United States of America – The land of opportunities!
American lifestyle is a lot different from that in India. The way people live, their food, culture, language etc. is completely different from India. That’s why some students feel a “culture shock” the moment they come out of the aircraft and set their foot on the American soil on their first visit.
First Day at the University
The first few days at your U.S. college or university can be a truly exciting time. There will be many new students on campus like you, all dealing with feelings of anticipation mixed with a certain amount of worry regarding how the first few months of study will go. During those first days, you may find yourself very busy getting organized and settling in. Your priorities may include letting your family at home know that you have arrived safely, becoming familiar with the college campus, meeting new people, deciding on your academic program, and completing all administrative requirements so that your registration and enrolment are in order.
New student orientation programs offer a perfect opportunity to accomplish all of these tasks, to attend campus social events planned especially for new students, and to help ease the transition to a new place.
Despite the excitement, it is not at all unusual for students to feel a certain degree of loneliness, homesickness, or anxiety during their first year. U.S. universities offer many sources of help and counsel, but the responsibility for seeking assistance lies with you, the student. In other words, if you need help, it is up to you to seek it out among the many resources the educational institution offers.
One of the most important things you will have to take care of before you start your studies in the United States is finding a place to live. This is an important decision since it will be one of your biggest expenses and will affect your personal and academic adjustment. Everyone is happiest and most productive in surroundings that are comfortable to them.
You may arrive at your school in advance of the date when you can move into your permanent housing, or you may need to look for housing. There are a number of choices when temporary, overnight accommodations are required. The most expensive are hotels and motels, but some “budget” motel chains can be quite reasonable. Other options include the local YMCA or YWCA, youth hostels, and international houses. At some schools, university residences may be available, or you may be able to stay with a local family or current student. It is always best to check with the international student adviser in advance for information on overnight housing options.
Almost all U.S. colleges and universities provide their students with the option to live in residence halls or dormitories (also called “dorms”). These are usually for single students, not for married couples or families, and are situated on or close to the campus. It is a great place to meet U.S. students and make new friends rapidly. Dormitory rooms are equipped with basic furniture, and many dormitories in the United States also have a cafeteria. In some dorms there may be a kitchen for those who would rather cook for themselves. Dormitories usually have common rooms where students can get together to watch television, play games, or simply be with friends. Supervisors, often called “residence advisers” or “resident directors,” often live in dormitories to keep an eye on safety and cleanliness and to make sure the rules are observed. Most of the time, these residence advisers are students themselves, employed by the university. The residence adviser can also be a great source of information and support throughout the academic year.
Usually there is a great demand for residence hall space, and it might not be easy to get a room. As soon as you receive your acceptance letter from your chosen school, return the housing application. An advance deposit may be required. At some colleges and universities, dormitory rooms are so much in demand that a lottery is held to determine who will be granted space. Some campus housing closes for holidays, vacations, and break periods; others may be open year-round. If you require campus housing during vacations and holiday periods, be sure to inquire well in advance regarding availability. Also check with your international student adviser regarding the possibility of a home stay or off-campus housing options
Many rooms in dormitories are shared with one or more roommates. Many universities require first year students to share a room. Your roommate will be someone of the same sex, whom you will not know. Be prepared to live with someone who could be very different from you. Roommate arrangements often lead to life-long friendships, but on rare occasions roommates can prove mismatched. If you have problems in your living arrangements with your roommate, do not hesitate to contact your residence adviser or anyone else in charge of housing at your university to discuss the situation. In extreme cases, it is possible to change rooms or roommates.
Dormitory rooms usually do not have a private bath or toilet. Instead, residents share large “community” bathrooms, which are separate for men and women. In the United States, a bathroom includes a toilet, a sink, and a bathtub or a shower.
Generally, students living in a dormitory have to follow a set of rules to ensure smooth community living. There are rules to control the noise level, the cleanliness, the number of visitors, and other aspects of living. These rules can vary from building to building to cater to different student tastes. For example, some dormitories might be designated as “24-hour quiet” buildings for students who prefer a more studious lifestyle, while some others might not have strict noise regulations for students who have a more spirited lifestyle. Make sure you are familiar with the rules before you move into a residence hall to avoid unnecessary discomfort or misunderstandings.
Examples of typical campus housing
Coed residence halls: Coed dormitories have both men and women living in the same building. For some international students, this might be a new and very different concept, but it works very well on U.S. campuses. However, male and female students do not share rooms. Sometimes men and women live on different floors or in separate suites, which are small apartments that contain several sleeping rooms, a common living area, and one or two bathrooms.
Single-sex residence halls: These dormitories are for those who prefer to live in an all-male or all-female environment. Universities may set aside a residence or at least part of a residence building that houses women and men separately.
University apartments: Some universities operate apartment houses on campus. Apartments are always in high demand. Usually priority is given to upper-level undergraduate and graduate students and to students who are married.
Fraternity and sorority houses: Fraternities (for men) and sororities (for women) are close-knit social organizations of undergraduate men and women who live in a house operated by the organization. Fraternity and sorority houses may be either on- or off-campus. There is emphasis on social activity in fraternities and sororities. New members are chosen through various means during a period called “rush week.” Rush week is often held the week before classes begin. Living in a fraternity or sorority house may be restricted to upper-level students.
Married student housing: At some universities certain apartments or houses are owned and operated by the university exclusively for married students and families. Usually, only a limited number of units are available. These houses and apartments are usually furnished. The demand for these units is very high. Married students should inquire as early as possible about the availability of these houses or apartments.
If you cannot find accommodation in university dormitories, you may have to look for housing off-campus. In particular, students with families may need to look off-campus. While university-subsidized housing is often less expensive than housing off-campus in large U.S. cities, that is not always the case in smaller cities and towns. Types of accommodation include furnished and unfurnished apartments and houses, privately operated dormitories, cooperative residence halls, and rented rooms in private homes.
