Students Speak: How To Overcome The Challenges Of Studying Abroad


The enrollment of international students in US academic institutions is at an all-time high. While many students and their families are thrilled that they are studying in the US, they often overlook the tremendous challenges that the new cultural and academic environments pose for international pupils. Without any pre-departure cultural training, many students find the change overwhelming, which diminishes their drive and academic performance. However, with the proper preparation, including cultural-competence training and a review of country information provided in the Cultural Navigator, students feel much better equipped to navigate their new environment and are much better able to focus on their studies.

According Tara Madden-Dent, PhD, who studies the cultural adjustment of Asian international undergraduate students, those who attended preparatory courses reported having more cultural knowledge, more self-confidence to engage with US locals, and an ability to manage any cultural gaps that they would have found too challenging without preparation.

Here are some examples of how the students Dr. Madden-Dent interviewed felt about the new cultural knowledge they gained from pre-departure preparation.

— In terms of increased cultural knowledge, awareness and sensitivity:

  • “I think it’s really import to know cultural differences. I think knowing the culture helps me to understand [how] I should be in the class, [how] I have to act, or what I have to think about.”
  • “In some parts, the two cultures [US and China] are similar, like we both are strict on time and do not bring our personal emotions to work. But there are more differences between the two styles. The US style does work fast and focuses on work itself, but our style more focuses on the relationship with other people in the work environment. The US [style is to be] more direct with others; in our culture, we do not like that direct style.”

— In terms of more self-confidence to converse and engage with US locals:

  •  “In the US, people could talk back to their boss or teachers, but in China, one’s boss and teachers should always be right, and no students or staff should ever talk back to them.”
  • “Knowing culture before coming to the US decreases anxiety about adjusting to the new country. Just for my culture, I think it’s really mandatory.”

— In terms of an increase in accurate expectations:

  • “US students tend to be more result-oriented, so they will do tasks fast and create a good result. I have to understand the US students’ behavior pattern and keep taking my time without confusion.”

— In terms of an increase in knowledge of cross-cultural management skills:

  • “In Japan, most students hardly raise their hands and ask questions. This might have confused me, but I will make an effort to be able to participate in some discussions and express my opinion as soon as possible.”
  • “I'm going to find a better way to take notes, try to think critically, and ask more questions instead of sitting and listening.”

Moving to a new culture is challenging for anyone, but international students have to contend with not only their psychological discomfort with change, but also the different academic expectations. Pre- and post-departure cultural trainings are necessary to help international students learn about the different cultural orientations in US academic institutions, and to help them bridge cultural gaps so that they can better focus on their school work. Programs that include the unique resources that are part of the Cultural Navigator are the best way to realize the results that international students – and their academic institutions – need.