Living in the U.S. as an international student can be tough. I know it’s tough, because I’ve been living as an international student in the U.S. for a little over a decade – one year of high school, four years of college, two years of graduate school (first master's degree), one year of work using OPT visa (student permit work visa), 1.5 years for another master's degree, and here I am now at UCSB, pursuing my doctoral studies in Education. Having gone through 10 years of life as an international student, I'd like to share some insights on what international students go through on a regular basis. These are reflections based on my story as well as stories of many other international students at UCSB.
1. International students sometimes struggle in establishing new friends and connections. Don’t get me wrong – it's not just the language barrier. Sometimes, they aren’t sure of the cultural discourse. They might wonder, “Is it appropriate to say it this way or that way?” And when people make sarcastic jokes, they might not understand it or not know how to respond to it (they’ll often just smile). Also, international students try to maintain their connections back home. To do so, they sometimes have to spend their weekends staying at home to chat with family and friends who are on the other side of the world. Weekday chatting can happen but they have to either stay up really late or get up really early due to time difference. Professors often wonder why international students are so tired all the time – well, this might be why.
2. International students, almost all the time, experience homesickness and culture shock. When I first experienced culture shock, I didn’t realize I was experiencing it. My concept of “culture shock” was something more extreme, like a physical “shock.” However, I later realized that the beginning of my culture shock was when I constantly questioned and judged the ways people in America act, think, speak, and eat. I still remember how surprised I was when I saw my American friends eating the entire footlong Subway sandwich, and still had room for dessert. It took time for me to adjust and embrace everything in America. In addition, international students feel homesick – not all the time – but especially during holidays and vacations. What makes the homesickness worse is when they find out it costs more than $1,000 to fly back home.
3. International students have to deal with a lot of paperwork, jargon, and all kinds of legal “stuff.” International students always have to be mindful of dates. Students need to get their I-20 document (a two-page paper showing, “I go to this school. I’m legal.”) signed on time, before and after travel. Students need to make sure that their passport and visa are not expired. If the passport is expiring, they have to go to the nearest embassy of their country of origin to get it renewed (“nearest” is a two-hour drive to Los Angeles for UCSB students). If the visa is expiring, they have to leave the U.S. and get a new one from a U.S. embassy at any foreign country. Yes, it’s expensive to be an international student. In addition, students have to keep up with new immigration policies, make copies of all immigration documents, and be knowledgeable of immigration jargon words, such as OPT or CPT. OPT (Optional Practical Training) is a permit that allows students to work off-campus for a year after they graduate from college or graduate school. CPT (Curricular Practical Training) is a permit that allows students to work off-campus during the school year, as long as it is related to what they are studying. To apply for both of these permits, students have to have money, time (preparing all the paperwork), and patience (waiting for the permit to come in the mail for OPT).
4. International students have to be “extraordinary” or are of “national interest” to impress the government and potential employers – especially those who are allergic to the words “visa” and “sponsorship.” No matter how awesome international students are, and no matter how much the employer wants to hire them, they (students and employers) have to go through the immigration process. This means more paperwork, more money (from the student and the employer), and more patience. So, when international students hear about college career fairs, sometimes they will not go. They might consider going if they know that there is a company present that has had a history of sponsoring visas. Even so, it is still not easy for international students to ask their potential employers, “Can you sponsor me for a visa?”
5. International students sometimes have a fear of going back to their “home” country, especially when they have lived in the U.S. for a long time. When international students apply for a visa to come to the U.S., they have to show evidence that they have an intent to go back to their home country after their education. However, after spending several years living in the U.S., it might not be easy to go back to their home country. Not because they don’t miss their family and friends back home, but probably because they have now been acclimated in the U.S. culture and lifestyle. Sometimes, they realize that they might want to live in the U.S. after visiting their home country over the break. All the changes that have gone through in their home country while they were gone might appear foreign to them. Often, these students experience a second wave of culture shock, comparing the ways of their home country to the U.S. Thus, they end up feeling more “at home” in this foreign country than their home country, because they know how to pay their bills, how to get around, and where to find the best wi-fi Internet connection.
Life as an international student is not easy, with all the culture shock and homesickness they have to go through, all the relationships they have to build and maintain, all the paperwork and deadlines they need to keep up to stay legal, and all the studying and professional development to be a star job candidate. So the next time you meet an international student, give them an empathy hug. But make sure it’s culturally appropriate.