To find off-campus housing, ask the university’s housing office or consult the classified advertising section (also called “want ads” or “classifieds”) of the local newspaper. Many U.S. newspapers are now on the World Wide Web so you may be able to explore off-campus housing opportunities while you are still at home. Check campus bulletin boards for notices of students who are looking for roommates to share an apartment. Seek the help of someone who knows the community or ask the international student adviser for suggestions.
In general, the amount you spend for housing should be limited to one-third or one-fourth of the total amount you have planned to spend on living expenses. If the cost is one-half of your budget, you may be spending too much. If the costs are unusually inexpensive, it is possible that your living quarters are substandard. U.S. cities have local housing rules, called “ordinances” or “housing codes,” that specify certain standards that must be met to ensure that houses and buildings are safe and sanitary.
Making arrangements for housing off-campus can be quite challenging. For example, if you do not have a car, location is important. If an apartment is farther than walking distance from the campus, it may prove to be inconvenient unless it is close to public transportation. Gas, electricity, and telephone services, known as “utilities,” usually are not included in the rent and must be paid by you, the tenant, each month. You must make payment arrangements directly with each of the utility companies. Get an estimate of monthly utility bills from the utility company or previous tenants before you sign a lease. Heating can be expensive in colder parts of the country, and gas and electric bills should be taken into account in determining monthly costs. Heating, electricity, and telephone can add from $75 to $200 or more (much more if you make long-distance or international telephone calls) to the rent each month. Water and garbage collection costs are usually included in the rent.
Sharing an apartment with a roommate can keep costs down. If you do not know anyone to room with, it is appropriate to ask another student who is also looking for a roommate to consider sharing an apartment with you. Often students advertise for roommates. If you respond to one of these ads, you will probably be asked to visit for a personal interview. These interviews are an excellent way to determine if it would be a mutually agreeable arrangement to room together. Never room with someone until you have discussed issues such as smoking, study habits, cleaning arrangements, parties, overnight guests, food, cost sharing, and so on.
If you decide that you want to live alone or if you have a family, bring someone who is familiar with the local community and with rental procedures with you when you go apartment hunting.
When you find an apartment you want to rent, you must enter into an agreement with the landlord. This is called a “rental agreement” or a “lease.” A lease is a contract that legally commits the renter (the lessee) to rent a specific apartment or house for a specified length of time. It also commits the landlord (the lessor) to rent that house or apartment to the lessee for that specified period of time. Do not rent an apartment with a lease unless you plan to stay the entire time period stated on the lease.
Many landlords require payment of the first and last months’ rent before the tenants move in. This is known as “advance rent.” It ensures that the tenant notifies the landlord at least 30 days before moving out. Many landlords also require a security deposit (also called a “cleaning deposit”), which usually equals one month’s rent. This is the landlord’s assurance that the renter will do no damage and that the apartment will be in good condition when the tenant leaves. If the tenant leaves the apartment in good condition, the landlord returns the security deposit. You should obtain a receipt for the security deposit as proof of payment.
Before you sign the lease agreement, go through the apartment with the landlord or manager and make a list of imperfections that you should not be held responsible for when you move out. Examples include nail holes where pictures were hung by a previous tenant, chipped tiles, damaged woodwork, or soiled spots on the carpet.
It is important that you understand your rights and responsibilities as a tenant and your landlord’s obligations. Before you sign the rental agreement, ask about rules and restrictions. Your responsibilities include paying your rent on time, keeping the apartment clean, repairing damage you cause, and telling the landlord if something does not work. You must not disturb the peace, that is, you must not be excessively noisy, and you must comply with the terms of your rental agreement. The landlord’s obligations include repair and maintenance of the apartment. The landlord must not interfere with your use of the apartment, nor enter the apartment without your permission, nor remove any of your property. The landlord must notify you if the building where your apartment is located has been sold.
Only accept rental agreements in writing, with all the terms and conditions set forth in detail. Before signing any kind of rental agreement, be sure that you understand it clearly and completely. It is quite acceptable to ask the landlord if you can take it away for a few minutes to examine it carefully. You do not have to sign it immediately. If you have any doubts, consult with the appropriate office at your college or university. Many schools offer advice to students planning to live off-campus. As a tenant (renter), you should be given a copy of the rental agreement.
Sometimes there are privately owned dormitory complexes near the campus. These are designated for students and are run like university dormitories, but privately owned. Usually the costs are comparable to living in an on-campus dormitory.
Cooperative Residence Halls (“Co-Ops”)
A co-op is usually a large house in which a group of students lives together, sharing the costs and chores. Residents take turns cooking meals and work together to clean the house and take care of outside maintenance. Because they are generally less expensive, rooms in co-ops may be difficult to find.
These are dwellings in which rooms are rented usually to individuals, but occasionally to two roommates. Cooking facilities are often provided. It is probably cheapest to live in such a room, but sometimes there are problems with human relations (sharing the bathroom, kitchen, and so on). If you consider rooming in a house, be selective and ask many questions.
Living With a U.S. Family
Sometimes international student advisers have listings of families in the community who would like to have an international student live in their home. Sometimes the family expects the student to perform certain services, like baby-sitting or household chores, in exchange for free or reduced rent. Living with a family can be a warm and enriching experience, but consider the family and the arrangements carefully and be sure that you understand what is expected of you. Check with the international student adviser to determine if services are expected in exchange for room and board. This might be considered employment by the U.S. Government and therefore subject to certain regulations.
