While I already covered the common mistakes that international students make, the struggles that we face, and things I wish I had known before college (Part 1 and Part 2), I want to focus on discussing what I wish I had known before studying abroad in the U.S. I studied abroad in the U.S. for 6 years, starting from my junior year of high school. Frankly speaking, I was pretty clueless when I first began my study abroad journey. I was fortunate enough to have relatives in the U.S. to help me settle down, but there were many things that I wish I had known earlier. I hope this post will provide you, fellow abroaders, with useful tips on how to make the best of your study abroad experience!
- Don’t pack every single thing that you have at home with you.
- Google Maps will become your BFF.
- Have a currency conversion app.
- Have extra copies of your passport and I-20. And unless you have to, avoid bringing your passport/I-20 to places.
- Apply for a credit card and start accumulating your credit now.
- If you use a credit card from your home country, make sure that it doesn’t come with crazy foreign transaction fees.
- Tip, and tip properly.
- Keep track of your spending.
- Take classes and major in something that interests you.
- Get an internship or part-time job.
- Learn to deal with stereotypes.
- Explore your surrounding.
- Be involved with campus activities.
- Make friends with people from different backgrounds and cultures.
- Share your culture with other people.
- It’s OK to feel lonely and homesick – Don’t be afraid to seek help when that happens.
- Learn to take care of yourself physically and mentally.
- Call your parents. They miss you.
- Reverse culture shock is a thing.
- Don’t take study abroad for granted.
Unlike your usual vacation trip, which typically lasts 3 to 4 weeks, studying abroad can last for months and even years. Thus it makes sense for you to pack more and bring a lot of things to prepare for the journey. But don’t pack every single thing that you have at home to bring with you! Let’s say you end up bringing 5 gigantic luggages, just imagine the time it takes to unpack them and sort through all your stuff. You may think that you’ll need ALL your clothes, but believe me (been there, done that, many many times), you won’t actually wear all of them. Only bring things that are necessary for you to settle down for a few weeks. You can always buy things such as shampoo, laundry detergent, bed sheets, pillows, blankets, kitchen utensils and more seasonal clothes in your study abroad country. Check out more packing tips for study abroad HERE.
I’m telling you, Google Maps app will become your best friend! Why? Because you’ll get lost and need help with finding directions to places, whether you’re in a car, bus, or on foot. The step-to-step direction makes it more convenient for you to know which exit to take, which street to turn on, and even which bus route to take. Even after over 4 years living in L.A., I still get lost sometimes and have to rely on Google Maps/GPS for direction.
Eventually, you’ll get used to estimating the conversion between the U.S. Dollar and your home currency and identifying whether something is expensive or not. But when you’ve been used to your native currency and had little experience with the U.S. Dollar, figuring out whether a $4.70 cup of coffee is expensive or not can be a bit tricky. Having a currency conversion app is going to help a lot.
Your passport and I-20 are 2 of the most important things that allow you to legally stay in the U.S. You don’t want to lose them and then have to go through all the trouble re-applying for a new passport or I-20! So always store them somewhere safe and avoid bringing them to places unless you have to. Don’t forget to make multiple copies of these important documents just in case.
This is very helpful if you consider staying in the U.S. in the long-term. Having a good credit score is imperative when it comes to mortgages (buying houses, properties, cars, etc.), so I highly recommend applying for a credit and start accumulating your credit now. You’ll need to have an account at a U.S. bank first. Different banks have different credit card types and policies, so spend some times researching them to see which one is the right fit for you. You may need to put down a deposit first and have a lower credit limit at the beginning, but remember to pay your credit bills on-time to obtain a good credit score.
Several credit cards typically come with a 3% foreign transaction fee for each purchase you made in foreign currency. If you decide to use a credit card from your home country, be aware of this and make sure that the credit card that you use doesn’t have these foreign transaction fees. 3% may seem little, but when adding that up for EVERY SINGLE purchase, it’s a lot! Avoid this unnecessary fee if you can.
