A Closer Look at the International Student Experience

A Closer Look at the International Student Experience

The following is a guest blog submitted by Samantha Martin. Samantha is founder of The Traveling Advisor, which offers custom design and education advising services. Below she shares with us the intricacies of study abroad.

A Closer Look at the International Student Experience

Students who earn a degree or study abroad outside of their home country are challenged and rewarded in ways they usually cannot imagine. In order to succeed, they must learn how to adapt and learn in different academic, social, and sometimes professional environments. The potential outcome is a well-rounded student who manages to understand and problem-solve in a way they would never be able to by remaining at home. The process of becoming an international student–and then actually being one– builds new capacities and life skills as well as knowledge in a particular field of study.

Lets take a closer look into the international student experience.

Decision-Making and Preparation

The journey begins the moment a student decides to study away from home. In addition to the decisions everyone must consider such as: submitting an application, deciding what to study, paying for tuition and housing, etc., international students also have to apply for a passport and student visa, understand new health, transportation and financial systems, and communicate across time zones (sometimes in a different language!). Any expectations about how things work or what should happen are challenged even before the international student sets foot outside of his or her home culture. This is not to say the student is alone. Most international students have access to an advisor and faculty who can help them with their applications and preparation. In the rare case they do not, the internet is full of free and sound advice on how to prepare and be successful as an international student.

In the Classroom

Many students take for granted the fact that academic learning is also a product of social expectation. It comes as a real shock to find out that lecture styles, assessment, out-of-class work, in-classroom behavior, and the relationship with the lecturer (in other words, the entire classroom experience) is different from what the student is used to back home. For example, North American students often feel stressed that their entire semesters grade depends on one assignment, whether that is a test or a paper. They may then be relieved to find out that if they fail, they do not need to retake the class, only retake the exam! On the other hand, students who come to the United States in particular often feel overwhelmed or stifled by the frequency of graded assignments, tests, quizzes, papers, and presentations, etc. but relieved that all of those assignments factor in to the final grade. In the end, the international student may decide that he or she prefers one style of learning over the other, but there are at least two valuable take-aways that will benefit the student for the rest of his or her life. The first is understanding that there are legitimately other ways of doing things and the second is learning how to learn in a different way.

Living Situation

Housing for college students varies greatly from country to country. Imagine expecting to have your own bathroom, only to find out you have to share a toilet and a bedroom with another student. This is quite common with international students coming to the United States from the UK or Australia, for example, who may be used to the idea of living in residence halls with their own bedroom and bathroom. For those students, dorm culture is often difficult at first until they bond with roommates or hall mates and learn to appreciate American-style housing, in spite of the closeness. In many countries, on-campus housing is not popular or available due to the fact that most students attend university close to where they grew up and live with family through the schooling years. For US students studying overseas, being required to find private accommodation or stay with a host family may not be the norm, but they often cultivate a new sense of independence or cross-generational relationships within these other options.

Travel Opportunities

Traveling in a foreign country is far and away one of the biggest benefits to being an international student. For many, traveling is equal or even more instructive than the formal academic experience because it requires students to learn (or re-learn) how to accomplish simple as well as complex tasks. Paying for a cup of coffee becomes a challenge when requesting it in a different language using unfamiliar coins! Additionally, students must navigate different transportation systems and interact with populations outside of the university bubble. However, travel is not always as simple as expected. One of the biggest challenges for international students studying in the United States is a lack of public transportation outside of major cities–without access to a car, students cite feeling stuck. Budget accommodations are also harder to come by Stateside. On the flip side, many US students studying abroad come back to filled with stories about the ease of transport and availability of affordable accommodation! Whatever the case, international students make travel central to their overall experience.

Idiosyncrasies in Higher Education Systems

There are many examples of idiosyncrasies in a particular higher educational system, ranging from culture to assessment to semantics. For example, it is difficult for an international student in the United States to understand the structure and purpose of sororities and fraternities and what exactly is Greek about them! US students studying in other countries often find it difficult to adjust to how many hours they need to attend class (18-20 in China) or why a 70 (UK, Ireland, Australia, etc.) or a 9 (Spain) is considered a top-notch grade. US students say they are going to college while peers from other English-speaking countries say they are going to university. A masters degree in North America typically takes 2-3 years to complete while in the UK a graduate student can earn a masters in one year. Sports are a key element in most US colleges and universities (particularly US football) while European football (soccer) is organized outside of the university altogether and regional or national sports take precedence over collegiate sports. The topic of difference in higher education systems could be the subject of an entire book, but the point is that international students must adjust in both big and small ways if they are to truly integrate into life on a foreign campus.

Concluding Thoughts

Although never simple and rarely easy, the international student experience provides a unique opportunity for students to learn inside and outside of the classroom. The students academic, logistical, and cultural expectations are challenged by the very nature of the process and reality of living and studying in a different country. The result, however, is that the successful international student emerges from their experience with new knowledge, understanding, and skills to apply to further studies as well as their personal and professional life.


Samantha moves, travels, and changes as a lifestyle and has been helping others do the same since 2006. She has lived, studied, worked, or volunteered in the United States, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Colombia and traveled to many other countries. She worked as a Study Abroad Advisor in New York and Florida and served as a Rotary Youth Exchange Officer in New York. Samantha has a B.S. in Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management and a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies and is a former recipient of the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship, Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, and Coca-Cola Event Planners Scholarship. She has designed and facilitated international programs as well as developed educational events, seminars, and courses on international education, multi-cultural communication, international scholarships and careers, personal and social change, conflict and identity, globalization and the environment, and other related topics.


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