Cafeteria and Meal Plans
Most dormitories at U.S. colleges and universities are equipped with cooking facilities. However, for those who do not have the time or facilities to cook for themselves, there is the option of cafeteria dining. Most dormitories have a cafeteria within the building or nearby that offers low-cost food to students. Often students can sign up for one of a variety of meal plans by which they can pay ahead for the food they will consume. Depending on your tastes and financial situation, you might find these meal plans convenient, cheap, and easily accessible. Some universities require that all students living in a dormitory sign up for a meal plan. Cafeterias are open during scheduled hours and usually offer a variety of foods, including vegetarian selections for those who do not eat meat. Meal plans are sometimes available to students living off-campus as well, which is a great convenience for students who may eat as many as two meals a day on-campus. If you plan to live in an apartment and do not wish to cook or if you enjoy the social aspect of eating in the cafeteria, consider trying out your school’s meal plan. Cafeterias are generally closed during holidays and vacation periods.
Public transportation in the United States varies significantly from city to city. Depending on where you live in relation to your college or university campus, public transportation can be the simplest, least expensive, and most reliable way to get to school. If you live on campus, you may find that you rarely need to get any place that you cannot walk to; therefore, basic public transportation may be sufficient. Make sure you get acquainted with your area’s most convenient form of public transportation. You can usually get a map of the transit network at bus stops, at subway or tramway stops, at the public transportation office, at some gas stations, or from your university’s information bureau. Many cities also have public transportation information available on the Internet.
If you plan to live off-campus and will not have access to a car, make sure you know how frequently your street or area is served by public transportation, the times of scheduled stops, and the price of travel. Take the price of transportation into account when deciding where to live since it can affect your budget considerably. If you need to take public transportation daily, it is recommended that you get a monthly pass to save on transport expenses. These passes are available at the public transportation office in your city and often in other locations such as drugstores or post offices.
It may seem to you that everyone in the United States has a car and that everyone needs one. Certainly, cars can be convenient, but they can also be very expensive to buy and maintain. Some things about them can be inconvenient, such as parking and upkeep. Some universities may not allow first-year undergraduate students to keep a car on campus due to limited parking space.
If you decide to buy a car, take your time and look for deals on good cars for less money. Research the cars you are considering to be certain they are safe and reliable. You can purchase magazines that will assist you with your research. When shopping for a car, bring along someone who is knowledgeable about cars and how they are sold in the United States. Most car dealers will negotiate prices with the customer, so this will be a good time to practice your bargaining skills or show your expertise.
The total cost of the car will depend on: the age of the car; the options you choose (air conditioning, automatic or manual transmission, power brakes and steering, and so on); and on the brand or “make.” Look at different brands and models, and compare prices and the cost of options.
Used cars are less expensive than new cars. Of course, if the car is older there is a risk of problems and repair costs. Used cars are sometimes advertised on bulletin boards on campus and in newspapers, or you can go to a used car lot. Even though the cost is almost always higher, many people prefer to buy a used car from a dealer because there is usually a 30- to 90-day “warranty” on the car. A warranty is a guarantee to repair any problems that arise within the warranty period.
To get a better idea of what you should pay for certain used car models, consult with the Kelley Blue Book on-line at http://www.kbb.com/.
When buying a used car, you should be able to obtain the owner’s permission to take the car to a garage (one not associated with the seller) to be thoroughly checked before you decide to buy it. Mechanics usually charge for this service, but this is a good investment if it saves you from buying a car in bad condition. If you purchase the car from a dealer, there should be a warranty on the car and, therefore, no reason to take it to a mechanic.
When you complete the purchase of a used car, be sure that you get from the previous owner the documents (“title” or transfer of ownership papers, antismog certification, and so on) required by the department of motor vehicles in the state where you buy the car. Before you buy any car, contact the department of motor vehicles in your state to find out about state requirements for owning a car.
You can either pay the total cost of a car when you purchase it or you can sometimes finance it (“buy it on time” or “buy it on credit”). Financing costs vary greatly, but they can add 20 to 30 percent to the purchase price. Before signing any papers committing you to buy the car, be sure that you understand all the details of the sale.
Getting a Driver’s License and Obeying Traffic Laws: If you plan to drive in the United States, you must have a valid driver’s license. It is a good idea to get a driver’s license issued in the state where you will live, since some states do not recognize an international driver’s license. Even those that do recognize an international license will accept it for only one year after you arrive in the United States. Check with the local office of the state motor vehicles department to get information on obtaining a state driver’s license.
It is important to learn and obey traffic laws and to understand that they are enforced. People who break these laws can receive fines, jail sentences, and/or the loss of driving privileges. All laws that govern driver’s licenses and all traffic laws are made by each state. There are variations from state to state. When you apply for a driver’s license, you will be given a book with all the traffic laws of the state in it. Learn these laws and obey them. In fact, you will be required to pass a written test on these laws to get a license. You also may be required to pass a driving, or “road,” test before you are granted a license.
Automobile Insurance: In most of the United States, automobile insurance is mandatory, but the amount of coverage required varies from state to state. If a car is not insured, the owner of the car is financially responsible for any accidents or damage connected with the car. Also, legal problems resulting from an accident can be complicated and very costly. Therefore, it is very important to have at least the minimum amount of insurance coverage. Ask your international student adviser about state requirements and for advice on purchasing automobile insurance.
Renting a Car: There are certain requirements and restrictions connected with renting a car. For example, many agencies require that individuals be at least 25 years old to rent a car. Some will allow drivers who are younger, but for an additional fee. If you want to rent a car, telephone or visit a rental car agency. Most agencies are listed in the telephone directory’s yellow pages. Ask for information, procedures, and rates.
On many U.S. campuses and in many communities, bicycles provide useful, inexpensive, and convenient transportation. Many communities also have bicycle clubs that schedule group outings and competitive races. Bicycle shops often sell new and used bicycles. Notices of used bicycles for sale sometimes are posted by students on bulletin boards and in classified advertising sections in the school or community newspaper.