Tipping is a common courtesy in the U.S. It shows your gratitude for the service, your generosity, and it usually makes up a very large salary percentage for the people who are being tipped. For example, tipping accounts for over 80% of the salary for waiters and waitresses. Generally, it’s best to leave 15% or higher (based on your total bill amount) for tips. I know that while tipping is a definite must in the U.S., it’s only optional for other countries (e.g. Asian countries). But unless you want to be regarded with terms such as “the worst”, “horrible”, “jerk”, “cheap”, don’t forget to tip at places such as restaurants, bars, taxis, hotels and other services in the U.S.!
Study abroad can get very expensive! First off, in terms of tuition, you already have to pay a higher tuition fee compared to local students if you don’t receive scholarships because you’re an international student (which sucks, doesn’t it?). Then, there are rent, utilities, textbooks (which you should never buy brand new ones), as well as grocery, food, shopping, and other expenses. Convert all those expenses into your local currency and you’ll see they can get very expensive! Thus, it’s important to know your budget limit and keep track of your spending, both personal and school-related, so you won’t freak out after seeing the bills and checking your bank account at the end of the month. Develop this habit early will also help tremendously when you start to have a job and make you become a more responsible person.
I was very fortunate because my parents gave me the full freedom to pick my own major and career. But I know for several others, the path may not be that easy. You may be interested in becoming an artist or writer, but your parents want you to become a doctor or lawyer instead (why hello Asian stereotypes). I’m not going to suggest you to disregard your parents’ expectations or obey them, because ultimately,the decision is yours to make. My only advice is to follow whichever path that makes YOU happy and that you won’t regret in the future. That means starting with taking classes and majoring in something that interests you.
The wonderful thing about college is that you have the option to be undecided in your major during your first 2 years. If you’re uncertain of which potential career to have, these 2 years are perfect to explore different majors and take a variety of classes that interest you, since you’re not stuck with requirements for a particular major yet. If your parents want you to become a doctor, and you’re unsure whether or not that’s the right path for you, take 1-2 science classes, as well as business, arts, humanities, and linguistics to see which classes “fit” best for you. Something that I discovered during my college years is that while I (kind of) slacked off a bit in classes that were neither exciting nor interesting to me, I worked much harder and really enjoyed classes that intrigued me.
If you already choose a major and then decide you want to change it the next semester, that’s totally fine too. Almost every college student changes his/her major at least once. College is the time for you to figure what you like and dislike. So take different classes and change your major if you have to. Major in something that you enjoy, that raises your curiosity, and that motivates you to go to class.
Even if your current GPA is a 4.0, you still need some sort of work experience in your college years, whether it’s from an internship or an unpaid part-time job. Excellent GPA makes you stand out, but impressive work experience (especially what you learned and how you’re able to contribute) sells a lot more. I had several jobs during my college years, from tutoring high school students and designing posters for school events to being a marketing, planning, and analysis intern. All of these jobs provided me with a lot of useful knowledge and hands-on experience. Besides, I realized that I learned a lot more from these internships and jobs than memorizing theories in classes.
The majority of colleges offer CPT and OPT programs for international students to work in the U.S., so make sure to research and be familiar with them. CPT is for working while maintaining your status as a student, and OPT is for after you graduate. Under CPT, you can apply from almost any company. OPT is trickier: you have to find a company that hires foreigners and is willing to sponsor you (since you’re likely to apply for the H1B visa afterward). Tip: Because you’re likely to have to pay for a CPT program, I highly recommend you to apply for a paid job instead of unpaid. Getting an internship or a part-time job also helps you in deciding if the job is a right fit for you and whether or not you want to continue in the same position, the same industry for your permanent career in the long-term.
As an international student, you’re certain to be faced with stereotypes about your race and ethnicity. A few examples of common Asian stereotypical sayings include:
“Do you eat rice everyday?”
“Do you have really strict and conservative parents? Do they get mad at you if you don’t get straight As?”
“You all have really small eyes!”
