Being an international student is an incredible experience. Many students travel from all over the world to attend universities in the United States and in Canada. While many of these students do very well in their new environments, most still face struggles at some point or another. Moving across the globe all by yourself—usually at the young age of 18 or 19—is a pretty big deal. If you’re an international student in North America and you find yourself becoming overwhelmed, don’t panic—you are not alone. Here is a list of five common struggles for international students, along with the best methods for overcoming them.
Struggle #1: Language Barriers
The Problem: Even if you’ve been speaking English for your entire life, learning to understand native English speakers can be a major challenge. Depending on where you are studying, the dialect could be almost impossible for you to understand right away—native English speakers can also have trouble understanding the dialects of English speakers living in regions different than their own. Even if dialect isn’t a factor, speed and slang certainly are added obstacles. Native English speakers may speak so quickly that you can’t separate the words, and they may use lots of terms and phrases that mean absolutely nothing to someone who is not well-versed in English colloquialisms. Being unable to communicate fully in English upon arrival at school can make it very difficult to make friends and to fully succeed in your classes.
The Solution: Make friends! This may seem difficult, but really, a university is the perfect venue for meeting people with whom you share common interests. Just like you’re interested in North American culture, customs, and language, many native students will be interested in where you come from and what your life was like in your home country. If you take time to communicate with your new friends exactly what your language limitations are, many of them will work to accommodate your needs.
The more you speak English with your new friends, the easier it will become to understand their speech and to generate more of your own. For example, I had a friend at my university who was an international student from Pakistan. His English skills were already very good upon arriving in Canada, but he had a hard time with slang and idioms. Instead of just avoiding the use of these phrases, he created a method for learning them. Whenever someone used a phrase with which he was unfamiliar, he asked what it meant. After the person explained—usually with some difficulty, as it is very difficult to explain why phrases like “I’m feeling under the weather” or “take it with a grain of salt” mean what they do—my friend would write down the phrase, along with its meaning, in a memo pad on his cellphone. He would then casually try these new phrases in his own speech with his friends to make sure he was using them correctly.
Struggle #2: Academic Issues
The Problem: Like most international students, you may be very serious about succeeding academically. After all, you did travel across the globe to receive your education. Still, sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try—some assignments or tasks may be too challenging. This can be especially true for projects that involve strong English language skills or abstract writing abilities, like essays. It can be very frustrating to fully understand a concept but be unable to express it satisfactorily in English.
The Solution: Talk to your teachers! Most professors want to help their students succeed. Though it may make you nervous at first, utilize resources like office hours and study groups. Stop in to talk to your instructor if you are struggling with an assignment. It is perfectly acceptable at North American universities to actively seek help when you are having a hard time. If your professors are unable to help you themselves, they can refer you to resources that they think will be helpful, like your university’s academic writing center.
Struggle #3: Homesickness
The Problem:Moving away to school is a major transition, even when you aren’t moving a two-day plane ride away. It’s easy to quickly fall into homesickness, especially if you find yourself feeling isolated. You may start missing your family, your friends, the customs of your home country, and even the food you are used to eating.
The Solution: Once again, the solution to this struggle is to make friends! While it’s great to call home sometimes to chat with your family and friends, you shouldn’t rely on this contact to keep yourself from being homesick. Instead, you should spend lots of time with new friends. These can be both international students like yourself and North American students. You may find that it makes you feel better to tell your new friends about your life at home, to sometimes speak your native tongue with friends from your country, to teach foreign words to native English speakers, and even to expose your new friends to the foods you are accustomed to eating.
Struggle #4: Staying Active
The Problem: Your lifestyle may change drastically when you move to school. If you’re anything like other students, you’ll probably find yourself spending lots of time sitting around. Whether you’re hanging out with friends, sitting in class, studying for exams, or writing a paper, you may have a hard time getting the same amount of exercise you’re used to. On top of that, the new foods you’re eating may be drastically different from (and greasier than) your regular diet. It doesn’t take very long for what North Americans cutely call “the Freshman 15” to settle onto your hips. And let me tell you—there is nothing cute about it.
The Solution: Take advantage of your school’s resources. Don’t be afraid to try going to the gym—after all, you have a free membership! Most university recreational centers also offer free fitness classes and intramural sports. Even if physical exercise has never been your cup of tea, you should make an attempt to do something other than hang out in your dorm room. Consider joining an academic or social club, and try to become familiar with the city you’re staying in by using public transportation and going for walks. Staying busy and active will also help you avoid homesickness.
