Five things you hadn’t thought to prepare for as an international student

Before becoming an international higher education expert and author, Dr Rajika Bhandari left India at the age of 21 to study abroad in the US. Here are her top five things to consider when moving abroad as an international student

Dr Rajika Bhandari's avatar

Dr Rajika Bhandari

International Higher Education Expert and Author
October 21 2021
A group of university students studying in a library


What does it take to succeed as an international student?

I wish someone had given me the answer to this question when I embarked on my international student journey many years ago from India to the US.

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I was a naive 21-year-old, filled with ideas and dreams of the US, but with almost no understanding of what lay ahead – the challenge of being a foreign student in a different country and culture, as well as all the wonderful opportunities this experience would bring.

Most international students are pretty savvy when it comes to preparing for their studies, but there are a lot of other factors that are critical to your success and happiness as an international student.

Below are five things you might not have thought about as you embark on your education abroad.

My advice comes not just from my own experience but also through my work over the past two decades of being a researcher and observer of the international student experience and from having met, taught and mentored many international students from all over the world.

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  1. Be prepared for a different classroom culture

For students from many regions in the world – as was the case for me – the feeling of authority in the classroom was very different from Western countries such as the US and the UK.

How many of you squirm at the thought of calling your professors by their first names, of raising your hand in class or even asking questions to your professor?

I was far too shy to speak up as a student – I constantly worried that I would be seen as stupid. 

As an international student you have a unique voice, so push yourself and try to turn the conversation taking place in your thoughts into a real dialogue with your professors and classmates.

Engage with the information, find your own working patterns, and ask all the questions you’re burning to ask. 

  1. Prepare to experiment with your learning

Education systems in countries such as the US encourage flexibility, experimentation and interdisciplinary learning. The advantage of this is that you can really stretch your interests and explore different disciplines as a student. Don’t take this opportunity for granted.

I originally came to the US to study psychology, but my coursework and interests took a different path. This was because I was exposed to certain ideas and disciplines for the first time and decided to see where they led me. So don’t pass up the chance to experiment, change up your studies, and test boundaries throughout your degree. 

  1. Scholarship and grant opportunities are there, but you will have to dig for them

One of the harsh realities of being an international student is the financial struggle. Student visas often restrict the number of working hours you can take on while studying abroad, which doesn’t help.

However, if you cast your net wide and research thoroughly, you will often find that there are many scholarship opportunities available to international students, even after you arrive in your destination country.

Beyond well-known and highly competitive full scholarships, lots of universities have smaller grants and funding opportunities available to support international students in various ways.

Be sure to research thoroughly, and don’t be afraid to send emails to external organisations and your university department or international office to ask about funding.

  1. Remember this is more than an academic opportunity

When you study abroad, remember that you are not just embarking on an academic journey. This is a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in a completely new society and culture.

Our understandings of other countries are so often based on the media we consume, which can be misleading and incomplete. How much do you really know about the society you are about to enter? Do you have some understanding of that country’s history? Are you aware of what social injustice or inequality looks like in that country?

Leaving home offers you an opportunity to confront your own biases and to recognise injustice in your home countries as well. The experience of coming to the US as a student stretched my boundaries and challenged my thinking and assumptions in ways I hadn’t imagined.

  1. This is your chance to become a global citizen

Finally, as you embark on your international student journey, think of yourself as an unofficial global ambassador – a diplomat for your country, bringing an understanding of your culture to the classrooms and campus of the country in which you study.

You might end up carrying what you have learned back to your home country or elsewhere. As you prepare to study abroad, consider your future place in the world and how to best shape your education and time abroad to become the global citizen you can and need to be.

Dr Rajika Bhandari is an international higher education expert, the founder of Rajika Bhandari Advisors, and the author of the new memoir America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility.

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