Exciting new people, another culture, different academic environment — all sounds very cool. But wait till you actually get there
Travelling across the Atlantic to embark on a thrilling adventure of studying abroad, Daria Shkut is on the cusp of her ‘trip of a lifetime’.
Whisked away in a car, her family are driving Daria to the airport to send her on her way. This is the moment her mom bursts into unintelligible ravings as if she’s a giddy child; her speech escalates into Fast and Furious mode as she instructs her daughter on what to do and what not to do on her trip abroad.
‘Mom told me not to talk to anyone in the airport, to always keep my luggage with me, to not eat any burgers and fast food, and to be nice to everyone. But that’s every parent’s wish: just for me to be safe’.
Daria races through customs and immigration to board her flight. She is travelling from Russia to study at a Texas high school as part of an exchange program for a year. It’s not her first time leaving home, but the moment is still poignant as she fears the separation from her family.
‘I was crying so much. I was terrified, because it was my first time literally going so far without any supervision. I was just by myself’.
This is Daria’s first connecting flight, and she is already nervous because her mother’s warnings are ringing in the back of her mind. To get to Austin, she has to transfer at Houston, but upon arrival the pilot’s voice announces the ominous news every passenger dreads: a storm is coming.
‘I had to call my host mom, who I didn’t know before, and tell her I was going to be late’, Daria recalls. ‘My English was so bad that she barely understood what I was saying’. At 12 years old, Daria is stranded at the airport with two other kids. They are all given portable beds by the airport staff and spend the night in a room at the airport.
Following her high school years in Texas, Daria returned to the United States. At first to study at the University of California, Riverside, and now to continue her university career at Boston College. She vacillates from living in Russia and studying in the States, and with every move she has to learn to fend for herself in the uncharted territory that is a new country on a new continent with a new academic system. She has to search for a new apartment, make new friends, and fit into an entirely new way of life with the hope of avoiding culture shock.
Studying abroad has always given off a glamorous image. People assume that everything about it is smooth sailing; but children as young as Daria was when she first travelled, face challenges adults would struggle to overcome. Difficulties begin even before they board their planes, and continue once they land. Studying abroad is not as glitzy as people may assume. It has a dark side.
Ever since the age of prehistoric man, the key amenities needed for a decent standard of living have consisted of finding food and water, basic sanitation, and, of course, shelter. The same goes for modern-day students who take a leap of faith by leaving behind the comfort and safety of their nest that parents have provided for them, and embark on intrepid lives of independence.
Finding an apartment abroad can prove a nightmare for domestic students. It’s much worse for international ones. Often, they can’t view an apartment before renting it. The search becomes like a game of Russian roulette; the student takes a risk, and the gamble either pays off with decent living conditions or it doesn’t, in which case money has been wasted and conflicts with landlords arise.
Many students face situations in which their dreams of adventures abroad begin to fall apart before they even arrive at their destinations. Peter Kwiatek, Assistant Director of off-campus housing at Boston College, says international students can end up being duped by landlords. ‘We’ve had situations where [an international] student moved into a place which was uninhabitable; it wasn’t a room zoned to be a bed space. The student was able to find another place with a friend’, but getting back his first and last month’s rent and security deposit was hard.
Finding out about security deposits, finders’ fees, or even the normal cost of hiring a car can be overwhelming for an international student. ‘Moving all the furniture is such a hassle because I don’t drive’, says Daria speaking about her move to BC. ‘Especially when I came to Boston for the first time and I didn’t know anyone. It was hard to find someone who would drive my furniture from place to place, and delivery services are really expensive’. After returning from Russia to the States, she spent the first two years of her college career in California, but then decided to transfer to BC. Not having her family nearby to help her with the moving process, she found it difficult to move her possessions from one place to another. International students don’t just have to worry about the logistics of moving intercontinentally; once at their desired locations, they also have to figure out how to survive in the new place they mean to call home.
Most airlines have strict limits on the amount of luggage allowed on international flights, standardly permitting approximately 23 kilograms. This however is barely enough for a semester abroad for many people, let alone a whole year. This means international students probably won’t bring that much with them.
