Campus life at American universities can be intimidating for any student. With more than 3,000 institutions of higher learning across the country, and an average of 20.4 million college students, it is easy for even the most prepared student to feel lost in the system.
Remember that you are not alone. There are more than 1.1 million international students just like yourself studying in the US, and with a few easy tips, you will feel right at home enjoying the American collegiate experience that drew you to the country in the first place.
1. Know the rules of “the game”
Knowing the hierarchy and structure of the university can help you feel part of the community, and also helps you to know where to turn for assistance when you need it. Before attending an American university, it is important to do some research on the structure, expectations, and vocabulary of US academia.
Looking up titles such as president (chief operating officer), provost (chief academic officer), registrar (person in charge of course selection), resident director (person in charge of student accommodation), and more will help you know who you are talking to and who is in charge.
When it comes to grading, marks in the US are given as a percentage out of 100, and then converted into a letter grade. A course syllabus, handed out at the start of the course, usually includes how your grade is compiled for that course. For example, acing the test is not always enough to pass a class in the United States.
Many classes dedicate a percentage of your grade to your class participation, attendance, projects, and other elements. Every class is different, but a syllabus acts as a contract between student and teacher that outlines what will be covered, when, and how. Use this as your guide and to remember faculty members’ names, title, office locations, and office hours.
Lastly, academic work in the US can be challenging, often with a significant amount of reading and writing. Being prepared for that can help to avoid any surprises.
2. Look up your student support resources before you go
The international office at any university is more than just a place for mixers and potlucks, though these are fun. The international office is an international student’s first point of contact at school, and quickly becomes a home away from home.
Not sure where to go or who to ask? Start at the international office, and they can give you advice on the best next steps. Don’t forget that they are expertly trained professionals who are there to guide and advise you.
Beyond this, US universities offer a plethora of student support services that are specifically designed to ensure all students have the network of support they need to succeed in their education. You never know when you’ll need help writing a paper, need medicine when you’re feeling sick, or need someone to talk to if you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
Make it a point to walk around and visit these critical resources: housing services, counselling services, the student health centre, student attorney (legal services), campus police, tutoring services and writing centre.
In addition to services, campuses also offer other things such as travel grants, scholarships, research offices, and mentoring.
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3. Learn to network and take notes
This is a unique opportunity to learn about a culture other than your own. However, don’t forget that it allows you to educate your new community about your own life and culture back home.
Saying yes to opportunities is how you learn about these things and meet new people. While it may be easy to stick with other international students when you first get to campus, try to branch out and attend events with American students as well. There should be a full list of student organisations on your university website or through your university’s student centre.
Don't be nervous about meeting US students. Being an international student means you have a unique perspective that others may not have. If you are worried about interacting with strangers, think about how to summarise yourself in a few sentences. If you practise how to introduce yourself and what you want to say, it will make talking to people a little easier.
4. You do not need to know everything and don’t be afraid to ask for help
Never be afraid to raise your hand or ask for clarification when you don’t quite understand something. That extends beyond the classroom too.
While it is important to prepare for culture shock and familiarise yourself with your campus, higher education is meant to be a time to learn and explore as a community. It is helpful to remember that a lot of the other students on campus are also likely to be away from home and are adjusting to a new place too.
So the main things to remember: know your resources, get involved, say yes to everything, and be sure to connect with as many people as you can.
Remember that this a unique opportunity that you will spend the rest of your life reflecting upon – so make the most of it.