Inside the Mind of an International Student

The Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out” offers viewers a feature-length glimpse inside the emotional life of an 11-year-old Midwestern girl named Riley. When her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, Riley’s world is turned upside-down (and inside out). Her first day in her new school was memorable (and one she would love to forget). Although Riley wasn’t exactly from another country, international students can readily identify with her experience (which was very “moving”). Like Riley, international students have to adjust to their new home while they’re missing their old one.

If you could step inside the mind of an international student (a great movie concept!), what would you find? Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine that you have decided to pursue an education in a new country. You’re a bit nervous about living away from your family and studying for a degree using a language you’re not yet comfortable with. You’ve heard about the political tensions and the rumors that some people are not welcoming to foreigners. You’re aware that this educational venture will be a huge financial burden for your family. You’re worried about whether you will be successful in reaching your academic goals. Starting to get the picture? Here are a few scenes from the mind of an international student:

Scene 1: Academics

Nothing fills an international student’s field of vision like academics. For some students, their greatest challenge is adapting to the American style of education. Dealing with the volume of assignments, writing papers in a foreign language, understanding the professor-student relationship, and figuring out how much to participate in class–these are just a few of their academic challenges. Lawson Lau, author of The World at Your Doorstep, adds several more: “They may not obtain as much academic credit for work done in their home country as they anticipated. Financial sponsors may be slow in sending funds, and their college or university may threaten expulsion because of their failure to fulfill their monetary obligations . . . Conflicts of interest may appear between them and their American roommates.” Combine that with the pressure they feel from their parents and/or sponsoring agencies back home, and the academic picture becomes quite overwhelming. 

Scene 2: Cultural Differences

As you may expect, differences in culture often add a few plot twists to the story of an international student’s experience. Some may seem relatively minor–Why is the food here so sweet? Why are the rooms so cold? Why do Americans talk so loud? Other differences make life more complicated–Why is public transportation so limited? Where can I find groceries to cook traditional food from my country? Why is it so difficult to make American friends? Culture shock is a present reality for international students adjusting to life in the U.S. Culture shock results from uncertainty about common daily activities: greeting people, giving tips, accepting or refusing invitations, making judgments about time, and determining what clothing is appropriate to the occasion. Culture shock even has multi-sensory dimensions–especially regarding odors. (Americans tend to have very sensitive noses regarding body odors and foreign cooking smells.) Cultural differences can certainly make the plot . . . interesting.

Scene 3: Communication

International students face the daily challenge of wrestling with our crazy English language. (Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway? Why does our nose run and our feet smell?) While many students have studied English for several years before arriving in the U.S., they soon discover that living in an English-speaking environment is very different from learning English in textbooks. In addition to the informal conversational English that complicates social encounters, academic English creates further linguistic barriers. For international students, living and studying in the U.S. is like watching a foreign language film–without subtitles. 

Scene 4: Fun and Laughter

Despite the challenges, many international students would describe their experience in the U.S. as “fun” (maybe even like a comedy, at times). They cherish the opportunity to encounter a new culture, learn new perspectives, and meet people from all over the world. They enjoy sharing about their own culture with people in the U.S. They value the chance to experience American culture–not just read about it. Cultural encounters yield no shortage of humorous anecdotes. (Ask your international friends to add their own examples here.) Maybe it’s the fun times that make them willing to endure the cross-cultural challenges. 

Credits: Words of Appreciation (and Advice)

Depicting the thoughts inside an international student’s head would not be complete without the credits. Many of them appreciate people who pick them up at the airport, professors who are patient and kind, classmates who help them understand assignments, and families who host them for meals or during a holiday stay. What advice would international students offer to people in the U.S.? “Just talk with us,” one Chinese student remarks. “We’re very happy to make friends, but we’re not used to starting the conversation.” In other words, if you want to know what’s going on in the mind of an international student, just ask them.

Billy has an M.Div. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) and an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Alabama. Billy serves as an adjunct instructor at in the ESL certificate program at SEBTS. He has taught ESL for Westminster Theological Seminary in the Mastering Theological English Program, for North Carolina State University in the Intensive English Program, and for Messiah University in the TESOL certificate program. Billy and his wife, Mary Jo, and their three children, lived in Taipei, Taiwan for nine years, where he served at Overseas Radio & Television, Inc., a Christian media ministry.

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