Focus on Tips for International Students in the U.S.

Focus on Tips for International Students in the U.S.

International Students in the U.S. face added challenges as they adjust to a new culture, a new educational tradition, and in some cases, a new language. There are steps that international students can take to better acclimate to these new surroundings. Jonathan Ginsberg, Operations Director at Beyond Education Consulting (BEEC) and international student consulting expert, offers some valuable tips for international students in the U.S. Read on for expert insights and helpful tips for international students in American colleges.

The United States draws more than 1 million international students to its colleges. According to The Power of International Education (IIE), this comprises the world’s largest international student population, and accounts for roughly 5% of the college population in the United States.

While international students make up a significant portion of the American student body, this population does face an array of unique challenges. We spoke with Jonathan Ginsberg, Operations Director at Beyond Education Consulting (BEEC), to learn more. Ginsberg has extensive experience working with students in China who aspire to attend college or graduate school in the U.S. Ginsberg channeled that experience into these helpful tips for international students in the U.S.

Visit America First

The cultural adjustment can be among the most challenging aspects of attending school in the U.S. Ginsberg advises getting a bit of exposure to this culture before being fully immersed in your education. As he notes, “Exposure to American campus culture BEFORE students arrive is really critical. What can be most jarring is when expectations are mismatched with reality. So if possible, visiting America and college campuses before arriving is helpful.”

Research Your Locale

Many students do not have the option to visit America first. If visiting isn’t a possiblity for you, immerse yourself in the research. Read about the region and community surrounding your campus. Learn about the local population, nearby attractions, shops, restaurants, public transportation, the cost of car rental, the general climate, and anything else that might improve yoru preparedness for this new setting.

Get a Mentor!

Ginsberg also notes that “having a strong American mentor to introduce deeper aspects of campus culture and life here is very important.”

Ginsberg observes that, “Inevitably each student has their own history and preferences and the problems they run into are unique to them. General guides are great, but only go so far. There are of course many good student support services on campuses, but their ability to have face-time/work with students deeply on an individual basis is limited.”

Reach out to your school before your arrival to find out how you can be matched with a mentor. If your school doesn’t provide this service, find out how you can be connected to actual students at your school. Your local American classmates are in a particularly good position to support your adjustment to your new surroundings by helping you get to know the area and offering useful tips for campus survival.

Attend Orientation Week

Attending orientation week gives international students a chance to meet their American classmates as well as other international students, advisors, International Student Organization leaders, and others helpful campus personnel. This week also offers the perfect opportunity to connect with organizations, clubs, and many people that you will become friends with during your time at college.

Get Involved

Your support system goes well beyond your mentor, advisors, or professors. Your fellow students will play an important part in your ability to adjust. Ginsberg acknowledges that while visiting in advance might be ideal, many international students only truly begin to realize the difficulty of acclimating to their new surroundings after arrival.

For students who are “experiencing culture shock or some difficulties acclimating — we would say get involved; it sounds counterintuitive when a student is already feeling uncomfortable, but it’s the only way. Luckily there are so many resources for students to get involved.”

Student-run organizations, cultural societies, Greek life, intramural sports, and a host of other options can put you in direct contact with other students. If you must, step outside of your comfort zone and experience something new.

Find Your Community

When you do take that leap, you significantly improve your chances of finding a place on campus where you can feel at home. Meet others who share your interests and values. Do more than join groups. Contribute. Collaborate. Become a part of something bigger.

Ginsberg points out that “it can be really empowering to go over all the offices and organizations available on campus with students — so they see how many micro-communities they already fit into. We don’t want students to fight against their natural passions and tendencies, but rather just find the spaces on campus where they already naturally exhibit interest. From there, the rest can blossom well.”

Practice the Language

International students often face the added challenge of learning the language while attempting to complete their studies. Ginsberg acknowledges the importance of mastering the English language. But he also notes that this kind of mastery can’t be achieved without a concerted effort.

