Degree In Sight

Someone holding a globe

When Manbeena Sekhon, a native of India, arrived in America to study clinical psychology, she spent most of her first year holed up in her room with little social contact. Sekhon, who is now a sixth-year graduate student at the University of Louisville, describes herself then as shy and timid, and she missed her close family back home. She realized after a few months, though, that she'd have to work at creating relationships in America.

"I was either going to reach out to people or I was going to be really miserable," says Sekhon. "It was a survival issue in many ways."

International students often feel lonely and isolated at first, probably experiencing some degree of culture shock or perhaps hesitant about their ability to express themselves in English. Add to that the rigors of graduate school, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed, says Sekhon.

To combat those feelings, many international graduate students say that building relationships--both professional and social--is the most important thing you can do to start to feel comfortable.

GETTING OUT THERE

International students can start working on new relationships before they even arrive, says Arpana G. Inman, PhD, an assistant counseling psychology professor at Lehigh University who first came to America from India as a graduate student in 1985. Many international student centers can put students in touch with their future professors or other students so that when they begin school they've already made some connections through e-mails, letters or over the phone.

Once international students arrive, they should build on these early contacts and continue to develop their professional network. Not only will the people they know help them feel less lonely, but they can also boost their academic and professional careers. Some ways to start making these connections:

  • Join a research or study group. When Anca Mirsu-Paun, a fifth-year counseling psychology graduate student, arrived from Romania, one of the first things she did was sign on with her adviser's research group. Through working with the team at the University of Florida (UF), which included six or seven graduate students and 20 or 30 undergraduates, Mirsu-Paun quickly established friendships. Another option: Form or join a study group as a way to get to know classmates.

  • Get a job on campus. Although juggling school with work can be challenging, jobs are a great place to meet people and observe campus culture. Mirsu-Paun says her practicum at the campus counseling center served this function. There, she met people and learned a lot about campus life.

"It helped me integrate myself and see that not only am I an international student, but I am also a UF student," she says.

Sekhon found work at her university's cafeteria, and in addition to meeting a lot of people, she found that keeping very busy with both school and work helped stave off loneliness.

  • Attend conferences. If your budget allows, seek out professional gatherings and conferences. These meetings are a great place to make professional and personal contacts (see "Cast your net" for more on networking). In addition, you can often meet international students from other schools or programs.

  • Spot social norms. Do your classmates or research partners go out for coffee to socialize? Perhaps they work out together at the gym or congregate in the student lounge? Notice how students informally gather, and don't be afraid to tag along or host a social event of your own.

  • Play to your strengths. If you're an athlete, consider joining an intramural or pick-up sports team. Or if you have artistic interests, like photography or acting, check campus or community bulletins or ask around to find a related student group.

  • Be yourself. Puncky Paul Heppner, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, knows what it's like to be an international student, ashe studied on Fulbright fellowships in Ireland, Sweden and Taiwan. As a professor, he's noticed that it's quite popular for international students to adopt American names if they feel their names are difficult for Americans to pronounce. But Heppner cautions against that idea.

"Students almost discount some of their identity to 'assimilate' here," says Heppner. "It is important for them to give themselves time to learn about culture and new ways of interacting, but not take off part of their personalities."

 

IN THE CLASSROOM

International students may face unique academic challenges as they begin their programs, Heppner notes. Build relationships with your professors and advisers so they can help make sure you're having the best academic experience possible. A few tips he and others suggest for success in the classroom:

  • Speak up. Many international students raised in cultures where humility and collectivism are valued more than individual achievement don't feel comfortable sharing their achievements, says Inman, but to succeed in America, they need to practice these skills. When Inman was working on her master's degree, she remembers talking to her adviser about applying for a job. "My adviser said, 'You really need to sell yourself. In this country you can't be humble about your achievements, and you need to speak up, share and talk,'" she remembers.

  • Ask for explanations. As you settle into life in America, it's okay to ask questions, and a lot of them, advises Heppner. "This can be a cultural dilemma for some students," says Heppner. "In Asia, for example, if you ask a question in class, it can be interpreted as challenging the professor." Some international students might find it hard to reconcile the way they learned in their home countries-such as through lectures and memorization-with what is expected in American classrooms, where discussion and debate are encouraged and rewarded.

  • Communicate your needs. International students, especially those who are still learning English, might feel they have to work doubly hard in school to understand and express themselves in a language in which they might not yet be fluent. And, it might take a while to adjust to American testing styles. For example, in India, says Inman, tests are usually essay questions. When she arrived in America and had to take multiple-choice tests, she did poorly because she wasn't used to the testing style.

Yuhong He, one of Heppner's advisees and a second-year coun-seling psychology graduate student, describes a similar scenario. When she received her first assignment to critique a research article in the United States, she was stumped. She was not used to talking about her own opinions of someone else's work, especially in an evaluative way.

"It took more effort to first develop American-style critical-thinking skills, and then meet the requirements of my professors," she says. "It was not only about using the English language fluently, but also about developing a way of thinking and learning that fits with my American professors' expectations before I could complete the assignments," says He.

International students stress that it's crucial to ask for help when you need it, and recognize that many professors do understand that equal treatment can lead to unequal consequences. For example, says Heppner, if a professor gives a short-answer timed exam, it might disadvantage students who aren't as facile with English as native-born Americans. If you don't feel comfortable with a testing style or an assignment, talk to your professor or adviser. More often than not, they will be willing to work with you-but they can't help you if they don't know you need help.

"Students have to help us understand their situations, and faculty should do things to increase their empathy for what it's like for an international student to come here," says Heppner.


THE NEXT STEP

The relationships you establish as a graduate student can also help you take the next step in your career, says He. If you have an interest in returning to your home country or getting a job with an international focus, the people you've come to know while studying in America could be invaluable allies.

He has made a few trips back to her native China to interpret and serve as a trip coordinator for several American mental health professionals meeting with Chinese colleagues. Although she didn't get paid, she did get a first-hand view of the Chinese mental health field.

"I also gained opportunities to become connected with Chinese professionals through those trips, which will help if I ever consider going back home," says He

"Students have to help us understand their situations, and faculty should do things to increase their empathy for what it’s like for an international student to come here."

Puncky Paul Heppner
University of Missouri–Columbia