Some universities and some city police departments require that bicycles be licensed. Ask your international student adviser about regulations and traffic rules for bicycles on campus and in the community.
Always lock your bicycle when you leave it, even for a few minutes, as, unfortunately, it can be a popular target for thieves. You can get advice on a secure locking system and on safety precautions from a bicycle shop.
The United States is a large country, the fourth largest in the world. Different regions of the United States can almost seem like different countries, with their varied climates, landscapes, people, and customs. There are countless things to see, but distances can be great and travel can be expensive.
The United States has several major national airlines as well as many regional carriers. Because of the competition between airlines, you may find that airfares are surprisingly low, particularly when airlines offer sales. You can book tickets directly with the airlines, through a travel agent, or through the Internet. There are several popular websites that can help you find the lowest fare for the trip you wish to make. Try http://www.expedia.com/ or http://www.travelocity.com/.
Amtrak, the U.S. national rail carrier, offers a USA Rail Pass to permanent residents of foreign countries, but it must be purchased outside the United States. The pass entitles you to unlimited travel for one predetermined price for a specified number of days. For information, contact a travel agency.
Bus travel is often the least expensive way to travel in the United States and provides excellent opportunities for seeing the country. Reservations are not required, but if you are considering travelling or touring by bus, you should try to make arrangements with a travel agent before you leave home. The major bus company serving the United States is the Greyhound Bus Company. Greyhound sometimes has special fares for touring the United States and it also has a special touring fare called Ameripass, available for travel anywhere in the United States. It may be purchased in the United States. Contact a travel agency for more information.
Also consider the possibilities below when planning leisure travel:
Most American transport companies (airlines, buses, and trains) offer special travel deals for foreigners. The offer is usually for travel anywhere in the country for a set fee and a certain number of days. Usually, the ticket must be bought before entering the United States. Contact your travel agent before leaving home to find out about these special tickets.
International students often get together to travel and share the costs of renting a car and staying in hotels. You probably will not be the only person who will want to see more of the United States. Make sure you choose your travel companions well for your own security and comfort.
Your new American friends might invite you to visit their family during vacation times. Again, for your security and comfort, make sure you know the person well. This might be an ideal way to see another part of the country, save money on accommodations, and see how American families live on a daily basis and celebrate certain holidays.
Unfortunately, as everywhere else in the world, there is crime in the United States. You should be especially careful until you know the campus and are familiar with the community. Every town has unsafe areas, and you should find out where these are as soon as possible. Every college and university employs police officers or security personnel to help keep the campus safe. If you are not given security guidelines during your orientation program, go to your international student adviser or the campus security office for information. Ask about safety on your campus and in the community and what you should do to ensure your personal safety. Remember that good judgment, precaution, and common sense can significantly reduce chances of having an unpleasant and possibly harmful experience.
Basic safety rules include the following:
In some areas it is not safe to walk alone at night. Always ask someone to accompany you if you are unsure about going somewhere on your own. Some universities offer accompaniment services for people who have to walk home after classes or from the library in the evening. Ask your international student adviser if your university offers such services.
When you leave your dormitory room, apartment, or automobile, make certain that all doors and windows are locked. Never leave valuables, especially cash or credit cards, sitting in the open, even if the door is locked.
Do not carry large amounts of cash with you or wear jewellry of great value. Never accept a ride from a stranger. Do not hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers.
Be careful with your purse or wallet, especially in crowded metropolitan areas where there are purse-snatchers and pickpockets. Other attractive personal property, such as cameras, stereos, computers, and bicycles, should be locked in a safe place when you are not around. Be careful with your belongings.
If a robber threatens you at home or on the street, try not to resist unless you feel that your life is in danger and you must fight or run away. Do not fight back as this might provoke your attacker to cause you harm. Remain calm and observe as much as possible about the robber. Report this crime to the police right away and give your best description of the attacker. For more information on campus safety and security, see http://campussafety.org/.
Clubs and Sports
Clubs are an excellent way to meet people who share your interests, to make friends, to learn new things, and to have fun. There are student organizations for almost every interest and purpose, from the academic to the purely social. Usually you can get a list of campus clubs and organizations from the International Students Office or from your university’s Web page. If you are interested in the activities of a certain club, attend a meeting. If there are many international students at the university, there will undoubtedly be an international club.
You will find many cultural activities on a university campus. Events such as plays, concerts, films, lectures, and art exhibitions are advertised in school publications and on bulletin boards on campus. If the university is located in or near a metropolitan area, you will find many more opportunities advertised in the entertainment and arts section of the city’s newspaper.
Sports are a favourite pastime in the United States. Many people regularly engage in individual sports, such as tennis, jogging, swimming, and skiing, or in team sports like baseball, soccer, ice hockey, and volleyball. Cities often have organized sports tournaments for amateurs. Almost all colleges and universities have intercollegiate football, baseball, basketball, swimming, and other teams that compete with teams from other schools. These teams often compete at a very high level and attract a large crowd of student supporters and other fans. Even if you are unfamiliar with U.S. sports, you should attend at least one sporting event. It is a lot of fun simply to be part of the crowd. Ask someone to explain the action to you. The spirit and excitement of the games are a large part of campus life.
Most colleges and universities also offer intramural sporting teams or competitions, where all teams are made up of your fellow students. Intramural sports are usually at a less competitive level than the intercollegiate teams and are often open to anyone with an interest in the sport. This can be a great way to meet people, to exercise, and to help reduce the stress of your studies.
Arrangements for Dependents Who May Join You
If your family will accompany you to the United States, there are other things to consider. Your international student adviser will be able to advise you in researching some of the options available for your family in your local community.
