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30 Things I Learned from my Experience as an International Student in the USA

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11 min read

by Sonali Kudva

Getting to America was the easy part. My purpose was clear: I was here to get my degree. I wanted to find a job, get sponsored so I can pay back my loans, make money, etc.

But I soon learned these goals were not that simple. So here’s a list of things I wish I had known, perhaps would have done differently, and learned along the way.

  1. Style guides are very, very important.

    What’s a style guide? A very good question, especially since nothing comparable existed for me in India. One of my professors kept talking about “MLA style” and the only meaning I could come up with was “Member of Legislative Assembly style.”

    I found out that style guides are in fact books on formatting the presentation (the way you cite material, the cover page, the bibliography, etc.) of your paper to a professor. Different departments and disciplines use different ones. There are workshops in the library to help learn these, and you may buy or download a style guide, and you may also consult an online resource like the OWL at Purdue (bookmark this, it’s a great resource).

  2. If you and another student work together and turn in the same paper, it’s still not allowed (deportation, visa loss, 1-20 revoked, etc.).
  3. You may not turn in a paper you turned in for another class.

    This is also seen as plagiarism. Which is very bad (deportation, visa loss, 1-20 revoked, etc.)

  4. Professors can tell if it’s not original work.

    A plagiarism checker is built into the grading system), and you can get your I-20 visa revoked and subsequently face deportation.

  5. Firstly, expectations for graduate students vary immensely in different countries.

    Writing more (in terms of sheer volume) is not necessarily better or going to get better grades. Memorizing a whole bunch of things didn’t get me anywhere. And, learning to do academic research is paramount.

    What is academic research? Well, it’s designed to make you think originally. It’s expected you’ll read papers, books, and other material, and use it to think about your subject. It’s very important to be original.

  6. There’s a lot of writing involved in graduate work here in the USA.

    Deadlines are strict. And in an interdisciplinary program, this can sometimes be overwhelming. I learned to put everything in a calendar.

  7. The American education system may be somewhat flexible, but it still has its limits.

    When I first came here, I figured I could take any class I wanted to get my degree. Well, you could take any class you want, but a graduate degree is a specialization and not every class you take counts for it. There are requirements and specifications. But that said, if you want to take that class in Chinese, go ahead. Just be aware, it may not count to your degree.

  8. Your academic life cannot be your whole life.

    In my first semester, I felt overwhelmed. I wanted to quit. I had taken the hardest class in the program in my first semester. I did badly. My ego was bruised. I had been considered a top student back at my university in India. I had awards, etc.

    But I couldn’t quit. So I learned not to overwhelm myself. And I learned to relax, made friends, developed a support system, and this helped my academic performance too. But if I had to do it all over again, I would never take a hard class in my first semester. It was too much to deal with. And I still hate seeing it on my transcript.

  9. I’ll repeat: your academic work cannot take over your life.

    I left my home to come to here for a new life. I took time out to make new friends, cook with people, have experiences, travel a little (even if it’s just around the city), took the bus, found great shopping bargains. All of this was invaluable, and I really spent very little money (because I didn’t have any).

    How was it valuable? Those friends had their own contacts and their other stuff. I found my first job on campus because a friend knew someone was leaving in his department (cafeteria, not academic department), and told me. I went to speak with the boss and was hired. I still remember when a student tipped me a dollar (it was the first time someone had tipped me).

  10. Money is a big deal, a sore issue and a problem for international students.

    Before coming, I was told, “Oh, just go, and you’ll get an assistantship or a job. Don’t worry. Just go.” Lies. None of these people had actually been here and knew the reality.

    I did get an assistantship eventually, and a job on-campus. But it was hard work. I got to know my professors, and talked to people, and found out what graduate assistants actually did. It’s a lot of writing! And so, learning to do original academic research? That was a priority. I participated in class discussions, and professors learned my name. I participated in whatever I could.

    Also, some funding comes from outside the university. I followed professional associations, and cultural organizations in my field online and applied for all sorts of scholarships and awards. Last year, I received $5000 from a professional organization in scholarship money. So it works. And it’s also completely your responsibility.

  11. Some things that I did, were not for pay, or for academic credit, but paid off anyway.

    I learned to look at some things in the long term. What would look good on my CV? How could I market myself better? I recently had an interview with the White House for an unpaid internship, just because I spent an evening filling out an application. Yes, it was an unpaid internship, but I got selected to interview! You can bet that is going on my CV.