“Your name is too hard to pronounce, I’m just going to call you with some sort of made-up name!” (Story of my life for having a unique name…)
And (the worst): “You guys all look the same!” (Read more about the common stereotypes for Asian international students HERE).
We all have some stereotypes of each other, usually based on our race and ethnicity. The best thing to do is to learn to deal with them. You may decide to just laugh it off or confront the person whose stereotypical remark offended you. If you are offended, don’t be afraid to speak up and stand up for yourself.
I didn’t really explore L.A. and its surrounding cities until my junior year of college. I know… Shame on me! Now thinking back, I really regret not exploring L.A. earlier. There are so many different things that you can do in the city, from attending art events and concerts (for those who love art and music) to going to the beach and farmer markets (for foodies like myself) and enjoying the beautiful L.A. scenery.
So dear fellow study abroaders, start exploring and see what the city you lives in has to offers if you haven’t done so already! Do something different and go somewhere different once in a while instead of sticking to one familiar activity or place. If you don’t have a car, don’t let it be an excuse that makes you stay indoor all the time. There are lots of other options available, such as carpooling with friends or through Uber or Lyft, renting a car through Zipcar, GetAround, or Enterprise’s Rent-A-Car, and using public transportation. You’re learn a lot more about the city, make new friends, and discover awesome things from exploring your surrounding!
Back in high school, I dedicated the majority of my time focusing only on academics and getting that 4.0 GPA. It’s not until college that I realized this was such a big mistake and began joining different clubs. I’ve made tons of new friends and learned so many useful skills by participating in those clubs. I even took on leadership roles because I really enjoyed being part of those clubs and wanted to contribute even further.
I understand that academics is crucial, but being involved with different campus activities is equally important. You’ll stand out as a 4.0 GPA candidate when applying for jobs, but recruiters want to know what extracurricular activities that you’re part of and whether or not you have any leadership role. Being involved not only provides you with new experience, knowledge and useful skills, but it’s also a great way to make new friends and build your social network.
If you’re unsure of where to start, attend your college’s student organizations/ clubs/ involvement fair. It’s a day that showcases all the active student organizations at your college and for them to get new members. While it’s important to be involved, don’t overload yourself by joining tons and tons of clubs either. You want to save time for other things as well. I suggest signing up for all the clubs that you’re interested in first, then actually attend their first meetings/events before deciding which clubs you want to commit in the long-term.
Don’t be afraid to say hi, introduce yourself, and start a conversation with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. While it makes sense for you to hang out with people who came from the same country and have the same cultural background as you are for reassurance and comfort, don’t just stick with them at all time and limit yourself from befriending other people. Remember that you’re studying abroad to experience different cultures. Step out of your comfort zone and get to know all sort of diverse people and their cultures, since they can foster your cultural awareness and social knowledge. Not only will this broaden your social network, but it’ll also boost your confidence, encourage mutual learning and greatly improve your English skill.
Embrace yourself to the U.S. culture through social activities, food and media. But at the same time, share your own culture with other people to foster mutual learning. If you’re Vietnamese (just like myself), bring your non-Vietnamese friends to a Vietnamese restaurant and let them try different local dishes that are not phở. If you’re Italian, organize a cooking date with friends and share with them your family pasta recipe. Food is always a great way to introduce people to a new culture. Share interesting customs and festivals from your home country, ask your friends to watch a movie or listen to a song in your native language, and even encourage them to visit your motherland some day!
Source: The Quotepedia
My friend who also studied in the U.S. once said that there are 3 stages to study abroad. The 1st stage is happiness and excitement – you just arrive to the U.S., you’re brand new to everything, and you’re super-duper excited. Then comes to 2nd stage of homesickness and culture shock. When the excitement begins to diminish, you start to feel lonely, miss your family and friends back home dearly, and struggle to embrace the new culture. Depression usually arises at this stage, especially if you resist talking and seeking help from others. Once you get pass this stage, acceptance is next. You gradually get used to your new life in the U.S. and even enjoy it. For me, I believe there’s also a 4th stage: reverse culture shock, in which I’ll talk more about in #19 below.
