5 Common Cultural Challenges for International Students


The move to university is a challenging one for many students, and for those going to college in a foreign country, the obstacles are even greater. Unfamiliar customs, new languages, strange foods – it can all become overwhelming.

Here are some of the common challenges you can expect to face as an international student, and some tips to help you overcome them.

1. Culture Shock

For many international students, the experience of studying at a university in a new country can be disorienting. Feelings of confusion, nervousness, and even loneliness – in unfamiliar surroundings– are quite common.

The Solution: Prior to your departure, learn as much as possible about the country and city in which will be living. If you find your self starting to worry about how different or uncomfortable your new surroundings may be, focus instead on learning as much as you can about the new culture and embracing it as part of your learning experience.

2. Fitting In

It’s common for international students to worry about fitting in and making friends. Language barriers, cultural expectations, and just being different than your classmates can make it difficult to feel like you belong.

The Solution:  Seek out activities and events that can help integrate you into your college’s social activities and provide great opportunities to meet friends. Consider the following:

  • Intramural sports teams
  • Study groups
  • Student clubs and associations
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • On-campus jobs
  • Off-campus activities
  • Academic clubs
  • Fraternities & sororities
  • Studying in the library or student center

3. The Food

Many international students long for ‘comfort food’ from home and may have a hard time finding it at their university. Each country has its own unique cuisine and dining customs. Adjusting to new foods, different portion sizes and meal schedules in a new country can be stressful.

The Solution: If you’re studying in a city, check online for restaurants or grocery stores in the area that carry your regional cuisine. Even in smaller cities, websites like Yelp can be a great resource for researching restaurants and stores that carry a variety of cuisines. The Internet is changing the world of food rapidly – not only in big cities, but also in college towns. You may be surprised at the variety of foods that are available for takeout nearby and, for the more adventurous, the ingredients that are available to prepare your favorite meals on your own.

4. The Language

International students oftentimes find that language is a significant barrier to overcome. Even students with prior exposure to a particular language may find that cultural differences, dialect, and accents can still present challenges.

The Solution: Immerse yourself in the language, quickly. It can be tempting and easy to congregate with others who speak your native language, but the faster you dive-in and surround yourself with native speakers of the local language, the easier it will be to learn it and hone your skills.

5. Academic Expectations

It’s quite possible that you are used to a different level of stress or academic expectations than is the norm at the university you choose to attend abroad. And sometimes, the amount of homework that is expected may be quite different than what is considered normal at home. It’s quite common for students attending college in the U.S. to face a solid four or five hours of homework each night.

The Solution: First, don’t allow other students to compromise your academic standards. Be ready to expend the amount of time it takes to complete the work expected by your professors – even if you find yourself missing out on some of the fun. Second, set your sights high before you leave home. Set your academic goals at a level that ensures you will take full advantage of the opportunities presented by your college and consider speaking to your professors at the beginning of the semester to find out what the expectations are for each course.

About the author:  Aditya Singhal is the co-founder of Transtutors.com, a leading online tutoring help for college students. Having graduated from prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), he worked briefly with American Consulting firm, Kurt Salmon Associates, before taking the entrepreneurial route. He is also actively involved in giving back to the society by contributing a part of the revenue towards education of poor students.

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