  12. The American accent makes Americans speak a whole lot slower than us.

    So it always sounds like we’re interrupting them (which is rude). I’ve learned to slow down my speech a bit, making it easier for them to understand me too.

  13. Get a radio for your house.

    They’re cheap, and you can even find one used. And yes, the music may be different than what you’re used to, but I found having the radio on in the house, made me feel less alone, and also helped me get used to understanding the American accent. The more you get used to the accent, the easier it gets to understand people around you, and also to communicate with them. They have very short news bulletins on there as well, and you can get some understanding of local news and events. National Public Radio is also a great way to hear some interesting stuff. Television is good for the same purpose.

  14. Make friends with people outside of what you know.

    I have no family in the U.S. The first Diwali I was here in the US, coincided with Thanksgiving holidays. My three roommates had family and friends who took them shopping (Black Friday). They were all from the same part of India and spoke the same language. I stayed in my apartment all day and cried.

    That never happened to me again. I made sure of it. I made friends with people from other places and the following year, I spent the holidays with them. I cooked them an Indian meal in honor of Diwali, and then we all had a Thanksgiving meal together. Local churches have events too. I’ve participated in those as well. And no, you do not have to be Christian, or convert, or anything. You just have to be willing to participate and have a new experience. If you hate it, don’t go again.

  15. It’s really really cold here in Ohio. And I saw snow for the first time in my life after coming here.

    The first time it snowed (it was actually just a few flakes in October), I thought I was going to freeze to death if I went out. I put on four layers of clothing, and my big heavy boots, thermals, and a hat. I didn’t freeze. Instead, I was too hot and attracted some strange looks. I also discovered that many light layers were definitely better than one big heavy thing. I couldn’t regulate my temperature with one big heavy thing, but with layers, I could take things off or put them on as I needed. This is especially useful if you’re going to class. Some classrooms are hot as heck, and others are cold and drafty.

  16. The cold weather means homes in the US are pretty tightly sealed.

    What this means is if you cook anything in your home, all your winter clothes are going to smell like your food. I didn’t care about this until I smelled someone else smelling of food I didn’t like. My food does not smell tasty to everyone, and I knew I didn’t want to smell like food. So I began shutting my bedroom door when I cooked and do a “smell check” before I left home. I definitely do not want to be known as “The girl who smells like Indian food!” (Also look up #curryscentedbitch)

  17. Learn to cook a few simple dishes.

    Food brings people together. And, it’s a great and cheap way to pay someone back for something nice they did for you (like giving you a ride). I also found host families and the like sometimes ask you to cook a meal for them. Just remember, most people have a very low spice tolerance!

  18. Do not speak in your native language in front of someone who doesn’t understand.

    It’s rude. It’s natural for them to assume you’re talking about them. It does not make you likeable. And it is important to be likeable. The more you’re liked, the better your chances are, to succeed.

  19. It’s okay to ask for help, not to expect it.

    Americans are independent. As Asians, we have very strong family and community ties. Some things are all about convenience here (the drive through, the canned goods, the frozen foods), but other things are much harder.

  20. Celebrate your culture.

    I’m Indian. I try to keep in mind I’m an ambassador for my country. I try to celebrate the aspects of my country and culture which I am proud of. I share my festivals and food with others. I found this to be a great way to make friends.

  21. Americans love their sports.

    They are loyal to their sports teams, and they are mostly passionate about some sport, if not all. I’ve found a great way to make conversation or initiate conversation is to talk sports (not that I know much, but I’ve tried to learn something). It’s also a great experience to go to some sporting events while you’re here. The university sports are free, but there are other teams in the area and it’s a good way to see a part of American life.

  22. Doing your own laundry.

    This was kind of a new experience for me. I knew how to use my washing machine at home, but I wasn’t at all familiar with a dryer. I also knew very little about separating my clothes, making sure to consider clothes could shrink in the dryer (ruined my first wool coat that way), and making sure colors didn’t run. Do some homework, and then figure out what works best. But, do your laundry on a regular basis. Again, the house is sealed, dirty clothes smell, and the US has a problem with bed bugs. It could turn out very badly.

  23. Obey the law.

    For the most part, the law is the law here. You likely cannot talk your way out of a parking ticket, there is no “bargaining” on the cost of something, and you could get arrested for trying to bribe anyone. And everything is on record. If you do eventually get that H1B and have submitted the application for the green card, believe me, everything on that record is visible.

