It’s hard leaving home to attend college. Even harder than that is leaving home to attend college in an entirely different country. According to this Los Angeles Times article, in 2016, a record high of 1 million foreign students chose America as their destination for higher education.
So what do you think? Do you want to study in the U.S.?
If so, as someone who attended boarding school in the States for the last four years and is now a freshman at an American university, I have some wisdom to share with you. Indeed, regardless of your major, where you’re from, and what degree you’re pursuing, these tips will help you make a smooth transition into your American college life.
1. Learn the “American” Culture
Honestly, there isn’t an American culture. The cultural scene in the United States hinges on a variety of different languages, cuisines, and religious beliefs. On the one hand, its diversity encourages conversation and offers everyone multiple perspectives on any given topic. And on the other, diversity can lead to tension between groups that hold conflicting opinions..
Therefore, the best way for international students like us to “learn” American culture is to listen closely and actively engage in all the conversations happening within and outside of our community. Yes, do go to that sports game all your friends are buzzing about. Do eat at the local fast food joints. But never pass up the opportunity to just sit down and talk to people and hear their stories. Trust me, there’s a lot more to American culture than burgers and basketball!
2. Don’t Be Shy—Make Friends!
When I first came to the United States in 2013, I was really shy. You can imagine my surprise the first time I saw my American friends saying “Hi” to strangers on the streets, complimenting their clothes (“OMG, I love your dress today!”), and “making” friends on social media platforms like Facebook.
In many other countries, American culture is often compared to the “peach”. Like a peach, it’s soft on the outside, signaling the relative ease with which you get to meet people and make friends. But it might take a while before you get to know them well—in other words, getting to the “core” of the culture is much harder.
This by no means should scare you away. On the contrary, I encourage you to leave your comfort zone and embrace the “extroverted” American culture while still respecting others’ and, more importantly, your own privacy and space.
3. Be Proud of Where You Come From
As mentioned above, diversity can also cause troubles. Geographical distance sometimes oversimplifies the “characteristics” of other cultures. As a result, some Americans might have stereotypical opinions about your country.
For example, back in boarding school, when I first told my friends that I was Chinese, they immediately assumed that I worshiped Chairman Mao and, later, would point to the dogs on the street and asked jokingly, “Your dinner?” I deemed it my responsibility to clear away these stereotypes. So I wrote an article for the school newspaper, in which I asked American students to ask ten questions about China and had Chinese students answer them. It might not have had a huge impact on my community. But it raised awareness and I was proud to have been the one to do it.
It’s time to represent. Be proud of where you’re from and who you are. Share your stories with others so they can know you and your home better. By doing so, you also get the chance to take a step back and see your country through the lens of another culture. The best way to understand a place is by leaving it.
4. Learn A New Language
You might find this one a bit surprising.
Yes, you are already in a foreign country speaking a language that’s very likely not your native tongue. Despite that, I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve grown so much as a person and citizen of the world by learning Spanish. Learning a third language in the States offers you an even clearer understanding of both your native tongue and the American English.
Plus, given the wide array of languages spoken in the U.S., it’s needless to say that you can meet so much more interesting people with every new language you pick up.
5. Travel A lot
Come on, the United States is a big country. Huge, even.
Take a winter road trip on Route 1. Visit the Grand Canyon on your spring break. Plan a hike in Yellowstone for the upcoming summer.
There are so many things to do. So travel around to see and be seen.
6. Keep in Touch with Your Parents and Friends at Home
You might call your parents and old friends fairly frequently during the period of time it takes to adjust to a new environment after first arriving on campus. But as time goes by, you might start talking less and less, until you’ve totally fallen out of touch with some—or even all—of your loved ones back home. We all know college is a great place to make new friends and form new relationships. But that’s no real excuse to neglect those that have been with you every step of the way.
Find a balance between your new adventures and your connections back home. Talk to your family and friends on a regular basis. It can be once a week or once a month—it doesn’t matter. Just don’t go cold on them. You might end up regretting not having someone to talk to about your exciting journeys abroad once you’re back home for break.
7. Relax and Enjoy
Finally, college is about having fun, meeting new people, and figuring out what you want to do with your future.
GPA does matter. But it’s not everything. Try to relax and enjoy your life. Embrace everything that comes your way with curiosity and passion. Whenever you feel lonely or frustrated, talk to the people around you—teachers, friends, your family back home. They are here to support you.
Tiancheng “Tim” Lyu is a former Apolish student and current Summer Intern in the New York Office. He is a Comparative Literature major at Columbia University.