keys for success in graduate school. Foreign students could overcome the language barrier by practicing their speaking English whenever they are with non-English speaking colleagues. And when applying for a job, they could ask native speakers of the language to proofread their cover letters, resumes, and emails. I found that networking with International Student Services, volunteer organizations, churches and other community organizations was very resourceful. Colleges and universities could also play their part by outreaching to foreign scholars to identify their needs. This could be achieved by providing them information on language immerse opportunities, mentorship programs, and by making referrals to language banks and other translation services on and off-campus.
5. Academic hurdles
Coming from the British educational background, I found the American education system to be a bit challenging. The grading system based on tests and class participation was different from the hands-on style of teaching I was accustomed to in my home country. I noticed that in America, learning is a collaborative experience and elective courses are encouraged in order to give students a wide range of experiences. One of the subjects I took for my master's program was computer and educational technology. Although I had passed that paper highly in theory during my undergraduate studies, neither had I ever used a computer nor seen one. Not being technically inclined at the time, I asked my professor to allow me to write my assignments, but he encouraged me to take a typing class. Learning to type was very difficult for me at first, but with a lot of patience and persistence, I was able to improve my typing skills by the end of the first semester. One year later, I had caught up with the rest of my classmates in my computer and educational technology course. And by the end of my degree program, I had learned most of the basic Microsoft computer applications, which earned me a job as a graduate assistant in my graduate school. What I discovered through my computer learning experience was that if one is determined and focused, he can overcome even the most complex academic challenges. To my prospective international students, I suggest that they be persistent and resilient in their effort to adjust to their new learning experiences. They could also benefit from joining study groups, getting involved with campus social programs, and keeping in touch with their professors and asking questions that could help them address their academic challenges. Having a manageable study schedule can also help them complete assignments in a timely manner. It is critical that foreign scholars understand that the successful completion of their graduate studies depends on their ability to network with like-minded people and forming professional relationships that eliminate some of the stigmas that are associated with immersing in the new culture.
6. Healthcare insecurity
Headaches and colds often bothered me when I had just arrived in the US, especially during weather changes. One day I experienced serious migraines and went to see a doctor. Neither did I have insurance coverage, nor did I understand the American healthcare system. After paying a doctor's visitation fee, I was given prescriptions which I was told to go and fill at a private pharmacy and pay more money. My expectation was that the fee I paid also covered the medicine for my illness, but that was not how the healthcare system works in the United States of America. Although the university had students' health services office, it catered most to the domestic students. What I found was that many international students do not seek mental health counseling because of the stigma associated with mental health; however, there are very many caring mental health professionals in the universities' student health services departments who are there to help students with appropriate medical referrals.
Stereotyping is the widely held, but fixed and oversimplified image of a particular person. More often than not, international students are stereotyped as victims, cheats and permanent resident hunters. My first encounter with prejudice happened on my first flight. As soon as boarded the airplane on my way to the US, a flight attendant asked me for my boarding pass. She looked at me, then at my air ticket and asked me to step aside and wait. I waited until all the passengers had boarded and taken their seats, but she did not direct me to my seat. Then I approached a male flight attendant who asked me to follow him to the first-class section of the flight. When we got to my seat, I found out that it was occupied by a European lady whose seat was supposed to be in the economy section. I did not know that my sponsors had bought me a first class air ticket. After pondering the incident, a thought crossed my mind that maybe the reason the flight attendant had given my seat away was because I did not look like her. I contemplated reporting the incident to the airplane management, but I opted to ignore it because the problem was with her as an individual not with the entire company.
Another incident happened after I had arrived in the US. One day I became bored of staying in my room alone and decided to go and do some shopping at the nearby departmental store. When I got to the door of the store, a Caucasian lady came running to block me from entering. "How can I help you?" she asked. "I am just shopping around," I answered. "You cannot be shopping around here! This store is for members only." "What do you sell?" I asked. "We sell everything, except guns, drugs, and alcohol." She had preconceived notions about African Americans and thought that I fit their description.