“Some people,” he observes, “have a false belief it can be learned passively through osmosis. It requires absolute active participation to make improvements in language learning. To be in an English speaking environment just means that the active participation is easier to execute as the opportunities to do so are everywhere.”

Participation is the operative word. Get out there and mingle with your fellow students. Go to parties. Join study groups. Accompany your floor-mates to an all-night diner. Be a part of the conversation!

Immerse in the Culture

In addition to being part of the conversation, be part of the culture. Immerse yourself in as many aspects of American culture as you can. Learn the language, lifestyle, and study habits of American college students. Attend sporting events, concerts, and theatre performances. Check out restaurants, go shopping, and visit the local attractions.

Ginsberg advises that “Students must actively listen in class and in conversations, actively speak, actively watch TV shows, actively read textbooks and content for fun. Of course structure for such learning is very helpful with an experienced teacher — for the sake of efficiency and motivation, if nothing else.”

You shouldn’t feel the need to assimilate or surrender your own cultural background. But the more you can learn and understand about American culture, the more likely you are to feel comfortable learning on an American campus.

Get Financial Aid

International students are not eligible for federal financial aid. While most American students will fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) every year that they plan to attend college, international students do not qualify for this form of aid. Fortunately, Ginsberg notes, there are other options available specifically to international students.

From his own work as a consultant, Ginsberg notes that “Many colleges are open to/happy to offer aid to international students, whether need-based or merit-based. It’s very case-by-case and college-by-college, but it’s always great to see when our international students not only get into their dream school, but they even get a scholarship too!”

Reach out to your college financial aid office, as well as the International Student Program office at your school, to find out if any grant or scholarship programs exist for international students like you.

If you’re interested in learning more about scholarships available to international students, check out our Guide to Scholarships for College.

Take Advantage of Academic Flexibility

Ginsberg notes that one of the distinguishing features of American schools is their higher degree of academic flexibility. The ability to change majors all the way through the end of sophomore year is a “fundamentally unique aspect” as well as “a nearly universal practice in America,” says Ginsberg.

He notes that this is, “of course a plus, and not a hurdle — but I believe it is the only truly fundamentally unique aspect of the US college system, versus say England — from which the US education system is based.”

Consider this flexibility as you explore potential majors and degree programs. As a student in America, you have the unique opportunity to truly explore all of your options before making a long-term commitment. Take full advantage of this opportunity.

Have No Fear

Ginsberg points out that, while “‘safety’ itself is the concern — with no specific aspect to pinpoint… We are very happy that our students have always been safe during their time studying in America.”

American college campuses present a number of safety and health risks — including substance abuse, sexual assault, hazing, bullying, and more. While these risks are heightened for students, Ginsberg suggests that international students are at no higher risk of these hazards than are other students. If you are planning on attending college in the U.S., be sure that you become familiar with your surroundings, that you know what resources you have at your disposal if you feel at risk, and that you understand any heightened risks of crime, civil unrest, or racial tension in your surrounding community.

As long as you have a strong understanding of your surroundings and you know how to take the proper precautions, Ginsberg suggests you should have no cause for concern. “Schools are extremely serious about campus safety” says Ginsberg, “whether that means dedicated security staff patrolling campus, free shuttles at night to pick up students, etc.”

To learn more about health and safety on U.S. college campuses, check out our Guide to Surviving College.

Take the Leap

The most important piece of advice that Ginsberg offers is this — “Study abroad…period.”

The experience, he suggests, is safe, valuable, and educationally enriching, as long as you allow yourself to be truly immersed. “Acclimating to a new environment and culture,” says Ginsberg, “is at the core.”

If you can do this, you stand to gain an experience and an education to last a lifetime.


For critical information on applying to college, securing your student visa, and more, check out our Guide to College for International Students.

If you’re interested in learning more about scholarships available to international students, check out our Guide to Scholarships for College.

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