As we head into the third week of September, many of us are now getting settled into the routines of a new school year and enjoying the opportunities of on-campus life. However, for many international students, this is also a time when initial feelings of excitement start to give way to the challenges of adjustment. As you settle into your classes and get to know the people around you, it's not at all surprising if you might also be experiencing feelings of isolation, stress, and uncertainty. This is perhaps especially true this year, as many of us have had to adjust rapidly after spending a very long period of time with only a small circle of family and friends close by. The sudden change in social, cultural, and academic scenery may create generate a variety of conflicting emotions, including those of culture shock and homesickness.
It's important to realize that these feelings are not at all unusual or abnormal - virtually everyone has experienced them in varying degrees, and while it's especially common among newly-arrived students, they can occur at any time in your college career. What's important to realize is that there are a number of ways to address the stresses of adjustment. Here are some suggestions and tips that we at the International Center have picked up over the years:
Talking to others can help. One way to deal with the challenges of adjustment is to talk to others about the experiences and feelings you're having. If you're not comfortable sharing your feelings with your roommates or friends - and if you have just arrived, you may still be figuring out your friendship circles - then there are others you can talk to. These include your resident assistant or residential community director if you live on campus, someone from Counseling and Mental Health Service (CMHS) or the University Chaplaincy, the Dean of Student Affairs office, your International Center student advisor, or an academic dean or advisor. Regardless of who you turn to, talking things out with others – even if it’s a single conversation – can have immediate, and positive, benefits.
If you're homesick or experiencing culture shock, that's OK - it's completely normal. Homesickness and culture shock happen to many, many students during their college careers - usually when you first arrive, but sometimes even months or years later. Realize that these are perfectly normal feelings and reactions that virtually every student experiences, and it's only a sign of your continued bonds and ties with your families, friends, and culture. If you're experiencing culture shock or homesickness, talk to others, as we've already suggested. Also think about scheduling a regular time to call or email or text your family or friends, just to let them know how you are doing. They are a part of your support system, and don't hesitate to call on them.
Take time to get outside and explore. As simple as it sounds, think about scheduling a time each day - even it's only 30 minutes or an hour - to get outside to take a walk or get exercise, attend an event, or explore a different part of campus or the nearby city. These activities can help you get your mind focused on the activity in front of you.
Watch out and help each other. Sometimes the person experiencing challenges isn't you, but someone you know - your roommate, a classmate, a friend. Ask them if they're doing OK. Even a simple question or gesture can make a difference to someone who's feeling homesick, alone, stressed, or anxious. Suggest resources and help them to connect.
Don't worry about language skills. For many international students, especially those who are not native English speakers, it can be overwhelming when you first land in an environment where everything is communicated in English and everyone seems to understand everyone else. This can be a very frustrating experience and can make you feel isolated and alone. Try to keep in mind that with time and practice, your communication skills will strengthen and improve. And also remember that language isn't your deficiency, it's your strength - you are the one who managed to make it into a challenging and demanding program in a new country. You already have the skills you'll need to succeed, both academically and socially. You may notice that the more comfortable you feel in your surroundings, the more comfortable you will feel speaking and writing in a new language, as well. In the meantime, all of the university resources listed above are equipped to help you, regardless of your level of English. You made it here – now let us help you with the rest!
Use academic support and training services available to you. Many students who are just starting undergraduate or graduate studies find that the first weeks are difficult because they're not familiar with academic expectations. How do people manage to juggle all of their responsibilities, while also managing time to eat, sleep, and have a social life? Think about using academic resources available through your school. The StAAR Center, for example, holds a variety of workshops for both undergraduate and graduate students focusing on writing, math, and other subjects. They also run workshops and trainings to improve students’ time management skills. Invest a little now in getting extra help, as the long-term payoffs can be considerable.
Get involved with a student organization. Now that you're at college, consider getting involved with a student club or organization or association. It doesn't have to be a major commitment - just go to a meeting and learn more about what kinds of activities they sponsor and how you can help. This will help you to feel more engaged with your campus and surroundings.
Look for an on-campus job. On-campus jobs are a great way not only to earn a little bit of extra spending money, they can also help with homesickness. You'll be interacting with people everyday, widening your network and helping you to develop a strong set of skills for navigating your new environment. Go to Handshake or your school’s career center for on-campus job postings..
Go out to eat once in a while. One reason why students often feel homesick is because they can't find the food that they know and love from home. Fortunately, the Boston area is tremendously diverse. If you're looking for a particular type of cuisine, there's probably a place that will serve food that you love and enjoy.
Over time, the stress and anxiety you are experiencing during this period of adjustment may subside, even though college and university life will always involve some set of challenges. As you proceed through your program, either now or later, don't hesitate to reach out, connect with others, and use the resources available to you.