For countless international students, the dream of pursuing high school or higher education in a new country represents both immense opportunities and significant challenges. The excitement of experiencing a new culture is tempered by the nervousness of fitting in and making a home away from home.
I know this experience, both the ups and the downs. Leaving China at the age of 18 and participating in higher educational programs in both Canada and the United States gave me a unique understanding of life as an international student. If you've decided to set out on this incredible journey, here's my guide to help you navigate this transformational period.
Understand Culture Shock
Culture shock is a common experience among international students of any age. It refers to the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that arise from encountering a new culture. There are typically four stages:
- 1The Honeymoon Phase: Initially, everything in the new country feels exciting and novel. I remember getting off the plane in Canada and feeling an immense sense of anticipation. New sights, new sounds, I was ready to take on the world!
- 2Negotiation Phase: After about a month, I started feeling homesick, frustrated, or even irritated by cultural differences. Once I got over the initial excitement, I found myself missing the creature comforts of home. Certainly, the Chinese food in America is just not authentic -- but the hardest part was not having anyone to express myself in Mandarin.
- 3Adjustment Phase: Gradually, I learned to understand and adapt to the new culture. I talk more about how I did this in my thoughts below.
- 4Mastery Phase: I started to feel comfortable in the new culture, almost as though it's a second home. At this point, I felt American culture had truly become my identity.
Stay Connected to Home
While it's essential to immerse yourself in your new environment, keeping in touch with your roots can provide emotional grounding:
Build A Support System
Networking with other international students and local residents will ease the adjustment process. Join clubs or student groups regardless of whether you’re in high school, college, or graduate school. Participate in meet-ups to build friendships and connections. I was lucky; the themes of “teamwork” and team projects were ingrained in the MBA program I participated in when I came to the United States. We were encouraged to network and go to events, which at first made me extremely nervous. Over time, though, I pushed myself to take advantage of these events being offered by the school – and in the process was much better off for it.
Holidays can be difficult. It can be exciting to celebrate holidays with your new friends or your host family, and it is fascinating to learn the history of various holidays. At the same time, it can be hard to celebrate major holidays far from home, far from what you are used to.
For me, it was certainly difficult. We don’t celebrate Christmas in China, and I didn’t always have the finances to travel home. My school in America had an international fellowship program which really helped me through those difficult moments. Also, there was a church next to my school; originally I had only gone into the church because of a furniture sale, but then I connected with a couple there who invited me to their home for Christmas. It was a very kind gesture on their part, and an incredible experience for me. I urge you to find ways to be around others during these stretches.
Embrace the Local Culture
Learn the local language: If you are a high school exchange student or a college or graduate international student in Canada or the U.S., your classes are in English. If you are doing a study abroad program elsewhere, maybe you are taking classes in the local language or maybe not. Regardless -- knowing the local language will help you not just in school, but in daily life.
The language barrier was by far for me the biggest challenge – there is just no avoiding it. Teens and young adults aren’t always the most socially accepting, and they may not be aware of your personal circumstances. Some people can be downright cruel! I didn’t always feel comfortable joining conversations when I couldn’t understand the topic or when I couldn’t quite follow the conversation. It’s hard to be brave to speak up when you’re sure you don’t really know what’s going on or when you think your hesitation and accent will make it hard for others to understand you. I did not watch the same TV shows, I didn’t play the same games -- but my advice is just be patient, be confident, and don’t give up! It does get better, and you will find it easier as time goes on.
For me, finding other international students from China helped. There were more Cantonese speakers at my school in Canada than there were Mandarin speakers, so I found myself learning to speak Cantonese as it was an easier jump. This was initially helpful in expanding my friendship circle as I continued to seek new experiences while mastering English. Similarly, I found students from India were also experiencing the same culture shock. Like me, their English was not the best, and we connected instantly. Other international students, whether you’re in high school or college, will understand what you are going through.
Participate in local events and activities to understand cultural nuances. My school in Cleveland is known for the Cleveland Orchestra – and students got free tickets! I found the classical music to be fantastic; there are no language barriers with music. Another thought is to try local cuisine -- maybe even take a cooking class.
Take Care of Your Health
Adjusting to a new country can be stressful. Remember:
Understand Academic Expectations
Educational systems vary around the world. Attend academic workshops or seek guidance from academic advisors to understand grading systems, examination patterns, and assignment expectations. High school international students should not forget to talk to host parents if you’re in a homestay situation or your school counselor if you’re an international student in a private school dorm. College and graduate students also need to reach out to their school’s international student office. Don’t try to do it all on your own!
The cost of living might be different from your home country. Create a monthly budget -- and stick to it. Understand the local currency, especially if exchange rates fluctuate.
If you’re in college or grad school, you might want to think about the possibility of part-time work if your visa allows this. It not only provides extra income but also offers a chance to immerse yourself further. This isn’t an option for high school students – but high school students can, perhaps, volunteer with a local organization for a few hours/week.
Keep An Open Mind
Studying abroad is a unique experience. There will be moments of frustration, but these are overshadowed by the countless memories, learnings, and friendships you'll make. Embrace the journey with an open mind, and you'll come out of it richer in experience and perspective.
Life in a new country offers a mix of adventures, learning curves, and precious memories. To all international students out there, cherish this phase, for it's one of the most defining periods of your life!
Good luck on your journey!
Amy is the founder of AmyBabys. She’s a working mom with an MBA, hailing from China, educated in Canada, and now residing in Cleveland, Ohio. She juggles her finance career with raising two young children and researching baby gear for new parents.