Schools for Children
In the United States, education is the responsibility of each state. All states require that children attend school from age six to 16 years, or in some states, until they graduate from high school. Most schools also have a kindergarten program for five-year-olds. By U.S. federal law, public schools must provide education from kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) free of charge to all students, both U.S. citizens and non-citizens who meet the residency rules established by the individual school district. However, there is one exception. A specific federal statute bars public schools that teach kindergarten through 8th grade (K-8) from issuing I-20 forms to students who wish to obtain F-1 visas to enrol. However, dependents of adult F-1 visa holders (dependents usually hold F-2 visas) ARE eligible to enrol in these public schools.
Private day schools charge tuition. Boarding schools charge tuition, plus room and board. Be sure to bring copies of your children’s birth certificates in order to enroll them in school. It is also a good idea to bring transcripts for the last year or two of your children’s education, as they may assist the school to appropriately place your children in their new classes. Talk to the international student adviser about how you can enroll your children in school Child Care.
Various possibilities exist for full-time or part-time childcare. Below are some examples.
Home Day Care: Many people provide private day care or babysitting services, caring for infants and preschool children (five years old and under). Sometimes baby-sitters come to the family’s home to watch the children; sometimes a parent takes the children to the baby-sitter’s home. Sometimes they will care for school-age children before or after school as well. Fees vary.
Day Care Centers: Day care centers may be public centers, run by churches, or privately owned. Day care centers usually take children who are preschool age — though not always infants — and sometimes they require that the children be toilet-trained. Some day care centers also take school-age children whose parents are at work before or after the child gets out of school. The parent drops off and picks up the child at the center. Sometimes the day care center works with the local school system to organize bus service to the school. Some day care centers require parents to give time to help care for the children one or two mornings or afternoons per week. Fees vary for this type of child care, but note that day care centers are usually quite expensive in large cities and metropolitan areas.
Nursery Schools or Preschools: These private schools are generally open for children three to five years of age. Most schools hold classes from two to five days a week, usually in the mornings or in the afternoons. Besides play activities, children are prepared to enter kindergarten, usually the first year of schooling in the United States.
Activities for Spouses
If you are the spouse of an international student, you will most likely find that keeping busy will help you adjust to your new home and to be happier there. Though you probably will not be allowed to work, you may find that this is an opportunity to discover new interests, improve your English, or take a few courses that you never quite seem to find time for. The international student adviser may suggest some of the following options:
School Parents’ Clubs: Most schools have a Parent-Teacher Association, or PTA, that plays different roles depending upon the school. During the week, the local school may appreciate your assistance in the library, in the school office, or in a classroom. When you register your child for school, ask about details.
English as a Second Language (ESL) Classes: Universities or international centers, local adult education centers, community colleges, or local community volunteer programs often offer ESL classes. If you are just learning English or simply want to become more comfortable with one or more aspects of the language, this can be the perfect opportunity to improve your language skills. For more information, see Short-term Study.
Academic Courses: You may be qualified to apply for admission as a regular, special, or “auditing” student at the college or university that your spouse attends. An auditing student is one who takes class for no credit. Ask about tuition costs.
Other Courses and Recreation: Most colleges and universities and some counties or metropolitan areas offer continuing education courses that do not award academic credit. The courses provide instruction in a wide range of subjects, from understanding computers to working on cars to cooking. Ask the international student adviser if there are such programs in your community.
Volunteer Work: Hospitals, schools, day care centers, and other public agencies welcome volunteers’ unpaid assistance. Opportunities are available in many fields. The yellow pages of the telephone book often have listings under “Volunteer Services” or “Social Service Organizations.” Otherwise, the university may have a volunteer office, which will be happy to help place you even though you are not a student. Alternatively, try searching on the Internet.
Clubs and Organizations: Many people enjoy clubs and organizations that focus on a common interest, such as gardening, cooking, music, drama, knitting, card playing, or exercise. Ask the international student adviser or someone at the public library for a list of such organizations.
Practical Information for Everyday Living
While in the United States, you will want to do more than just study. You will have many opportunities to discover more about the country through daily contact with Americans, by exploring all that your area has to offer, and by taking some time to travel to other corners of the United States. You will have to deal with such matters as banking, shopping, postal and telephone services, automobiles and traffic laws, tipping customs, and so on. This section gives practical information to help you become familiar with the services, conveniences, opportunities, and ways of daily life in the United States. If you are travelling to the United States with your family, it also provides information to help you help them settle in your new home.
The basic unit of exchange in the United States is the dollar ($), which is divided into 100 cents (¢). One dollar is commonly written as $1 or $1.00. There are four denominations of commonly used coins: 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, and 25 cents. Americans usually refer to coins, not by their value in cents, but by their names. A one-cent coin is a penny, a five-cent coin is a nickel, a ten-cent coin is a dime, and a 25-cent coin is a quarter. There are also one-dollar coins and half-dollar (50-cent) coins but they are seldom found in circulation.
U.S. paper money (often called bills: for example, a “one-dollar bill”) comes in single-bill denominations of one dollar ($1.00), two dollars ($2.00, but these are rare), five dollars ($5.00), ten dollars ($10.00), twenty dollars ($20.00), fifty dollars ($50.00), and one hundred dollars ($100.00). You will immediately notice that, unlike in most other countries, U.S. bills are all the same size and all the same color. They are differentiated from each other by the number value and with the portrait of a different U.S. historical figure on each denomination. At first, you may find this confusing and you will need to watch which bills you use carefully. However, you will become accustomed to the currency and will soon be able to differentiate easily between the denominations. U.S. coins also are marked with the coin’s value and each denomination is a different size.
