Tips for International Students Thriving in the US

Chwala,Adriana

Welcome to the Spring Semester!

I hope you feel reinvigorated after the winter break.  As we enter a new semester, I would like to take this opportunity to share with UF international students some tips on how to make the most out of your time in the US.  As a former international student myself, and now a staff psychologist at the Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) and a Co-Chair of UF Gator International Focus Team (UFGIFT), I am able to understand international students’ experiences from multiple perspectives.  Before we get to the meat of this article, I want to make this loud and clear: International students are an important asset to UF and the Gainesville community.  You contribute to diversity, bringing with you a different worldview to the classroom that facilitates cross-cultural understanding and enriches students’ learning experience.  You broaden the faculty and students’ view with your culture and ethnic upbringing, which is crucial for developing multicultural competence.  Additionally, you probably are motivated to succeed academically and had stood out in school in your home country.  Your academic talent enhances the excellence of UF, stimulating the intellectual growth of your peers.  Finally, your leaving the familiar behind to study in a different country is another evidence that attests to your courage.  Undeniably, international students encounter unique obstacles and difficulties in the process of transition, and it is completely normal to feel discouraged, self-doubt, lonely, and lost at times.  However, it is important to keep in mind how much you bring with you to UF, because when facing adjustment challenges, we often lose sight of our strengths.  With that being said, I am going to highlight a few strategies based on empirical studies that will likely be beneficial to you in the process of transitioning.  Some tips may not apply to you, but I strongly encourage you to give it a try before making a premature judgement.

1. Make Use of UF Resources

UF is a huge school that offers all kinds of resources and support than you probably can imagine.  You may feel information-overload learning about these different services available to you on campus.  Some critical resources include student associations, Writing Studio, English Language Institute’s Conversation Partners program, CWC, GatorWell, Rec Center, and various student organizations.  These service centers offer a space to de-stress, to strengthen your social support system, and to learn practical skills/strategies to cope with obstacles.

For instance, joining a student association offers you a way to stay connected with your home country even when you are away from home.  You could also seek advice from members in the association regarding all sort of problems, such as the best place to do grocery shopping, where to get a decent haircut, good restaurants in town, etc.  We all need this type of “safe space” to recharge ourselves so that we are psychologically ready to take on the challenges in our day to day life.

In terms of improving your English proficiency to effectively navigate school and life in general, the Writing Studio and the Conversation Partners program can be very helpful.  Since you are here already, why not take advantage of these resources?  The CWC and GatorWell, on the other hand, provide services directly aiming at cultivating wellness and addressing difficult emotions.  A number of services are available to you at the CWC, for example, International Student Groups, drop-in workshops, brief individual counseling, and biofeedback trainings.  Remember, it is an act of courage facing your struggles and opening up to others when you reach out to us.

Finally, research also shows that involvement with the host culture yields positive outcomes.  You can increase your involvement and enrich your life through joining student organizations that speak to your interests.  A more personal note to share here.  I knew nothing about football when I first came to the US (and I still know very little).  Despite not interested in the sport per se, I was determined to step out of my comfort zone.  Hence, I went to a game with my friends and ended up having a lot of fun, which became one of my precious memories.  If you don’t know where to start, UFGIFT could be a good place to consult.  We will connect you with the best fitting resources.

2. Adopt a Helpful Mindset

Relocating to a different country is a huge life event that involves drastic changes and brings up a sense of having lost what one had.  You left behind your social connections, the access to various aspects of your home country (e.g., food, music), competency (suddenly everything feels somehow more taxing in the US), and the rights and privileges associating with a US citizenship.  It is essential that you see your acculturative challenges as a developmental learning curve rather than a deficit.  In other words, you simply need to relearn new knowledge and skills due to relocation rather than you not having adequate knowledge and skills.

A researcher Carol Dweck in Stanford University proposes the famous distinction between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  A person with a growth mindset believes that talents can be developed, whereas someone with a fixed mindset thinks that we can’t really do much about our talents.  I highly encourage you to cultivate a growth mindset in the process of adjustment, as it is linked to more adaptive outcomes than holding on to a fixed mindset.  Additionally, try to be open and nonjudgmental about cultural differences.  Use your observation skills to notice how things are different in the US, and be genuinely curious about these differences.  It will help broaden your perspective and reduce some dissatisfaction living in a different country.

3. Practice Adaptive Coping Skills

Stress is inevitable, particularly for international students who are dealing with adjustment on so many different areas in life.  Using healthy coping skills helps replenish our soul and body so that we are more effective in reaching our goals in the long run.  Researchers suggest that keeping in touch with your home culture engenders a sense of safety.  You can achieve this by putting up things that are meaningful to you (e.g., family photos, art), eating food from home country, listening to music from your cultural background. Be creative about this. Moreover, humor is a powerful tool.  Cross-cultural interactions can be clumsy for all involved, so using your sense of humor provides relief when you take risks and make mistakes.  Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Additionally, establishing working relationships or friendships with empathic American faculty, staff, or student could alleviate the reluctance you may experience when asking for clarification on things you are unsure about.  Look for people who make you feel safe.  If you don’t know where to begin, I encourage you to seek advice from other friends, contact your advisor, or reach out to UFGIFT.  Also, I cannot overemphasize the importance of acceptance of unpredictable life circumstances and positive re-framing. Cross-cultural transitions involve many new and unpredictable challenges, so you will need to learn to accept these unexpected events and make meaning out of it, just as the proverb goes, “when life gives you lemon, make lemonade.”

Finally, practicing gratitude is an easy yet effective way to boost our well-being.  You can make it a routine counting three blessings in your day and provide reasons.  Alternatively, you can focus on one benefit, elaborating on three aspects of that thing for which you’re thankful.  Try it out and see if you notice any changes after a while.

If you want to learn more about thriving in the US, please feel free to reach out to Dr. Shu-Yi Wang at the UF Counseling and Wellness Center. I am also interested in learning about your unique ways of coping.  Look forward to hearing from you.  Go Gators!