Fellow abroaders, as tough as you think you are, there will certainly be times that you feel lonely, homesick, and probably just want to give up (like I was). When that happens, don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability and seek help from other people. You may think that you can deal with the homesickness and loneliness on your own, but sometimes all you need to feel better is a reassurance or encouragement from those close to you, or those you look up to. Talk to friends that you’ve made in the U.S., your school professors/ counselors/ advisers, or call your loved ones back home. Let them know how you feel and what you’re struggling with so they can help you. Remember that you’re not alone in this journey.
This is one of the most important things I wish I had known before studying abroad. During my first few years in the U.S., I basically forgot to take good care of myself. I struggled to make friends during high school and get used to my new life in the U.S. For the majority of time, I was completely absorbed in my academics study only. I had the unhealthy habits of staying up really late at night studying and not getting enough sleep, eating tons of junk food and unhealthy snacks, and not exercising at all. Really bad mistakes! I hope that you don’t make the same mistakes that I did, now that you’re aware of them.
It’s extremely important to always take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. You don’t want to get sick from all the unhealthy habits. Taking care of yourself physically and mentally means that you need to love yourself and your body. It makes you happy, more productive, and confident. Having a healthy mind is as equally important as having a healthy body. Have balanced meals, drink lots of water, get enough sleep every night, exercise for at least 30 minutes every day, do self-reflection, talk to someone you trust when you’re feeling down, and seek help when you need it. Read HERE for more tips and advice on staying healthy.
Seriously. Just pick up the phone to Skype and text your parents once in a while. They miss you a lot and want to know that you’re doing well. Don’t use “being busy” or “not enough time” as an excuse to not keep in touch with your family. A simple text or a few minutes call won’t cost you that much time and energy, but it will greatly brighten up your parents’ day. Download Whatsapp, Skype, Viber, Line, or other voice calling/ text messaging apps to keep in touch with your family (if you haven’t done so already). The majority of these apps is free (or costs very little), which means that you can save a lot of money on phone bills. At the same time, treasure your family time more whenever you visit home.
I’m sure you have heard of the term “culture shock” – the uncomfortable feeling when you’re exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life. I’m sure that the majority of international students will experience culture shock at some points during our study abroad journey. But there’s also this thing calls “reverse culture shock”. It happens after you’re in the 3rd stage of acceptance (as mentioned in #16 above) of getting used to your study abroad country and its culture. When you finally come back to your home country, you realize that it seems a bit strange and different from how you remember it. In other words, you become so familiar with your study abroad country that your home country unexpectedly becomes unfamiliar to you.
Reverse culture shock happens to a lot of study abroaders, especially those who don’t visit their home country often. I myself wasn’t an exception. I remember visiting Vietnam during summer one year and it suddenly hit me that a lot has changed! High-rise buildings appeared out of nowhere, there were a lot more new constructions, infrastructures, businesses, everything got more expensive due to inflation, and people changed. I was in fact quite shocked from all these changes! But after a while, I was able to overcome reverse culture shock and embrace the changes as something inevitable.
For those who have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience reverse culture shock: remember other people face it too and that you’re not alone! For me, the best ways to deal with it are to openly talk about it with the people you trust, be aware that you’re experiencing reverse culture shock, and learn to embrace different cultures that you’re exposed to and became familiar with.
And last but not least…
This is one of the most important thing that I constantly reminded myself while studying abroad. Don’t take study abroad for granted. I repeat: Do not take it for granted! You’re already fortunate enough to have the chance to study abroad, so treasure the experience and make the best of every opportunity that comes your way. Meet tons of people from different backgrounds to broaden your social network, explore your diverse surrounding, learn new things everyday, and embrace cultural awareness. Don’t forget to have fun at the same time!
About Hue La
Hey there, I'm Hue (pronounced “huay”, not “hue” like how you would normally say it in English). I'm a USC graduate and traveler with 6+ years of study abroad experience in the U.S. I founded Study Abroad Corner with the goals of providing helpful advice and building a social network for fellow study abroaders around the world.