Struggle #5: Other Problems
The Problem: You’ve made friends. You’ve joined clubs. You’ve attended classes, written papers, and studied for exams. But still, something is missing. You’re not happy. Maybe there’s something personal going on in your life, or maybe you’re just having a hard time with the transition to post-secondary education. Whatever the reason, you’re not enjoying your life, and that’s a problem.
The Solution: While it may be difficult for some international students to understand, in North America, it is completely acceptable to ask for help when you are having problems. Most universities offer counseling services for their students. Usually, a certain number of sessions are covered by your student health plan, which means you can talk to a counselor for free. Utilize these resources while you can—these types of services are not usually free of cost in contexts other than school, and they can be very helpful when you’re trying to deal with complicated issues. Don’t struggle alone—learn how to reach out.
Image source: NejroN Photo/BigStockPhoto.com
“When life gets tough, the tough get going.” This timeless proverb may be true for some but, for others, hardship can be too much to overcome. When the going gets tough, their life simply falls apart. What is it exactly that separates those who thrive regardless of adversity and those who don’t? Is it genetics, luck, or pure willpower?
Consider that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before he became the first democratically elected president in South Africa. Abraham Lincoln failed in business, had a nervous breakdown, and was defeated eight times in elections before becoming president. A boy born to a teenage alcoholic prostitute and an absentee father found himself in trouble throughout his childhood, eventually growing up to be Charles Manson.
These examples are extreme, but they demonstrate the different routes people may choose when facing major obstacles. Some people turn to alcohol and drugs, stealing, or physical violence. Nearly 16,000 people drank themselves to death in 2010. Every year, more than 3 million children will witness domestic violence in their home. Conversely, many people have gone through hell and back and are moral, happy, and successful. As a youth violence and family trauma psychologist, it’s my job to find the turning point between the right path and the wrong one.
In my own life I dealt with hardship and failure. My family was poor. I had to cope with suicides, mental illness, and domestic violence; two of my family members died of alcoholism. My grandmother was a teacher and I thought I would follow in her footsteps. After attempting to go to school for teaching, I realized that I was not cut out for it. I felt like I had failed. When I was young, I tried to be a writer and was not successful. My first marriage was a failure, as was my first business. I was challenged significantly when I enrolled in my Ph.D. program at the age of 42 and my classmates were all 20 years younger.
And the story would not be complete without telling you that someone attempted to rape me when I was a young woman. I only told a few people. I cried and cried. I wanted to scrub the skin right off my body. Yet today, I can face my fears and am a big fan of “Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit.”
Despite all these trials, life marched on and turned out positive. I earned my Ph.D. I am a successful non-fiction writer and the author of two books that have sold well. I own my own practice, Eastern Shore Psychological Services, which has grown considerably and won numerous awards. And I am happily remarried to a loving husband, although I once told myself that I’d never marry again.
Why was I able to overcome the negative parts of my life when others from similar backgrounds have ended up addicted to substances or in jail? The simple answer is that I had enough protective factors in my life to outweigh my risk factors. For instance:
- The neighborhood I grew up in was safe.
- I was always supported by people who loved me.
- I did well in school and had opportunities to succeed.
- I had pro-social role models.
- I received treatment for depression and PTSD.
- There were many happy events in my life.
- I kept going, one foot after the other, no matter what.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that children who have more than five risk factors (learning problems, maltreatment, chaotic neighborhoods, etc.) and less than six protective factors (adult support, life skills, clear standards set by care givers, etc.) have an 80% chance of committing future violent acts. This means that, while we all face varying levels of hardship, there must be a counterbalance of positives in our lives so that we may continue to grow and succeed.
Looking back at my family members who struggled, I realize that they did not have the level of support and education about depression and alcoholism that I was fortunate to have. At two points in my life, I had problems controlling my anger, just like my father. But I gained support through education and friends, and I learned to deal with it effectively. Without these support systems, statistical research says that I would most likely have failed.
It’s true that some of our ability to deal with hardships and failure has to do with biological traits and genetics. Some of it may have to do with luck. But mostly it has to do with the environment and people around us. Our parents, siblings, peers, educators, and community all play a vital role in shaping who we become. Life is tough and we all have our own challenges to face. But we don’t have to face them alone. With a caring heart and encouraging hand, we can all play a role in supporting others through their greatest hardships.
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–Dr. Kathy Seifert