3 Surprises for International Students at U.S. Universities

Four Fulbright scholars share lessons learned from studying in the United States.

International students at U.S. universities should be prepared for surprises.

International students should be prepared for the American classroom atmosphere, among other surprises.

By + More

Coming to the United States for college or graduate school can introduce cultural differences that even the most prepared students might not expect. From classroom etiquette to campus life, studying at a U.S. school can be quite a different experience from learning in another country. 

At a meeting of Fulbright scholars last month, U.S. News caught up with four international students in their first years of graduate study at universities across the United States. The students said they were enjoying their experience in the Fulbright program, which recruits top students from around the world, and each had a few tips for international students coming to the United States—whether on a Fulbright scholarship or on their own. 

Here are three things they advise other international students to expect.

1. Classroom differences: A U.S. education—particularly at the graduate level–may be more hands-on and interactive than what you've experienced in another country, which could come as a shock to new students who haven't prepared beforehand.

"Be informed about how the life of being a student [is]," recommends Diah Wihardini, a native of Indonesia who's studying education at the University of California–Berkeley. "Here, you are expected to be an independent learner [and] have to have more upfront knowledge of what is going to be expected of [you]."

The work isn't necessarily harder, she says, but it's different. For example, students in the United States may take fewer courses but delve much deeper into the subject material than they might in Indonesia.

In class, students also may be expected to speak up more than in their home countries. Having to "perform" in class or being invited to swing by professors' office hours afterwards came as a surprise to Anne Berg, a student from Denmark who's also studying at UC—Berkeley.

"Professors are accessible, and you can actually talk to them," she notes.

But channels for open communication also mean that, in class, her professors demand "real discussion," rather than simply lecturing. To thrive in an interactive class setting, "you have to have some sort of competitive edge, or you'll get rolled over," Berg says. "If you go to the U.S., you have to be competitive."

[Use these 8 campus resources for international students.]

2. City disparities: From the bustling streets of New York City to the wide and flat plains of Kansas, it's impossible to geographically define the United States with a single term. That can come as a surprise to international students who haven't researched the area they'll soon be calling home, says Anton Padin Deben, a student from Spain.

Some students "come from big cities around the world to the countryside of the U.S.," he notes. "You think you're going to a very good school—which is true—but then there's this very big shock."

Since coming here to study engineering, Deben has spent time at both Texas A&M University—College Station and the Colorado School of Mines, two schools with very different locations, geographical features, and climates.

[Get tips for international engineering students.]

Though he speaks fondly of his time studying at Texas A&M, Deben says the school's remote setting made for an initial adjustment period—until he found friends with cars who could drive him beyond the limits of the college town. No matter where you'll be studying, "You have to do a [lot of] research before you do anything," he recommends.

Investigating the city you're going to will also help you get a rough idea of what you'll be paying for housing and meals. A month's rent or a dinner out near Berkeley is more expensive for Indonesian student Wihardini, she says, than for her friends who study in more remote locations. 

[Search for colleges to see campus photos.] 

3. Cultural barriers: Growing up in Guatemala, Maria Jose Aldana studied the history of many cultures outside of her own, including (but not limited to) the United States. So she was surprised when many of her U.S. classmates at the University of Denver didn't have a similar breadth of world knowledge.