You have received an offer from a school you have dreamt of. You have discussed with your parents about your decision to study overseas. You have cajoled them into supporting your decision financially and emotionally. Now, what’s next?
Don’t worry. It is normal to fantasize about such a unique and life-changing opportunity! You no longer have to stay in an educational system that may ruin you as a person; you are about to escape from the control of your family; you are going to make new friends and connections who will brighten up your life. All sound exciting, right? Hang on! Calm down, take your time to read this article, and see if you are really prepared to study in a foreign country all on your own.
Here, we will discuss about typical issues that are faced by international students. Of course, there are both upsides and downsides for all difficulties students encounter. We will first talk about the major issues briefly, followed by some recommendations on how international students should cope with and make use of their overseas experience.
Expect cultural differences. Back in your home country, when you see foreigners, you welcome their culture by talking to them in their native languages and respecting their habits and preferences. It all seems interesting and fun. However, when you become the foreigner, and will be staying in a foreign country for years, everything reaches another level.
Language barriers are a major problem, especially at the beginning. Native pronunciation and grammatical accuracy are no longer optional, but a prerequisite for respect and social acceptance. Back in your home country, you may be praised for having competency in a foreign language; however, when you are in the foreign country, you begin to worry about missing important information from conversations, you begin to be embarrassed when you can’t communicate as effectively as locals.
You may also need to embrace new habits and hobbies. Back at home, you may pride yourself for being a top performer in various activities. While it is important to keep your strengths and skills, don’t be surprised when your talents are not appreciated as much in a different culture. It is not anyone’s problem: it’s just cultural differences, though this may be frustrating at the beginning.
Moreover, accept that your values may never completely align with locals’. By values, it means everything. From daily practices such as learning attitude, communication style, attire, habits and manners to bigger issues such as family hierarchy, relationship dynamics and life pursuits, the less similarities you anticipate, the less confusion and disbelief you feel when you interact with foreigners. Again, bear in mind that it is normal to feel like the odd one out.
Loneliness is common. Remember, you have chosen to leave your family and fly your own sky. There will be no more immediate responses from your parents when you get into trouble; there will be no close monitoring of your work; your parents and nanny are not coming with you for your overseas studies!
Emotionally, you will have to grow up and be extremely independent. Feeling sad? Deal with your own problems. Feeling angry? Well, noted with thanks. Feeling lonely? Get some friends or suck it up. Feeling helpless? Find your solutions. In other words, you have to take much more responsibility for your own emotions than before, if your emotions are anyone’s responsibility to begin with. We all feel bad from time to time. Back at home, it is normal to have daily conversations and spontaneous help, but all these are no longer feasible when you are alone in a foreign country. There are time differences, and you also no longer share the same world with your old friends and family. Got a problem? Evaluate, and then handle it. Importantly, you may not be able to trust your new friends as much as you have your old friends. Again, emotional independence is important.
Academically, you will have to be able to make your own decisions, even when it comes to important issues, such as what to minor and what internships to apply for. Remember, your parents and friends are no longer by your side, they do not know a thing about your daily encounters, adjusted ambitions and career goals, or the particular economy you are in. Moreover, working hard is essential as no one will care enough to haul you when you procrastinate, neither will anyone feel bad when you overwork. In school, depending on the academic culture of your country, help may not be easily accessible. Some cultures expect compliance, while others expect independence and self-drive. Again, do not expect full assistance at all times, and neither should you expect things to be easy for yourself.
So, how do you deal with the differences? As an international student, an important lesson I have learnt is: acceptance. By acceptance, it also means you should accept changes in your life, whether or not they make you comfortable, and also embrace the fact that people are different. The best strategy is to not have any expectation on the external environment. With expectations comes frustration.
Accept that everyone is suffering in their own ways in life. Do not complain or play victim. Feeling no one is telling you what to do? Well, design your own short term and long term goals. I suggest first setting long term targets, followed by monthly, weekly and daily schedules. By this, you will feel that your life is more structured, which is good for your emotional stability and mental health.
Accept oneself as a unique human being, unbounded by culture and social expectations; meanwhile, accept the culture you are in, and be comfortable in discomfort, as philosophical as it sounds. Do not expect people to appreciate your beliefs; do not expect others to be interested in your hobbies; do not be amused by others’ habits, because they are likely to feel the same towards yours. Respect is the key. Always rest assured that you are a valuable person, not a social object that should be judged by how you behave and blend in socially.
Surround yourself with people who you feel home with, but also broaden your horizons by socializing with people who have different values and styles. Try to understand why you are different from them, and how you can learn from them as a person. Feeling weird? Yes, you are weird, you are abnormal and you may be antisocial but you are who you are. Of course, you need to exercise some sort of due diligence when picking friends, in order to protect yourself. Some people abandon their studies and make bad friends who waste time and undermine their self-esteem. You need to learn how to spot good and bad friends by observing their manners and personalities.
Last but not least, keep in touch with your family and old friends. Although they are no longer immediately available, they are still people who have helped establish your social sense of self when you were younger. They are people that have shaped you for who you now are. Never cut contacts unnecessarily: not only may they be of help in the future, but they can also remind you for who you are and provide you with emotional comfort from time to time. You are not always on your own if you keep them close to you.
An international study opportunity is a precious chance to grow up and see the real world. While helplessness and a self-identity crisis often set in, especially at an early stage, don’t be afraid, they won’t last long if you take the initiative to face the challenges. Do not complain. Do not play victim. Make your obstacles into building blocks of self-confidence and success. Do you understand what I am trying to say? If so, you are ready to go!