The Hidden Challenges of International Students in the USA— A Survey of 100 Students
Culture shocks to expect
Two years ago, I started volunteering some of my free time to train prospective students on admission, funding, and survival into US grad schools. Successful applicants — mostly outside the United States — are always curious to know the challenges they should expect and prepare for as they settle into their programs.
I always find these sorts of questions exciting. Each time, I use my own experiences — which were largely positive — to educate these prospective international students. As the platform became bigger with mentees spread all around the USA, I realized that my personal experiences in Stillwater, Oklahoma, are not wholly representative of the wider challenges that international students may face in the US. My wife and I, therefore, decided to reach out to other international students.
Using the array of questions and concerns we have received from prospective international students, we asked 100 international students about their personal experiences on several topics surrounding culture shocks, social justice issues, workloads, work-life balance, racism, choosing/dealing with advisors, and dating.
For survey demographics, see here.
To get a broad perspective on the biggest challenges that international students may expect, we asked our respondents to identify the biggest shocks they experienced as they settled in the United States.
From the results, it was unsurprising to know that the greatest shock for international students is the weather. Other huge challenges include social life, food, dating, and the financial struggle compared to the societal expectation back home.
The professor-student dynamic in the US was shocking to our survey respondents, which speaks well of the collegial structure of US institutions, unlike certain professors in developing countries that posturize like pint-sized gods across their largely subpar campuses.
I had to get that out of the way. Let’s continue.
Our survey respondents were dominated by African and Asian students. So we looked at how these two demographics differ in their responses.
Social life: 52% of Asian students vs 44% of African students
Good relationship with professors: 29% of Asian students vs 47% of African students
Financial struggle: 38% of Asian students vs 34% of African students
Food: 33% of Asian students vs 38% of African students
Dating: 14% of Asian students vs 25% of African students
For the respondents who chose dating culture as a shock, results on gender differences showed that 17% were males compared to 27% of females, suggesting that female international students feel the impact of the dating culture in the US more than their males counterparts. Do female international students probably have less dating options or opportunities than the males? You can follow our conversations on potential solutions on some of these issues here.
To put these results into context for new and prospective international students, here are some of the comments of the respondents.
“I settled pretty smoothly but I did have a hard time making real connections with classmates and locals in general. As a non-English native, I wish I had known more about the education system in the US. There was a lot of misinformation to unlearn such as access to scholarships, work, access to commodities, and advantages as an international student.”
“I come from a tropical country and I had never experienced such extreme climate conditions and temperatures as the ones I have seen. Summer heat as high as 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit), and winter temperatures of -25 Celsius.”
“Since English is not my first language, I always struggle with communicating with other people; especially when going grocery shopping or at restaurants. I usually order online because I feel nobody understands me… It is kind of frustrating.”
“More than half of my stipend goes to pay the rent of my apartment. I also pay a significant amount of money in student fees. I have had medical emergencies and it is extremely expensive to receive medical attention here in the US.”
“Of course, the food was different from what we’re used to at home, ended up feeding wrongly and gained too much weight. Here professors treat their students well and are willing to help with anything.”
“Social life- there will be some bit of segregation but you just have to cope with it and focus on the positive side of things.”
“Being my first time staying so far away from family and friends I grew up with, It was hard for me to make new friends from my classes which made it hard to ask for help with my difficult classes.”
“I really like the relationship with profs. They are very friendly and helpful.”
“Individualism is a thing.”
“Missing immediate family”
“Food was too sugary and too salty compared to what I was used to. There was good everywhere and in virtually every event; but I was surprised to learn that some individuals were food insecure.”
“Weather- I could not get used to the cold, it was colder than I expected and I was terrified to have had a tornado in a city 30 minutes from mine.”
“Respect- I was shocked at how respectful professors were to students; it was the opposite of my home country. I was shocked to know that lateness was regarded as disrespectful. Generally, the method of showing respect in the US differs from that of my home country.
Social life- I was shocked at the frequency of restaurant patronage, the requirement to tip and to pay for one’s lunch when at a restaurant with friends.
Good relationship with professors- I was shocked at how it was practice for students to evaluate professors. This might be behind the good relationship between students and professors.
Women are more than capable to do things as men do in heavy works like in the farm.”
“The high degree of individuality displayed here can be shocking, particularly if you come from a culture where interpersonal relationships are valued.”
“First, when I came in, I was a bit overwhelmed with expectations. Religion was practiced differently. Ditto for the class structure and expectations. My food palette was on the opposite side of the spectrum. Then there was the inability to be as audacious as my peers — they simply could say whatever they feel without needing to fear a respite. Finally, I lacked the courage to dive into their dating pool — my low self-esteem was at an all-time high. Even I could not explain it. I was the “Casanova” of the year back at home. Here, I wasn’t even in the conversation. But all of these changes after a year or so. Even so, like Lauren Daigle, I still keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough.”
“Coming from Nigeria I already spoke a decent amount of English, but there were still some barriers; it was difficult for some people to understand me at first but with a little fine-tuning here and there that went away with time. And always make sure to speak loudly and clearly.”
“I came during the Fall semester, and the weather was ok for me to handle. But down the road, as we move closer to the spring semester my acceptance level decreases.”
“The weather was totally different. Hot is too hot and cold is too cold; It seemed like back home in Uganda, it was never something I needed to plan for or even check. The social life was also different, people are so loud compared to the soft-spoken nature of my people back home. It was totally different coupled with the accent differences. The food all had sugar added to it, who adds sugar to meat and pulses? Coping with the differences is challenging especially with the academic obligations. Not to mention that some systems were novel to me. I had never used D2L or Canvas. Maneuvering around it in an online class isn’t something I would recommend at the start.”
“WIU is far from where I can get our local food. I have to travel a long mile to get the materials needed for our local delicacy. I arrived here when the winter was at its peak. It wasn’t easy to cope with the weather The social life is kind of boring. Making friends is one of the most difficult things here. You meet people in the class, you have a good rapport with them, they see you at Walmart and pretend they don’t know you. The Professors are awesome. Their relationship with us was impeccable.”
“I was quick to realize that courtesy was the norm here. Though people keep to themselves a lot such that it feels like they don’t notice your presence around them, but on greeting them, they reply. Sometimes they are the first to say ‘hi’. Generally, people look ready to help when they seek help, for example when one is lost and is asking for directions, etc. This is unlike my home country where people feel insecure talking to a stranger where different thoughts go through their minds as you seek little assistance or guidance. Experiencing that openness here on the street, in stores, in school, and everywhere, it looked strange but now I am used to it.”
“For a very picky eater, it was really hard to easily find food that I enjoy. I come from a very communal environment, so transitioning to a somewhat “isolating” environment was a shocking experience.”
With these comments, new and prospective international students should be able to identify the commonalities in challenges and prepare to overcome them. Without a doubt, dealing with some of these challenges will largely be down to your personality. While there are no easy answers, we tried to offer some potential solutions here.
How would you advise international students to cope with these potential challenges?