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Some thoughts on overcoming the hiccups of student life in North America

By Rajdeep Guha

The decision to pursue higher education in an overseas country is certainly a big decision. Most often, students find the entire transition process quite stressful because the lifestyle in a Western country is very different from what s/he has experienced back home. Furthermore, a strict academic hierarchy is often found in universities in India as well as countries in the Far East. In this article, I would focus on North America and analyze the different issues that might seem a little disconcerting to the student initially because they are very different from life experiences back home. Some of these issues might impede the student’s academic progress as well and, hence, it is always better to be prepared beforehand for the culture shock that a student might experience when s/he lands for higher studies in the US or Canada.

To begin with, I would always advise an international student to seek the guidance of the international student adviser. Almost every Canadian and American university has an international student adviser, who works closely with students every day and knows virtually everything about the campus and the local area. The student adviser’s office is like a signpost which can give you directions and honest advice. In this context, let me cite an experience from my own life. When I first landed in Dunedin, New Zealand to start my MA (Thesis) programme in English from the University of Otago, the first thing I did was to go to the International Office and meet one of the student advisers there. The lady was very helpful and provided me practical tips related to almost everything − from surfing the digital resources at the library to finding a part-time job. She also invited me to visit her office in the future if I faced any difficulty pertaining to academics or my stay in New Zealand. She explained to me that culture shock can plague a student’s progress and, from her own experience, she has seen that students who do not share their concerns and worries with others ultimately suffer and, as a result, their grades fall. At times, a few even quit their studies. Before I took leave of the adviser, the latter shared an anecdote with me. A few years back, a student from the Middle East had taken admission at Otago. Unfortunately, this young man could not cope with the cultural values and mores of the New Zealand society and went into a depression. The student adviser met this student and asked if he experienced anything familiar between his home country and New Zealand. The student replied that the only thing he found familiar was the moon shining in the night sky.

In this article, I would like to make a list of important things which a student needs to do after s/he arrives in the US or Canada for the purpose of study. The list is as follows:

  1. Arrange for an accommodation. Again in this context, the accommodation office of the university can be of great help. Seek their advice.
  2. Make an appointment with the student adviser. The adviser should be able to guide you through the entire course approval process as well as advise you on the facilities provided to a student by the university.
  3. Get yourself a local SIM card. Usually, a photocopy of your passport and the student id should suffice for getting a mobile connection.
  4. Get yourself a Canadian Social Insurance Number (SIN) or its US equivalent, a Social Security Number (SSN). If you are not eligible for an SSN, get yourself an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number or ITIN. Often, the ITIN works like the SSN. In New Zealand, there is no such thing as a social security number for international students. But it is very necessary to get yourself registered with the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) which, in turn, will generate a unique number called the IRD number for you. Once you are registered with IRD, a student can scout for jobs and pay taxes at a much lower rate.
  5. The next important thing to do is getting a bank account of your own. Usually at the start of an academic year, almost every bank tries to woo students by offering zero balance accounts as well as other benefits.
  6. Make a list of emergency contact numbers.
  7. Last but not the least, travel around the city so that you figure out the nearest supermarket, doctor’s clinic and the cab stand. You will certainly need their services during the course of your stay at the university.

From my own experience, I can say that language can prove to a big hurdle for students in the United States or Canada whose mother tongue is not English. They must read, write and converse in a language which is essentially not their own. Coupled with this, an international student has to tackle a new and unfamiliar education system. Furthermore, when the semesters start, students have to learn the rules of academic honesty as they are defined in Canadian and American universities. Both countries lay great emphasis on original work by students. Hence, to achieve that, students are encouraged to think actively and share their views with others in symposia, conferences, workshops etc. Secondly, to qualify for a degree, a student must be able to cite appropriate references whenever a citation is made. Universities most often follow a certain referencing pattern such as the APA style, MLA referencing system or the Chicago style of referencing. A student has to be familiar with the particular style sheet and include that at the end of an academic work.

One of the features that distinguishes the education system of USA and Canada from the rest of the world is the significant importance on discussions and the freedom to express one’s own thoughts in the classroom. Students from the developing world often find this a little disconcerting because most often, they have been taught since their primary student years to revere their teachers and not question the latter’s views and opinions. However, this is exactly the opposite of what is practiced in USA and Canada. Students are supposed to participate in healthy discussions and debates. Freedom of thought and expression is considered as something sacrosanct. To develop this, a student should always complete his or her assignments and attend the class lectures. One is expected to explore new ideas including tentative ones that one is not entirely certain of. It is not rude or disrespectful if a student nurtures different views from his/her teacher.

As aforementioned, language is a major barrier for international students whose mother tongue is not English. Many a time, students from countries like Spain, Japan, Korea, India and the Middle East suffer from an inferiority complex because of their regional accent. However, I would advise that never shy away from class discussions because you have an accent. If you are afraid to speak, you will just remain silent in the class and never get an opportunity to hone your intellectual acumen and speaking capabilities. One of the best ways to whet your speaking skills in English is to make friends with fellow students who are native speakers of the language. Hang out with them, visit restaurants and watch movies. Slowly, you will discover that the hesitation in speaking has disappeared.

