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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 02-05-2018 19:18

Welcome to America: What most concerns international students

International students embark on a journey into the unknown when they head off to study abroad. Taking that step can be both an exciting and anxiety producing experience for many. On some occasions, the stress is so unbearable that students decide to give up and return home early. Here are some of the issues that most concern international students.

A few years back I worked with a bright, well-prepared student who applied to several, very selective, universities in the United States to study economics.

Many of the institutions on this student’s list were well known ‘on the street’ as we say, and his Korean parents had no problem bragging to their friends about his applications to them. However, one institution – a top-notch liberal arts school with the most outstanding academic programme – made a particularly appealing offer that included a scholarship worth almost 100 percent of the cost. You can imagine the excruciating emotional anguish the student had to go through facing this dilemma: to opt for a well known brand and pay the full cost, or to take advantage of a unique opportunity to have his studies paid for at an equally excellent university, albeit one that is not so known to the layman.

In this story, we can readily recognise several of the most common concerns that occupy international applicants right from the start. The dilemma starts with where to apply and what factors we need to take into consideration. How do you go about the process? Where do you find information? What should you look for? Students with minimal guidance will suffer more than those who are advised either at their schools or by independent counsellors. The data says it all: the United States boasts more than 4,000 institutions of higher education across 50 states in a vast land. Managing that amount of information and the decision-making process can be overwhelming and frustrating.

Facing the dilemma of where to apply brings with it anxiety: Will they admit me? Am I good enough? Did my school in Argentina prepare me sufficiently for this? Self-doubt creeps in and a loss of confidence can follow. But the truth is that, for the most part, Argentine students not only perform well in US colleges. Many go on to excel and lead in their areas of specialisation. One can find many Argentine citizens abroad who have taken key positions in all occupations, whether in the country they settle in or back in Argentina.

Money, money, money

Cost and financial aid are twin concerns for everyone these days. Education in the United States is extremely costly and that can be a recipe for concern and tremendous worry – as well as conflict – in all families. In the case of the Korean student, for example, you can obviously imagine the opposing views: the student yearning for the brand elite school, the father (while also dreaming of the same thing) was inclined to accept the large scholarship from the arts institution that would reduce the financial burden.

Having made a decision, many families even experience so-called ‘buyer’s remorse.’ Doubts can slowly creep in about whether or not the right decision was taken. All in all, it can be a very frustrating experience, of course. It is therefore very advisable to undertake the process as a united family. 

Other problems can arise too. An unconscious concern that can be aggravated upon arrival is that of language proficiency. Many international students are well prepared in the English language and have the test results to prove it. However, it is one thing is to pass language exams and another to live socially with a foreign language every day. Most students are schooled in their native language, of course, but they have never had to sit in and follow a lecture, say on physics for example, delivered in a foreign language. Many students also worry about their accent and how natives will perceive it, fearing they will be made fun of, or worse, cast aside. This is a game changer that all students must adapt to initially, and for the most part, they do, learning and improving an invaluable skill that will serve them greatly in the future.

Very strong students do well no matter where they go. The rest of us worry about things: how difficult the academic programme and curriculum will be, what sort of teaching methods they have in a foreign country, what support is available, how do you relate to professors and classmates… there are many more questions and doubts. These are all on the minds of new international students. Luckily, universities in the United States nowadays have excellent support systems that anticipate all these concerns by providing extensive orientations and support services all free of charge. 

On a different level – the social scene – concerns also abound. Leaving family and friends behind is difficult enough and being homesick is a major early obstacle, but now the student also has to worry about how to make new friends. What is it like to live in halls of residence? Who will my roommate be and what happens if we do not get along? Even cafeteria food is controversial – some love it and some hate it. The yearning for a mother’s cooking never quite goes away. Small thing, perhaps, but in the context it can become an issue.

How to organise leisure time and what activities to undertake can be a major initial concern too. Back home, it was easy -– years of friendships, familiar places, activities and routines mean plans are formed easily. But what to do now? Where does one go for fun and with whom? The challenge is in quickly creating a circle of friends to share your free time with. It comes easier for some than others. Seeking help is important. On some occasions, the stress from this issue alone is so unbearable that students decide to give up and return home. Seeking paisanos argentinos and/or other international student organisations is what often takes care of this concern. 

For many of my students healthcare was a big thing too. One becomes accustomed to visiting familiar doctors all through life. That same face that knows your history. You know their style and they know yours, and you can both share a joke with each other. How will it be in America, a country notorious for healthcare idiosyncrasies? How does one even begin to construct a relationship with a new doctor and is it even possible in the context of the university? Of course, the cost of healthcare can also become an issue in the United States. I advise all families to very carefully investigate the quality and premiums offered by healthcare providers. 

Unbelievably, sometimes the weather develops into something of a concern too. The United States is a huge country with climates for all tastes. So, take into consideration what you prefer and what you cannot tolerate. If you hate snow, a college in Boston is not what you should look for! A blizzard or two in February can make your life quite miserable. 

In the context of today’s United States, this column cannot ignore the unique political environment that has appeared in the country over the past year or so. The Donald Trump phenomenon no doubt has had a tremendous impact on the United States’ ability to deliver the exporting of education. Many families around the world are expressing concern, doubt and even fear at sending their children to the United States and are choosing, instead, destinations like Canada or Australia, both of which have experienced a rise in international student enrollment numbers. 

Many students fear discrimination, visa hassles and especially a disruption in the OPT programme – Optional Practical Training – which allows international students to remain in the country after graduation for a year (or two in the case of certain careers) and then follow a path toward a work visa and perhaps a green card. This issue has caused quite a concern and a drop in enrollment numbers, especially from Chinese and Indian students. Time will tell how the United States continues to redefine its relationship with the wider world – and whether or not it continues to serve as the biggest provider of international education.  

 

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Eddie Levisman

Eddie Levisman

Eddie Levisman is an educational counsellor and international education consultant, who specialises in helping students to make the transition from high school to university.

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