Establishing a Bank Account
One of the first things you should do after you arrive in the United States is establish a bank account. It is not a good idea to carry large sums of cash or to keep it in your room. Most banks have main offices in the center of a city or town. Smaller offices, called “branches,” are usually found in other parts of a city or town and in the suburbs. Even if your bank does not have a branch nearby, you often can find automated bank machines to serve your needs. Banks generally are open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. On Fridays, many banks stay open a few hours later. Many banks, but not all, are also open on Saturdays, often from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. Your international student adviser can suggest which banks are convenient to campus.
Remember that banks are private businesses. They are all different and each one wants to get your business. You should check with several banks to determine which bank offers the best services for your needs. When you are ready to open a bank account, go to the “New Accounts” department at the bank you have chosen. A bank officer will help you to open an account by explaining the different kinds of accounts available and the costs and services of each one. You should Automatic Tellers and 24-Hour Banking
plan to open both a savings account and a checking (current) account at the same bank, simply because it will be more convenient for you. For example, if you have a savings account and a checking account in the same bank, you can easily transfer funds from one to the other. Interest rates on savings and checking accounts vary from bank to bank. Investigate and compare various banks and their rates of interests on checking and savings accounts before you decide where to open an account. Internet banks are an alternative option to traditional banks and are another possibility to explore. The best source of information for these will be on the Internet itself.
Checking accounts (called current accounts in many countries) are a way to keep your money safe and still allow easy access to it. Checks are an easy way to pay bills, especially by mail. Never send cash through the mail.
Almost all American banks now offer banking privileges 24 hours a day through “automatic teller machines” or ATMs. When you open an account at a bank, you will be issued a bankcard and a personal identification number (PIN). You will be able to use this card in your bank’s ATM to access your account and make transactions. This will enable you to do such things as withdraw and deposit money, transfer funds, and obtain your balance 24 hours a day. Generally, you can also use your bankcard in other banks’ ATMs for a small service fee charged against your account, but only for cash withdrawals. Banks often impose limits on amounts that can be withdrawn from the ATM in one day, usually between $200 and $400.
It is now possible in the United States to conduct most of your monetary transactions using only your bankcard. Many stores have systems that permit you to use your bankcard instead of cash to pay for merchandise. In this way, the money is deducted directly from your bank account. Since you are not using cash when paying with your bankcard, however, you should keep track of your account to make sure you are not overspending. It is a good idea to carry a small amount of cash with you at all times anyway, since the automated banking system can break down.
Having a bankcard is very convenient, since it can be used all over the United States and even in other countries connected to the same banking system. Bankcards from other countries can also be used in the United States as long as they function on one of the banking networks used in the United States. Before leaving home, ask your bank if you can use your home country’s bankcard in the United States. This is especially useful if, in case of emergency, you need to rapidly get money from home.
Most ATMs also accept credit cards. If you have a credit card but do not use it in ATMs yet, ask the bank that has issued your credit card to allocate a PIN to it. Then you will be able to use your credit card in ATMs. Note, however, that this transaction may be considered a “cash advance” and therefore your credit card company may immediately begin to charge you interest. In some cases, the interest rates for a cash advance may be higher than for credit card purchases
Checks that you write are called “personal” checks. You can use checks instead of money in most stores or businesses in the United States. Usually, you will be asked to present two pieces of identification, including at least one with a photo, before you can use a personal check to make purchases or to obtain cash.
Credit Cards and “Buying on Credit”
The use of credit cards is widespread in the United States. Banks, credit card companies, gas companies, department stores, and other organizations issue credit cards, which can be used to make purchases. Statements are mailed to credit card holders once a month. If the amount due is not paid within a specified number of days, a “finance charge” is added to the bill. Applications for credit cards are available in many banks and stores. Information requested includes the applicant’s source and amount of income, length of residence at the present address, and bank information. Many companies that issue credit cards require applicants to have a specific minimum income.
As a student, you may find it difficult at first to obtain a credit card. However, many credit card companies also offer special student credit cards, subject to certain conditions. Not having a credit card can make daily life somewhat more difficult. For example, if you are on a trip and need cash, you can obtain a cash advance from any bank that honors the specific type of credit card you hold. Finance charges, however, often begin from the day you receive the cash advance.
Whether you use a credit card or sign a contract to purchase something on credit, be careful not to build up too much debt. Credit buying is often necessary — for example, for the purchase of a car — but be sure you understand the terms of the loan agreement. You may have to pay high interest rates, sometimes as much as 21 percent.
One way to avoid building up too much debt is to delay obtaining a credit card or making large purchases involving long-term debt for the first few months you are in the United States. Instead, make your initial purchases by cash or by check. At the same time, keep careful records of your expenditures. Do this the first two or three months you are in the United States. By doing so, you will know exactly how much it costs to live and study in your city. You will then be in a good position to know when to use or not to use a credit card and how much debt you can actually support. Every four or five months thereafter, you should monitor your expenditures again to make sure that you are not spending too much or building up too much debt.
Health and Wellness
When travelling abroad, you always have to be ready for extreme or unfamiliar conditions. You might have an upset stomach or other digestive problems in the first few days as your body gets adapted to the climate and the food. It is even common to catch a cold. You may also have trouble adapting to the altitude if you are going to a mountainous area. Even the most seasoned travellers and the fittest athletes have to deal with these problems when they leave their country. These discomforts can, however, be controlled. Here are a few tips to help you adjust.
- Take it easy for the first few days or a week. Your body will need to rest if it is to adapt to local conditions.
- Get enough sleep.
- Wash your hands often and avoid rubbing your eyes in order not to come in contact and be infected with various viruses.
- Medication for headaches, colds, upset stomach, minor injuries, and other ailments is readily available in the United States. It is not always advisable to bring medication from home into the United States since some restrictions apply. The pharmacist at any drugstore can assist you in finding medication for your needs.
- If you are going to a warm area, wear a hat on sunny days to avoid sunstroke, use sunscreen to protect your skin against sunburn, and drink a lot of liquids (non-alcoholic and without caffeine) to prevent dehydration.
