Updated on August 10, 2017
Life in the U.S. for International Students
Changing the place where you’ve lived all your life and then moving to another country far away from home is frightening. You will no longer wake up hearing your parents’ voices telling you that it’s time to go to school. You will no longer call your old friends and ask them to meet you and then see them within minutes. But there are also many benefits to studying in the U.S. as an international student.
You will probably also be living in a different time zone so it will be more difficult to keep in touch with family and friends by phone. You will be living around people who could share a lot of your interests, but they have different cultures and speak different languages. This sounds scary, but it is a more fascinating experience than you might think, and well worth the effort.
When you blend with and learn new cultures you will come to value a lot of the things that you took for granted in your life back home. In my country, Saudi Arabia, for example, my whole extended family met as a group at least once a week. I always felt surrounded by family, and I was never alone. Here in the U.S., I feel more as if I have to deal with situations on my own.
On the other hand, when you study in another country, you get to understand other people and their cultures. You will have a wider point of view on life and the world around you, and you will experience the freedom of living in the U.S.
Here are some tips for getting the best experience out of living in the U.S.
Read about the U.S.
Reading about the country and the city you live in will help you know what to expect from people. For example, I used to read American novels and memoirs. Those books made me understand their lifestyle and their use of vocabulary or jargon. For example, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and there I learned that women worked on farms in the U.S., and that women could get divorced if their marriages were unsatisfactory. I understood better how women thought in the U.S. and how independent they are.
Watch English-language TV and movies and listen to music
Music and TV are another way to learn about the life here in the U.S. You can watch the popular series or series that interest you, and once you arrive in the U.S., you will for sure find people to discuss them with. I used to watch Game of Thrones in Saudi Arabia and now that I live in California I talk about that series with my friends and even my professor.
In Saudi Arabia I also used to watch a show called Community. I learned that there were community colleges in the U.S, which we don’t have in my country. I also got to know the sense of humor in the U.S., which includes topics like politics and history—not subjects for joking back home.
Adjusting to American English
Many international students learn British English in school. When you come to the U.S., you suddenly are speaking with people who use different vocabulary and have a different accent. For example, in the U.S., temperature is measured in Fahrenheit, not Celsius. Even clothes sizes are different. Instead of ordering food “to carry away,” in the U.S., you order food “to go.” Learn the most common words and why they use them. Why have they become the way they are? What’s their history?
Explore and accept other cultures
Being an expat is hard. It might make you feel down sometimes, or make you think of giving up and going back to your home country. Instead, you might want to explore new areas. Go out. Attend events and parties. Go for a walk or participate in your hobby. It is the perfect way to make you focus and be active.
I remember when I first arrived in the U.S., I was very depressed and missed my family more than anything. I couldn’t study, and I wasn’t able to focus on what I needed to do at the moment. I used to call my siblings or friends in tears, asking them to help me, but they were far away, which made my loneliness worse. When I started to go out and engage with the culture and the world here, I was able to study, feel okay about missing my family, and move on with what I needed to do.
Always wear your smile. Smiling is the key to blending in with people. I come from Saudi Arabia, from a culture where we tend to smile less. Smiling is sometimes considered as an uncivilized or creepy behavior, but here it is the opposite. When I smile, Americans feel comfortable talking to me and see that I’m friendly.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Don’t be shy about making grammatical mistakes. Remember that this is your second language and informal language is different from formal usage.
Be you; don’t try to be someone else. Don’t try to be exactly like the Americans or the absolute opposite, and lie to yourself. They will sense that and you will end up having no friends. Be honest and straightforward about what you think and what you believe in and people will appreciate you.
For example, when I first came to the U.S., I didn’t tell people I was from Saudi Arabia, I shied away from talking about being Muslim. But since I didn’t share much about myself, I didn’t make friends. Once I opened up and shared what I believe in, I made a lot of friends.
Samah Damanhoori is a second-year master’s student in the English Department at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. She is also an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department. Samah is working on various writing projects, and a short story she wrote is being made into an animated short movie.