Towards the end of my master's program, I approached the dean of the graduate school and shared with her my intention to pursue a doctorate after my master's degree. She objected. I asked why, and she said, "Vincent if I were you, I would have by now gotten my bags packed ready to board an evening train back to my home country on the eve of my graduation." "Why do you say that?" I asked. "African students are never successful at the doctoral level." For a moment, I was startled by her statement; I could not believe that a person in her position of power could make such disparaging remarks about an international scholar. Then I responded to her politely, "your personal views about foreign students are based on wrong assumptions, which make you reach wrong conclusions. I will pursue a doctoral program, and I will be successful." A few weeks later, I was invited to defend my statement of purpose at one university and I passed the interview. A few weeks later, I was admitted to a doctoral program in Educational Administration and Leadership. My encounter with the college administrator is a perfect example of how stereotypes can also be harbored by individuals who hold the positions of authority in our society today. The simplified opinions, such as the one my dean had of me, have the potential to undermine international students' ability to pursue their dreams, especially those who are not assertive enough to challenge them. International students can overcome these stereotypes by staying focused on their aspirations, working very hard to meet the academic requirements of their colleges, and seeking help from their academic advisors and from people who care deeply about seeing them succeed in their academic pursuits.
8. Financial challenges
The financial challenges graduates encounter are, in large measure, due to changes in their parents' or sponsors' financial status. Sometimes their sponsors have secured loans or borrowed money to send them to study abroad; but when their financial situations change, these sponsors become unable to sustain their children in college. I faced the same obstacle. Towards the end my master's degree, my benefactors informed me that they were unable to extend my scholarship into my doctoral studies, to the extent that the scholarship I came on was a revolving one--every two years another student from East Africa came on the same scholarship. The challenge came when Portland State University needed me to provide proof of financial support in order for the admissions office to complete my doctoral program file. After failing to find a sponsor, I started contemplating abandoning my doctoral studies and returning to my home country. One day, as I was walking down the street in downtown Portland, a vehicle stopped next to me. I got frightened and tried to walk a step faster ahead, but a middle-aged white lady put her head out the window of her vehicle and wanted to talk to me. I stopped. She was a retired medical doctor having a joy ride with her husband in town. The couple offered me a ride back to my dorm. With time, my friendship with the retired couple grew, and I was able to open up to them about my situation. They offered to sponsor my first year of doctoral studies. I also received a teaching assistantship to supplement my financial aid. As a graduate assistant, I provided computer training classes to professors and students in the Graduate School of Education. The financial support I received throughout my graduate studies was a rare occurrence for any international student. I felt very lucky. The financial challenges foreign students face are often worsened by the fact that their visa requirements do not allow them to work off campus, and the twenty hours a week they are allowed to work are not sufficient to meet their financial needs. Foreign scholars should have a detailed and reliable budget in order to plan their studies accordingly. Other funding sources such as merit-based and need-based scholarship offered by international organizations and individual schools or departments should be identified. Foreign exchange professionals can also search the web for multiple tuition and fees resources such as Abroad Planet Scholarship Resource, College Board, International Education Financial Aid, International Scholarships, Mobility International USA, and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Other sources could include private loans that need a cosigner and target students from specific regions. There are also interest-free loans such as the ones offered by The Organization of American States through Rowe Fund that target students from Latin America and Caribbean countries. Lawful residence such as refugees and asylum grantees also need to be aware of their eligibility for federal funds in form of loans, grants, and work-study opportunities.
9. Loneliness and boredom
I arrived in Portland, Oregon two weeks before the official opening of the semester. Although every effort was made by my sponsors and by academic advisors to make me feel at home, there are times when I felt overcome by boredom, which often times caused me anxiety and terrible headaches. Institutions, through their offices of international student affairs, should put in place programs to help foreigners overcome boredom and loneliness. Foreign students should also turn their loneliness into a strength by using that time to take more classes to meet the credit-hour requirements for their degree programs in order to graduate early or on schedule.
Adjusting to their new status as graduate students in a foreign country is a challenging experience especially for international students; however, they have a responsibility to identify social, academic and economic opportunities to help them address their language barriers, academic hurdles, financial difficulties, adverse weather conditions, stereotyping and culture shock. In order to alleviate themselves from the problem of boredom, they may try to keep in touch with their family and friends back home through social media such as Facebook, tweeter, face time, and email. They can also seek out friends and groups who share their interests. The host institution also could provide programs on international student advising, internships, mentoring, host family and other social programs that not only help international students adjust smoothly to their new environments but also enable them to grow personally and professionally.