International assignees and international students have a lot in common. They both face a number of similar cultural adaptation challenges when adjusting to life in a foreign country. These challenges might include things like locating ideal housing, building new relationships, and communicating in a foreign language … all while trying to succeed personally and professionally.
But there’s one fundamental difference: instead of being paid for their work, international students earn a grade. And if they aren’t able to successfully adapt to university life in another culture, it will likely be reflected in their academic performance. This can snowball into more serious issues because grade-point average is often part of determining eligibility for important opportunities, such as scholarships and financial aid. Additionally, families often have invested a great deal of time and money to ensure that a student can attend overseas, so many students feel some pressure to perform well on behalf of their community back home.
Suffice it to say, international students—like international assignees—have a lot going on.
Thankfully, many universities are able to help international students with the cross-cultural adjustment process. Of course, specific programs and resources will vary from one university to another, so it’s important for students to learn as much as they can about the institution before they arrive. With that in mind, here are three major global challenges international students often face during their cultural adjustment period, and how they might effectively adapt to the different cultural expectations.
Logistical Challenges: Settling in Abroad Can Be Tricky
It’s easy to take everyday things for granted, like knowing the bus schedule or being able to rely on your coffee-maker. For international students, however, even these logistics are not guaranteed.
But global challenges of living abroad can start even before travelling. Most universities ask students to plan their housing arrangement, purchase a meal plan, and register for classes in advance, amongst other tasks. This means that many students make decisions that will significantly impact their university experience before they have even seen the campus. Additionally, students and often their parents must have a plan to manage finances, such as paying tuition, applying for scholarships, and/or establishing eligibility for work.
To clarify these logistics and ease into the cultural adjustment period, it can help to speak to an international recruiter or admissions counselor during the application process. Counselors can act as a bridge between cultures and help you get settled abroad. They can provide guidance about your specific options for housing and course registration, and refer you to other resources like the financial aid office and career center.
Language Challenges: Hitting the Books Can Ease the Cultural Adjustment Period
Although most universities require that international students meet certain language requirements, language barriers can still be one of the most common cross-cultural challenges. What with different accents, quick speech, and slang or idiomatic expressions, language barriers can make international students struggle academically or feel socially isolated. Even when you’re fluent in a second language, there are a lot of nuances that make it difficult to communicate successfully with native speakers or in an academic environment.
There are many ways to improve language skills, and perhaps the most obvious is to practice. The more you speak with peers and professors, the sooner you will adapt to your new cultural environment. Ask your counselor if your institution offers language courses to help you hone your language skills.
Another cross-cultural challenge related to language is that different cultures may have different expectations of how to present ideas or construct an argument—which can make it difficult to get high marks. Many universities have writing centers or peer tutors to help students develop the content and structure of their work. But there are also resources like RW3’s CultureWizard™ Country Profiles, that offer a collection of in-depth, practical guides to help you effectively make presentations and convey ideas in over 150 different countries.
Cross-Cultural Challenges: Building Relationships
Due to cross-cultural differences, building relationships across cultures can be particularly challenging when moving to a new country. That’s because culture defines the ways in which we structure our society, how we communicate, and which traits or behaviors we tend to value. When international students apply and try to integrate into a university, they have to navigate a number of unfamiliar systems with little (if any) cultural context. That is, they must learn how to communicate and build relationships in a way that reflects their new circumstances.
The difficulty of doing this often leads to feelings of isolation from family, alienation from peers, stress or anxiety, and even depression. In turn, international students might have trouble developing friendships and building a strong local support network.
Fortunately, many universities thought of this, too! Many campuses have cultural resource centers for international students where you can meet people of similar background who are coping with similar challenges. You may also wish to check your institution’s website for resource centers, multicultural events, cultural clubs, or social media pages and group chats.
Joining a sports team or student organization unrelated to cultural background can also help international students build cross-cultural relationships. This can help you not only find common ground with people of diverse identities, but help you become more comfortable with immersing yourself in local life. Information about these is often available on your institution’s page for first-year students.
There’s no question that international students face a number of cross-cultural challenges that impact day-to-day logistics, communication, and relationship-building. But remember: the cultural adjustment period is a natural part of the process, and there are plenty of ways to help minimize the difficulties of adjusting to life in a new country. Connecting with an admission counselor, using online resources like RW3’s CultureWizard™ Country Profiles, and joining an extracurricular organization are just a few of the things international students can do to help ensure personal and professional success in a new environment.