  24. Race is a very touchy subject.

    Racism is a very real phenomenon. I’ve experienced it. And the first time someone put me down and then discriminated against me, I didn’t understand it, and when I did, I was too afraid to speak up. It was when things got too much for me to deal with, I talked to someone, and got help, and understood more on what was going on. The point is, if you are feeling discriminated against, talk to someone.

  25. Personal Safety.

    When I first came to the USA, my father imagined all Americans had guns and shot at each other on the street. Now that you’re here, I hope you know this isn’t true. But, you still have to be careful. Be respectful of people, respect their personal boundaries, and be friendly. It’s a sad fact these days that some will judge you and have certain notions about you because of your skin color, your accent, or your race. They’re not right, but they exist. Still, you can’t fix everyone. All you can do is stay safe.

    As a rule, the university is a safe place. However, make use of the university escort service if you’re walking home late at night. Learn the emergency procedures that are in place. And in the worst case scenario, if something does happen, contact 911. Report incidents to the proper authorities. Be aware of the medical facilities on campus.

  26. Health Insurance.

    As international students, we all have health insurance. This was not something I was familiar with before coming to the USA. Insurance doesn’t mean all healthcare is free, but as students, it is much more affordable to us. The first place for medical visits is the university health center. You may make an appointment, or walk in to see someone. If you want more information on how your insurance works, call the number on your insurance card, or, there is a person (or more than one) at the health center who can answer your questions.

  27. If you own a car, you must get and maintain car insurance.
  28. The visa, the sponsorship, the job: all of the icing on your cake.

    Try not to make that goal too rigid. I did. I made the plan to finish my degree in the shortest time possible, find a job, get that sponsorship, that H1B, and that green card. I failed. I felt ashamed.

    I even returned to India.

    And I found a great job. I made a decent amount of money. I had my family close by, I had a maid, and a car and everything good. It actually turned out better than I realized.

    You see, I did finish that degree very fast (in three semesters). But I made no useful contacts, no friends, and I was lonely. I also wasn’t told by my advisors that by fast-tracking my way through my degree, I had cost myself the chance of specializing properly, and of doing a PhD.

    But, I was lucky. I worked hard at my job in India, and I received funding to come and do another degree. This time, I did it right, took advantages of all the research opportunities and got to know people. I was also a whole lot more confident and relaxed. I knew if I went back to India, I would definitely get an even better job with a higher pay than before, in a place of my choosing. I also knew I had the skills to get a job here. I knew how to market myself, write a good CV, and talk to people. All of these were/are important.

  29. No means no.

    I had to learn this. If someone said they couldn’t do something I wanted them to do, or I didn’t get what I wanted the way I wanted it, I had to deal with the disappointment. But the little Indian voice in me told me to just persist and make that person change their mind. And this was just not good for me. For one, I was irritating the other person, and for the other, they still wouldn’t bend their rules to give me what I wanted. So I learned another way. If I wanted something, I had to figure out a way to make it happen for myself.

    This had a dual effect. I had to let things go sometimes and pick my battles. I also had to be more flexible in achieving what I wanted from myself. After all, USA is the land of opportunity. But it’s also the land of being independent, and being hard working.

  30. I learned some things are out of my control.

    I wanted some things very badly. I had a plan. And I knew how things should be. But as it turns out, I didn’t get everything I wanted. My plans had to change. And things didn’t turn out like I thought they would. But most of it wasn’t my fault. The economy was bad. Americans were losing their jobs, visa rules are changing all the time, and green card rules are becoming stricter every day. I had to learn to just do my best and hope it works out. And it does. It really does.


Sonali KudvaSonali Kudva is a Ph.D. candidate at the College of Communication and Information at Kent State University, Ohio, with research interests in Bollywood, Human-Information Interaction and Popular Culture. She inherited the travel bug from her parents and has traveled widely, and hopes to get the opportunity to travel to more interesting places someday. In another life, she was a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting Fellow, has worked as a full-time journalist-editor and freelancer at magazines, newspapers and online. Sonali calls India her home, even though she spends more time away from home than in it. She likes to collect academic degrees, and in her spare time, she likes to vegetate with an interesting novel, talk to her family or argue with her friends on politics, international affairs and any other topic that may come up.

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