- Contact your international student adviser to find the location of the nearest medical clinic. Most universities maintain a health clinic on campus.
Campus Health Clinics
Most colleges and universities in the United States have a clinic, an infirmary, or some other form of health care service for students, though usually not for their families. The “health fee” the student pays each term goes toward providing such services. Therefore, the services provided are often free or offered at a greatly reduced cost. Usually, however, university health services are limited to minor and emergency care. In case of a serious health problem, the university normally refers the student to a medical facility in the community, and the student, or his or her insurance, pays the costs. Your college or university should send you materials that discuss health care services and fees involved. If you do not receive such material, be sure to write and ask your international student adviser for this information before you leave your home country.
Family Medical Care
If you are travelling with your spouse and/or family, you will need to find another source for medical care. Care for the family is available from doctors in private medical practice or through community medical clinics. It is a good idea to establish a relationship with a doctor shortly after you arrive in the United States so you will have ready access to medical care if you, your spouse, or your children should become ill.
Family doctors (also called “primary care physicians” or “general practitioners”) provide medical care for the whole family, as well as deliver babies. Many doctors specialize in family-related areas. For example, obstetricians specialize in prenatal care and deliver babies. Often, an obstetrician is also a gynaecologist, a specialist who treats women. Paediatricians care for infants and children. Family doctors often refer patients to specialists for treatment of particular conditions. Ask friends, the student health service, or the international student adviser for recommendations of doctors in your community. When you telephone for an appointment, ask how much the doctor charges for services. Make sure you know which medical services your health insurance covers and which it does not.
Adjusting to a New Environment
Going as a tourist to a foreign city or country for a short period of time can be fun, but living and studying there for longer than a few months is a completely different experience. You get to know the place and the people on a much deeper level. At the same time, you will have to deal with some physical, mental, and social challenges. Even though living in a foreign country can sometimes be frustrating, it can also be very rewarding. The majority of people who live and study in the United States for an extended period of time go home feeling positive about their experience and believe that the time spent abroad was beneficial both academically and personally. The information below may help ease your transition.
Speaking a foreign language in a classroom is one thing, but living in a society where you have to use this language on a daily basis is completely different. Here are some language problems you may encounter while in the United States:
- You might not understand the local accent right away. Regional accents vary greatly in the United States. In a group of people from all corners of the United States, Americans can usually easily pick out who is from Boston, New York, the Midwest, or the South, just by the way they speak. Give yourself time to get used to the local accent, and in time you will probably find yourself speaking in the same way.
- Americans might not understand you right away. You will also have your own accent and you might use a different vocabulary. Try to speak slowly at first to make sure you are understood. Do not be shy to ask others to speak slowly if you have trouble understanding them.
- Americans use a lot of slang and jargon in their speech. Their language is very colorful and full of imagery and it might take some time to completely understand it.
- Humor, wit, and sarcasm are an integral part of American English. Some international students have trouble adapting to this informal style of conversation or understanding whether the person they are speaking with is being serious or not. This, however, should be interpreted as a mark of friendliness rather than a show of disrespect.
- You might not know all of the abbreviations and technical terms used in your study program or workplace. Terms such as “poli sci” for political science, “dorms” for dormitories, or “TA” for teaching assistant, are just a few examples of campus slang you will encounter. The abbreviation is often the first syllable of the word or, if two or more words are together, their initials. If you do not understand a word or an abbreviation, simply ask the meaning.
Give yourself time to adapt to the language and do not hesitate to ask people to repeat what they have said, speak slowly, or explain what they mean. It would be wise to carry a small dictionary with you in case of emergency. Most importantly, do not be afraid to make mistakes. These will all be part of your learning experience.
Culture shock is the process of adjusting to a new country and a new culture, which may be dramatically different from your own. You no longer see the familiar signs and faces of home. Climate, food, and landscapes, as well as people and their ways all seem strange to you. Your English may not be as good as you expected. You may suffer, to an unexpected degree, from the pressures of U.S. academic life and the fast pace of life.
If you feel this way, do not panic. Culture shock is a normal reaction. As you become adjusted to U.S. culture and attitudes and begin to know your way around, you will start to adapt to and understand your new surroundings and way of life.
International students experience culture shock in varying degrees; some hardly notice it at all, while others find it terribly difficult to adapt. There are usually four stages of culture shock that you will experience.
The “Honeymoon” Stage
The first few weeks in your new home will be very exciting. Everything will be new and interesting, and you will likely be so busy getting settled and starting classes that you may hardly notice that you miss home.
Irritability and Hostility
As you begin to realize that you are not on vacation and that this is where you live, you might experience anger and hostility. Sometimes you may feel hostile toward Americans and their way of doing things, and even trivial irritations may cause hostility to flare.
Understanding and Adjustment
In time you will come to better understand your new environment and will find, maybe even unconsciously, that you are adjusting to your new home. You will experience less frequent feelings of hostility and irritability.
Integration and Acceptance
Finally, you will find that you have come to feel that, at least on some level, you consider your university or college and your new town, your home. You will have made friends and will feel that your community accepts you just as you have accepted it.
The length and intensity of each stage depends upon the individual, but no one escapes it completely. The important thing to remember is that you are not the only one experiencing these feelings. Many others before you have gone through it, and there are others all around you who are dealing with culture shock. Below are some of the common symptoms of culture shock and some suggestions to help you get over these hurdles.
You miss your homeland, your family, and your friends. You frequently think of home, call or write letters to your family and friends often, and maybe even cry a lot.
It is good to keep in contact with home, but do not let this get in the way of meeting new friends and enjoying your new home. Make an effort to meet new people, in your residence hall, in class, and through the international student center. You might also want to join a committee, interest group, or sports team on campus or in your city. Find one thing with which you are comfortable — for example, music, food, or an activity — and make this the starting point toward making yourself feel at home in America.
