Surprises (or Shocks!) that Await International Students at U.S. Universities

Surprises (or Shocks!) that Await International Students at U.S. Universities

Congratulations! You have secured entrance to an American university. You might not be prepared for life abroad, especially in the U.S. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the things you should know.

Some of these are more serious in nature, and some are slightly tongue-in-cheek.

At the outset, we would like to encourage everyone not to worry. Also, please try to put aside most of your preconceived notions about life abroad. It is mostly long spells of hard work and few short spells of pure, unadulterated fun.

Almost all educational institutions that accept foreign students have orientation sessions. These serve to clear any doubts.

Many, but not all, universities assign mentors. These are senior students who can show freshmen and other new students the ropes. There are many chores in day to day life, and you learn these from your mentor. For example, you can’t put your clothes out on the balcony to dry as you might have done at home. You have to use the laundry machines.

Surprises that International Students May Face in the U.S.

  • Becoming an Adult

  • Let’s face it. Many students who have completed a master’s degree are 23 years old and are not yet fully matured adults. Those who are 21 and recently graduated can be even more naive. It’s not that children are spoiled here, but they do usually lead more sheltered lives. Parents tend to protect their children, regardless of social and economic status. In the U.S., anyone above age 18 is expected to be fully responsible for him- or herself. There is no overprotecting whatsoever. Much of it stems from American history: a land populated by immigrants for the past 400 years, people who succeeded due to sheer willpower and tenacity. What does being responsible mean? You are more than 7,000 miles (more than 11,265 kilometers) from your parents. Yet, if you break your wrist, you are supposed to get yourself to the hospital emergency room, grit your teeth through the medical treatment, take care of formalities (payment or proper health insurance paperwork), and then show up in class as soon as your pain subsides. Then, when you get home, you still have to cook your own dinner and do your own laundry, as well.
  • Lack of Public Transport

  • The U.S. is a vast country, and that vastness also manifests in the distance one might have to travel to seek basic necessities. The nearest 7-Eleven or grocery store might be miles away. On top of that, even though there are buses, routes that run with any degree of convenience or regularity are mostly confined to big cities.

    You are expected to own a personal means of transport, usually a car, or otherwise be willing to regularly call a cab service. Unlike in many other countries, buying a car in the U.S. is no big deal. Buying a used, six-year-old Toyota Camry is less mentionable than eating a peanut butter sandwich.

    Get a driver’s license when you arrive, and you are free to roam about the country on your own.

    Note that in the U.S., the concept of car size is vastly different. A Toyota Corolla is considered a compact car!
  • Huge Serving Sizes

  • Americans like hearty portions on their plate. Whether it’s sodas or steak, the portions are between 1.5-3 times what you would find in Europe. It is not uncommon to find kids holding a Big Gulp – 880 milliliters (almost 30 ounces) of sugary beverage. Internationally, such a portion size is simply unimaginable.

    A single Steak, Egg & Cheese Bagel from McDonald’s weighs a massive 241 grams (about half a pound) and has 660 calories. This is known as one of their lightweight meals meant for breakfast.
  • Freezing Cold

  • It’s certainly not as cold as Sweden, but far colder than India. The harsh weather is more or less confined to the upper half of the country.

    If you are in Chicago or New York, expect temperatures to drop into the negative degrees (not only Celsius, but sometimes even Fahrenheit) by Thanksgiving. The cold weather can remain until April.

    You have to learn to dress accordingly. Boots and warm inner clothing are a must. Hopefully, you are not going to be in a university in North Dakota. There, the temperature dips to -6 degrees Celsius (about 21 degrees Fahrenheit) by the start of December.
  • Thanksgiving is Big

  • Which brings us to Thanksgiving. It is a traditional holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

    It is to the U.S. what Diwali is to Indians: a time for rejoicing with the family with a slice of turkey. The whole nation shuts down on Thanksgiving weekend. The Christmas season officially kicks off at the stroke of midnight after Thanksgiving Thursday with Black Friday sales, and the season lasts until the first weekend of January.

    Note that many U.S. holidays are placed around weekends – Memorial Day, Martin Luther King Day, and Labor Day all fall on a Monday each year, for example. The holidays are usually clubbed with the weekend (depending on the year).
  • Language is a little different

  • Of course, you would know about this one if you’re familiar with American movies, television, or other pop culture. For example:

    • Grades, not marks.
    • Notebook, not copybook.
    • Hundred thousand, not a lakh.
    • Cafeteria, not canteen.
    • Soda or soft drink, not cold drink.
    • Elevator, not lift.

And so on.

For example, if you are from India, you must learn to avoid Indian English. You cannot “cut” tickets; they are purchased or bought. Everyone has a name; no one has a “good” name. You don’t “belong to” Mumbai; you are from Mumbai. Work out the kinks in your language, or you will make a sloppy impression.

Is it scary?

No, it is definitely not scary.

However, it is important to remember that the main challenge you would face is migrating from immersion in your own culture to immersion in a totally different one. There are certain aspects of your life and lifestyle that you may not even realize are distinct to the culture of your home country. It is only when you start doing something you’ve done a thousand times before in front of your American friends, only to receive an odd look in return, that you realize the cultural difference.

It is important to remember that in the U.S., universities are places where one explores curiosity. An American student can launch a billion-dollar company from campus. In fact, Sun Microsystems, Cisco, Facebook, and many more illustrious brands were launched by students from their dorm rooms. It is a vastly different educational system that encourages independence, inquisitiveness, and chutzpah above all other qualities.

Do not expect anyone to cut you any slack. Show your originality, and you will do fine.

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