One of the biggest concerns of international students when they apply for higher studies in an overseas university is the question of funding. Almost all international students in USA and Canada are permitted to work part-time during semesters and full time during vacations. For graduate students, this is an excellent opportunity to gain relevant skills as well as earn some money. Generally, most of the graduate students help teach undergraduate courses, supervise student labs and assist faculty with their research. Serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in the Department can require certain skills. One of the pivotal requirements is the ability to efficiently express one’s thoughts in English. You should be able to clear all the concepts of a particular topic to your students. Secondly, as a TA, you have to encourage class discussions and persuade your students to come out of their cloistered selves and share their views with the rest of the class. You should also remember that you are working under the direction of a respective class professor. Therefore, it is imperative that you know how your professor wants the papers and exams to be graded. Remember, if you are not sure what to do, ask the professor. As a TA, you should maintain a professional relationship with your students without being overtly friendly with them. Relationships should be cordial and you should be able to treat all your students fairly and equally.

For doctoral students, the opportunity to assist professors with their research as a Research Assistant (RA) can be especially rewarding because it could even lead to joint publishing. RAs handle a wide range of tasks, depending on the respective professor’s needs. Some assignments for an RA can be really challenging such as writing a summary of a book for your professor or compiling a reading list on a particular topic. Before you start working as an RA, it is crucial to sit with your professor and be familiar with the job responsibilities that you will have to shoulder. Be open and let the professor know your special skills and attributes. A brief resume listing your past work experiences should be a useful tool to apprise your professor. Be sure to ask if you have any doubts. That is the only way to avoid possible misunderstandings at a later stage.

Settling as a student in a new country can be challenging. Finding a suitable accommodation, transportation to and from the university, locating convenience stores can prove to be nerve wracking for a student. Furthermore, international students are often concerned about the aspect of safety, especially after dark. Remember, the emergency number in the whole of the United States and Canada is 911. Dial it to call the police or an ambulance or report a fire. Nearly all universities have a security force of their own that are tasked to maintain peace and prevent untoward incidents in and around the campus area. You should always save the emergency phone number of the campus police force. Thefts and house-breaking become especially common during vacations and semester breaks. Hence, it is necessary to properly lock your flat before you leave the city. Furthermore, if you happen to lose your Social Insurance Number (SIN)/Social Security Number (SSN) or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), you have to file a police report immediately lest you become a victim of identity theft. Obtain a copy of the police report. You will need that when you apply for a duplicate insurance, security or an identification number.

Coming to the topic of accommodation, a new international student should always contact the Student Adviser’s office for assistance in locating a suitable accommodation before arriving. If you are planning to live in a dorm, you need to be sure when your room is made available. A few dorms remain open throughout the year but others open a week before the start of semesters. In the first year of study, it is always advisable to remain on campus. One of the several advantages to live on campus is the proximity to university facilities. Furthermore, a first year student gets to make new friends and, in no time, s/he will have a support network at the university. Moreover, there are Dorm Advisers and Resident Aides, who will be more than happy to help you during the initial days. The cost of living in a dorm is certainly lower compared to living in a flat or studio of your own. However, there are a few downsides of living in a dorm. The lack of privacy can be a little unnerving. Most universities offer students who live in dorms a range of meal plans. The campus dining hall is certainly the least expensive place to eat. It is also a great way to make friends and contacts.

Many universities provide separate accommodation facilities for married students. There are usually regular apartments owned by the Accommodation Office of the respective university. Most often, these flats are furnished and frequently oversubscribed. Thus, it is always better to submit an application beforehand and remain patient since finding a university apartment can take a little time. Other than university managed accommodation, there is always the option of locating privately owned property that one can take on rent. Again, the student adviser’s office can provide important contact information. Usually, in metropolitan cities, there are numerous rental agencies that provide houses and rooms on rent.

The main university library, often called the Central Library is usually the hub of all intellectual activities. Some larger campuses also have smaller, specialized libraries for business, science, law or public policy. It is always wise to speak to a subject or reference librarian. S/he will be able to understand your exact needs and accordingly, guide you through the library resources.

Most universities in the US and Canada have a campus health centre. However, it is mandatory for an international student to have a valid health insurance. Furthermore, the on-duty doctor and nurses are always available and can be approached for any medical emergency. Another innovative feature in American and Canadian campuses is the presence of a mental health centre on campus. These health centres are manned by trained counsellors who can take care of depression, study related anxiety and the like. Some campuses have trained counselors posted at the university health centre.

Coming to recreational activities, the US and Canadian universities are renowned for their emphasis on the holistic development of a student. Hence, any campus will certainly have student clubs, sports associations, language learning centres, organisations affiliated to different religions etc. Students, especially undergrads, are encouraged to take part in sports and extra-curricular activities. However, doctoral programmes are not exactly hotbeds of extracurricular activities. This is because students are usually immersed in research and training and gain no practical advantage in the job market from joining. However, there are groups of doctoral students, who often form small, informal organisations which focus on social activities. To cite an example, in Wharton’s MBA programme at the University of Pennsylvania, students regularly organize conferences on “Entrepreneurship” and “Ventures in Health Care.”

American and Canadian universities offer a strong support network to international students. Needless to say, studying in either of these two countries becomes a rewarding experience for everyone. Students gain countless life skills which help them in their later life when they enter the workforce. University education in the US and Canada undoubtedly forms the stepping stone to success.

Author:

After completing an MA in English from the University of Calcutta, India, Rajdeep Guha went to the University of Otago, New Zealand to pursue an MA (Thesis) in English. He submitted his thesis on his chosen area of specialization and then, returned to India in 2013. Since then, he has been working as IELTS and TOEFL trainer in New Delhi, India. His e-mail id is rajdeepguha@ymail.com.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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