Miles from Home: How to Make It as an International Student

By Ida Biering

When it comes to leaving for college, we’ve all been there. Every year, high school graduates kiss their parents and their childhood goodbye to embark on the new adventure we call college life. Whether you’re a first-year or a transfer student, it’s all about making a new beginning in a new place with new people and new challenges.

When you’re an international student, however, the circumstances are a little different. You might watch as your suitemates pack their little overnight bags to go home for the weekend, knowing that to do the same would mean travelling across countries, continents, and several time-zones. You have given up counting the times teachers pronounced your name wrong in class, you frown during conversation when a cultural reference comes up that you don’t understand, and you spend hours in Westside trying to sift your way through the countless types of American food, attempting to locate a brand you recognize from home. If we literally come from different worlds, what are the tools of the trade for making it as an international student?

How is this all supposed to fit??

The first item on the list starts even before you arrive at college. It takes place during the dreaded packing process, when your suitcase magically shrinks several sizes, and the amount of clothes you need seems to multiply. It’s like trying to fit a grand piano through a revolving door—physically impossible. But don’t throw in the towel just yet, It’s all about careful planning.

As an international student, chances are you will not be able to take as much to college with you as your fellow students. Throwing another desk lamp or a small carpet into the trunk of the car is not really an option when your “trunk” is Continental Airlines’ overhead compartment. The most efficient way to tackle this problem is to only bring absolute essentials and then invade Bed, Bath & Beyond or Target when you arrive in the city; simply wait to buy whatever else you need until after you’ve moved in. While this seems a less-than-desirable solution, keep in mind that as an international student, you don’t have the option of just overloading your car and taking all your stuff home for the summer. You have to either sell it or put it in storage (which can get pretty pricey).

Then, once you’ve finally gotten settled, Columbia University asks you to move out again. This is a whole separate challenge to overcome. At all costs, resist the temptation to pack your entire closet (this is a good advice for any student, but especially international students) or you will ensure chronic back-pain as you try to schlep five suitcases through Newark Liberty (when you somehow arrived with only one). Pack for the seasons. When the seasons change, either have your parents send you whatever items you need or go home and exchange one season’s clothing for the next. That way, you ensure that you will never be overwhelmed when you go home for the summer.

“… that while your background may be a little different, you are still part of this amazing thing called the Barnard community.”

Once you are settled in and the semester begins to spin madly onwards, sooner or later a school holidays will roll around. Although an indisputable time of relief, long weekends present another circumstance in which your status as an international student seems inescapable. As we all start to look anxiously towards Fall Break (and as soon as that’s over, Thanksgiving Break), every student faces the question of whether to go home, to stay in the city, or to go visit a friend. The simple prospect of just hopping over to New Jersey to visit becomes a little more complicated when your bearable extended family (never mind your parents and siblings) resides in a different country, or even on a different continent. In such an instance, when I struggle to find the best way to spend the extra days off from school, I have found that the most effective solution is to first look at the situation logically and then emotionally. While you may feel that this semester has won the MTV Movie Award for “Best Ass-Kicking,” and your first inclination is to emotionally rejuvenate yourself in the comforts of your family and home, perhaps you need to take into account whether this will serve your mental and physical health best in the long run. For example, if the amount of work you have to do has actually made the desk in your room obsolete, going home may not be where you’ll be the most productive. In this case, staying in New York is not the worst of prospects, and all the holiday excitement to experience in NYC (hello, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade). On the other hand, we all know homesickness is a strong motivator (perhaps even more so if your family is 4,000 miles away), and so if you really think a weekend will do you good, bite the proverbial bullet and go home. I have often found that while the price for that decision is jetlag (and plane tickets), I emerge from the weekend emotionally rejuvenated and ready to take on the rest of the semester—and that is something not to be underestimated. It becomes a matter of really weighing your options, maybe even talking it over with your family, and deciding what seems to be the best decision in the long run.
Our home away from home

The second most important thing to do is to realize that on top of the difficulty of getting settled and finding new friends, as an international student you have the additional difficulty of coming to terms with the fact that while your friends may all come from a wide variety of backgrounds, yours will always be just a little bit different. Although this idea sounds very unappealing, know that it does not necessarily mean the awkward turtle will be having a field day. If your friends are talking about something you don’t understand, learn that it is okay to ask questions, even if you feel uncomfortable doing it. Your cultural background is not something to shy away from, and while it may be a little strange at first, sooner or later it may be just another aspect of having a conversation with your friends. You may soon find that you are able to entertain them with fascinating stories of your own culture or home country and receive some equally strange stories originating from the quirks of American culture. Going beyond the standard, awkward NSOP small talk of “what are you majoring in?” or “where did you transfer from?” is a fun and effective way to connect with your new friends. It’s also important to realize that you can’t always get people to immediately connect with you—as with all relationships, these things develop over time. The fact that that nine times out of ten, your teacher is going to call out your name incorrectly in class is one of the first encounters you might have in coming to terms with your international status. Case in point: A few weeks ago I went to the Registrar’s office to pick up some documents, and I inevitably had to produce my name in order to retrieve them. Inwardly sighing at the prospect of what was to come, I pronounced my name articulately and confidently for the receptionist. It took three more tries and a direct explanation from me on why my name was pronounced the way it was before he got it right: “Oh, okay,” he replied in comprehension, “Yeah, we don’t do that here.”

Fighting the urge to sarcastically ask whether his face had ever seen a fist up close, I walked out the door with a chuckle and the understanding that sometimes you just have to let these things slide. Accept that while your background may be a little different, you are still part of this amazing thing called the Barnard community. While you may feel a little more alienated than most at first, there are so many activities, committees, and student groups to immerse yourself in that, before long, you will feel that where you come from ceases to dictate your college experience and you will become so engaged that before you know it, a semester has flown by. More realistically, of course, from time to time it will be hard and you may feel you need a change of scenery—but when you come back, Barnard will always be there to welcome you home.

Ida is a junior majoring in Theatre and is an international student herself. Her laptop, phone, and alarm clock are all in different time zones.


Photos courtesy of Her Campus and Photography Editor Sarah Lipkis

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