‘On-campus housing is not really designed for international students because if you get into your apartment there is nothing apart from furniture and a mattress’, says Ester Rudhart from University College Utrecht in the Netherlands, who has come to study at BC for a semester. She adds: ‘So, basically, on the first day if you want to sleep with bedding, and have toilet paper you need to, no matter what time you arrive, start looking for shops where they sell these things. And buy everything, which is a big expense for the first day. There are no cleaning products, and no vacuum cleaner to rent because American students, apparently, bring all that from home. So that was strange that only the bare minimum is supplied’.
The realization that they are no longer children, but adults who have found themselves in a foreign country and must independently untangle the mesh of grievances that can spontaneously arise from the search for an apartment, hits international students pretty quickly.
Trips abroad evoke images of sandy beaches and dangling hammocks on utopian oases where cocktails magically appear. What does not come to mind are the challenges of having to adjust to an entirely new way of life.
Once students arrive, the realization that they are in a completely unfamiliar place hits home. It might as well be Mars than any earthly country, because the reality of absorbing a new culture often does not fit into the expectations international students bring. One example is the erroneous belief that it is easy to interact with people in the US collegiate system. It is difficult not to be influenced by stereotypical portrayals of American students in the media. As a result, international students often end up expecting an endless flow of booze to be pouring from the rims of fiery red Solo cups at frat parties, and think that it’s easy to connect with Americans.
But it takes time to fit in anywhere, especially when settling down to live in a new place involves overcoming cultural boundaries. The social life that every student craves is not instantaneous. International students can find themselves feeling isolated and forming their own social groups to make the adjustment to life in college easier.
‘A huge part of making friends is hanging out with other international students’, says Daria. ‘I do have American friends, but I feel it’s harder for me to make connections because there is some kind of a gap’.
Some cultural differences are larger than others. ‘I feel like it’s a Russia-America gap as well as an international student gap’, continues Daria. ‘Kids in Russia are raised differently, and we have different interests. We don’t watch as much TV, and we’re not as into pop culture as kids are in America’. Even the smallest differences can seem alien. ‘People in Russia also don’t do small talk’, ‘so I was never any good at that, and that was a really big difference for me’, Daria concludes.
Some of the issues international students can face while adjusting to life abroad may seem trivial, but overcoming them can prove just as challenging as finding a place to live. Getting acquainted with a new academic system is amongst the biggest hurdles.
‘The workload I expected to be less [intense] because that’s the universal perspective that in America the workload is much less than England’, says Jean Arkas (not her real name), a one-year exchange student at BC from Queen Mary University of London. ‘I was warned by professors in England that the workload was going to be easier’.
In fact, the work proves to be more than many international students expect, as was the case for Jean. At her home university she is given more time to do a long academic paper compared to what is expected at BC. She knows that the grades she earns in the United States will be converted to the English grading system. This conversion worries her because committing to one whole year, as opposed to a semester, means that if she does not attain the grades she needs, her overall academic prospects could noticeably suffer when she returns to Queen Mary.
There are also the administrative demands of fitting into a new academic institution. Figuring out a schedule, setting up an email account and learning to use the library, all take time and energy. To help with this, BC provides international and exchange students with a program that enables them to make the adjustment more easily.
‘Each incoming international exchange student gets matched with an IA’, or international assistant, says Adrienne Nussbaum, Director and Assistant Dean of the Office of International Students and Scholars. But few American universities and colleges have programs like this. ‘A lot of schools have orientation leaders that help you when you arrive, but then you never see them again’, comments Nussbaum.
What students familiar with a college may take for granted, international students have to learn through experience. ‘Little things like getting into your email are hard’, says Ester Rudhart. ‘You first have to have Internet access, for which you kind of have to be in your email already, but you don’t have a password yet, and then you open your email and you have 77 missed emails because they started sending them to you in March. With those kinds of things, you get left alone’.
Just recently, Daria was excited about the prospect of seeing her family again. The anticipation usually intensifies before the end of the semester when she cannot stop planning her long-awaited trip back home.
In December, Daria was engaged on an espionage mission to engineer her Christmas surprise. For her holiday, she travelled to Europe to see her Hungarian friend, Gábor Balogh; but this was partially a deception so she could be closer to home. Just before Christmas, she boarded the night plane to Russia, and then, from the airport, took a shuttle which enabled her to arrive, the next day, to the overjoyed faces of her parents.
Daria enjoys studying abroad, but revels the moments when she gets to go home. If the adjustment of life back in Russia proves temporarily challenging, she doesn’t fear it. She’s already a pro.