Minor irritations make you unusually angry, and you feel life in the United States is the cause of your problem. You feel your expectations have not been met.
It takes time to get used to life in a foreign country and many things need to be relearned. Be patient and ask questions when you feel you do not understand. Maybe your expectations were too high or too low, and you need to readjust your perception of what it means to live and study in the United States. Talk to your international student adviser and try to find ways around the problems that are angering you.
You become dependent on fellow nationals, friends, or your international student adviser and feel you cannot achieve anything by yourself. You are scared of doing things by yourself without somebody else’s help or approval.
It is good to have people you can depend on for the first few days. However, at the same time, you should gradually take on the challenges and “do it yourself.” It is all right to make mistakes and to learn from them. You should also try to make various types of friends, not just your fellow nationals, to fully take advantage of your American educational experience.
Loss of Self-confidence
You feel everything you do is wrong, that nobody understands you, that you have trouble making friends. You start to question the way you dress and think because you are afraid not to fit in.
If you feel everything you do is wrong, ask for feedback from someone you can trust, such as a friend or your international student adviser. What may be wrong is not how others perceive you, but how you perceive yourself. You should not be worried about the way you look, act, or think. The United States is a very diverse country and Americans are used to people with different looks or ways of behaving. Most important, do not lose your sense of humor.
You might find yourself facing situations that are not accepted in your culture and have trouble getting accustomed to them. For example, relationships between men and women, the informality of American life, political or religious attitudes, or the social behavior of Americans may seem amoral or unacceptable to you.
Look for information on the things that surprise you or make you feel uncomfortable, and try to remain flexible, respectful, and open-minded. This can be a great occasion to learn more about topics that might be less popular or taboo in your country. Try to enjoy the new cultural diversity and the various cultural points of view. It might be helpful to talk to someone from the same culture or religion who has been living in the United States for a while to discuss how this person has dealt with values shock.
Other strategies to cope with the stress of culture shock include:
- Make sure you know what to expect before you arrive. Carefully read this guide and other books and magazines on the United States to find out more about American life and customs. It would be a good idea also to read up a bit on U.S. history to find out more about American people, their government, their national heroes, their holidays, and so on. This will help you orient yourself physically and mentally when you arrive in the United States.
- Eat well, sleep well, and take good care of yourself.
- Exercise is a great way to alleviate stress and tension. Join a sports club or pursue some outdoor activities.
- Find some time to walk around your new neighborhood. This might help you develop a sense of home as you find the local stores, parks, activity centers, and so on. Try to carry a small map of the city with you so you will not get needlessly lost very often.
- Keep in touch with family and friends to tell them about your experiences.
- Take some time to relax. Listen to music, read a book not related to your studies, and go to bed early once in a while.
- Do not lose your sense of humor. Laugh at your mistakes rather than getting depressed about them.
If an Emergency Occurs at Home!
Although it is not probable, it is possible that while you are in the United States, a medical, financial, or family problem could arise at home, and you will need to decide how to respond to it.
Fortunately, e-mail and the telephone usually make communications with home relatively easy. Consult with your family or friends to find out the seriousness of the problem before you decide too hastily what you should do. Here are a few things to consider in such situations:
If you decide to leave, make sure your academic work will not suffer. You should meet with your academic adviser, the international student adviser, and (for master’s and doctoral students) your thesis director. If you miss a significant amount of work, a professor may grant you an “incomplete” as a final grade, meaning that you will have a chance to make up the work in the next semester. You might also be allowed to drop some classes, but in that case you would not get a grade or credit for the work done.
First of all, a trip back home might be expensive and could seriously impact your budget, especially if it is during peak seasons. Secondly, if you leave for a long period, your tuition as well as the status of scholarships and grants might be affected. If you need to depart for an extended period, make sure to contact your university’s financial aid office to discuss your situation. Your international student adviser can help you consider your options and can also help you deal with the university’s administration.
Re-entry Into the United States
Whenever you leave the country, you should check with your international student adviser to make sure you have the appropriate visa and documents to re-enter the United States. If your visa expires while you are gone, if you had a single-entry visa, or if you are away for an extended period, you might need to reapply at your local U.S. embassy for a valid student visa.
Sometimes families are reluctant to inform students living abroad of emergencies at home in order not to burden them. But not knowing fully what is going on at home can be frustrating for an international student. You and your family should discuss this issue before you leave to define what you will expect from each other during your stay in the United States.
You Are Not Alone
If an emergency situation does arise, you can expect to receive support from your international student adviser, school officials, and friends. They are there to listen to you, and they can be helpful as you decide what to do.
The United States calls itself “a nation of immigrants.” Immigrants (from Europe) founded this country and have been coming in large numbers (from all over the world) ever since. Therefore you will find that all ethnicities and nationalities are represented, although not to the same extent in every city. The country is vast (over 9 million square kilometers) and populous (over 275 million people). In the US, you can encounter and experience almost any climate, landscape, lifestyle, and culture imaginable. By selecting the right location, you will be able to find a living experience that is perfect for you.
Even though there is so much variety in America, there is still an “American culture” that may be quite different from your own. While much of American culture is exported through television, film, and consumer products, there are some aspects that you do not encounter until you live in the US. For a brief description of these aspects, refer to American culture and Customs and habits. To gain a better understanding of what life is like in the different regions in the US, refer to USA regions. Refer to the other pages in this section to find out how to perform common tasks, such as opening a bank account and choosing housing. Read Student profiles to hear the experiences of real students just like you.
U.S. Postal Service: http://www.usps.gov/
Information on Used Car Prices: http://www.kbb.com/
Campus Safety: http://campussafety.org/