Making the transition to college is a challenge for everyone. As freshmen venture into this new and often overwhelming stage of life, there’s a lot to figure out—where classes are located, how to do laundry, when to avoid the Eagles’ salad line, how to interact with roommates, etc. However, while most Boston College students are attending school in their home country, international and exchange students at BC hail from all over the world and consequently face a slew of added challenges and adjustments.
According to the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS), the number of international students and scholars at BC continues to rise, with this year seeing the highest number yet. Undergraduates from abroad include four-year international students who enter BC as freshmen, as well as foreign exchange students who study abroad here for a semester or two. Several international and exchange students spoke with The Gavel about some of the biggest challenges and cultural differences that they’ve experienced at BC.
Giulia Ouro Preto, MCAS ‘19, from Brazil, found that remaining true to herself was difficult in the adjustment process.
“At first, I was so amazed with college life that I did not have the time to stop and think about exactly what it was that I was adjusting into,” Ouro Preto said. “I was going to all the same football games, classes, parties, restaurants that all the other American freshmen were going to, and as a result I was consciously molding myself into a Vineyard Vines version of myself.”
Ouro Preto revealed that it was only when she returned home to see her friends and family that she began to dress like herself again and return to some of her old ways. Reflecting on that shocking realization, she concluded that the biggest struggle for many international students is not losing themselves completely.
“Although a few adjustments have to be made, those changes should be of maturity and growth into a better version of yourself.” To sum it up, she said, “It’s supposed to be an adaptation, not an alteration.”
One major cultural difference that Ouro Preto observed is that Americans are more straightforward in their speech in comparison to Brazilians, who tend to speak rather indirectly. For example, she explained, “When making plans, Americans will let you know on the spot if they will be able to make it or not, while a Brazilian would initially tell you that they would love to come and only later let you know that he or she will not be able to make it.”
James Clements, a junior exchange student from Australia, had a lot to say about cultural differences between BC and and his home country. One of those variations is fashion: “In Australia, one would never really wear sport gear to class... Also, everyone here wears backpacks. In Australia, it’s not so common, especially for girls.”
Other notable differences are the quality of coffee (according to Clements, Melbourne has the best coffee in the world), classes starting on time, and getting used to the term “lit.” “Never heard that before I came here,” he said. And while “lit” is a frequent word in many BC students’ vocabularies, Clements has had to come to terms with the fact that the phrase “I reckon” and the pseudo-pronoun “mate” are not. However, despite his disappointment in the lack of familiar terminology, Clements said his transition at BC has been fairly easy, with plenty of students and professors always ready to help him out.
Another major difference for international students is the concept of living away from home. Although the idea is common at most American universities, in many other countries students commute to universities near their homes. Thus, many visitors are struck by the differences between living at home and living at school. This change, combined with the often fast-paced lifestyle of the northeast, stood out to Keeva Farrelly, an exchange student from Ireland who studied at BC for two semesters last year.
She said of the cultural difference, “While I come from an academically charged college, the experience here in the US was completely different, as life is all in one space.” American students who are used to this concept might not normally give it a second thought, but as Farrelly further explained, “My day was not segregated into family life, college, work, etc; rather, it was all in one space, which I found difficult as a person who likes to compartmentalize my life and have my own space.”
More observations about American life came from Charlotte Jones, a sophomore from Wales. She expressed difficulty in getting accustomed to American currency, tipping practices, and taxes not being posted directly on the price tag. Sports are also more popular here, especially college sports, and she hopes to experience that excitement by attending some of the football games. The school work has also been a big adjustment. She noted, “The workload is CRAZY. Nearly every exchange student I’ve met has said the same thing.”
Although she said some people have been very friendly, Jones felt that it has sometimes been hard to introduce herself and merge into friend groups. This has mainly been due to people busying themselves with pre-existing friendships and talking about how their summers went, as well as the small size of many people’s tight-knit friend groups.
Another interesting variation between cultures that Jones reported is Americans’ obsession with where people come from. “As soon as I open my mouth, I’m questioned about my heritage, and honestly it’s not that interesting, but it’s nice,” she said. “I think people are just proud of where they’re from and they expect everyone else to feel the same way.”
Some final input came from junior Hannah Doyle of Ireland. In addition to pointing out the huge portion sizes of food here and the competitive nature of students in class, she offered some observations regarding the accuracy of the media’s depiction of the American college experience. “I think it’s a little different with no frats here, so it’s not as extreme as on TV,” she said. ” But there are definitely similarities with the red cups and parties… College sports are also like in the movies, with big stadiums and games. I do think it’s pretty similar though.”
To help ease students’ transition to BC and the US as a whole, the International Assistant Program pairs sophomores, juniors, and seniors with incoming international freshmen and exchange students. The program strives to help these individuals navigate college life by providing important information and opportunities to socialize with other students from both here and abroad.
Each International Assistant (IA) is assigned a few international freshmen and one or two exchange students. When the students first arrive on campus, the IAs help facilitate the three-day International Student Orientation, and the program continues throughout the year with other events and activities.
Leo Shi, CSOM ‘19, is one of the IAs, who cited a desire to help out his peers and learn about other cultures as reasons for taking part in the program.
“All of the freshman struggles are magnified because they’re from a different country,” Shi said, noting the additional obstacles they may face upon arrival. Not only has he been able to help ease the transition for others, but he has gained valuable personal experience.
“Learning about other cultures and communicating with students from different backgrounds has been really neat,” he added. And in addition to going on a boat cruise with the other IAs and international students, Shi has enjoyed establishing friendships with his assigned international students and trying out his French on some of program members.
Another IA, Krissy Maloney, LSOE ‘19, was similarly interested in the opportunity for learning and forming new connections when applying for the position.
“I’ve never actually left the United States, so when I heard about the IA Program, I was immediately interested because it brings together so many different people from so many different places,” Maloney said.
Maloney, like Shi, is already taking away important lessons and experiences in her first few weeks of being an IA as she becomes more familiar with international students and their cultures.
“Even though I’ve never left the country, I’ve learned so much about different cultures all around the world without ever having to leave. Learning about these places has only made me more excited about the possibility of studying abroad next year.”
In addition to the International Assistant Program, the OISS offers many other services and programs. Advising walk-in hours are available Monday through Friday, and programs include the Thanksgiving Day Host Program, the Conversation Partners Program, and the AHANA Leadership Council. Students can also access the OISS International Student Handbook, which is loaded with helpful tips and information about culture shock, health insurance, banking, off-campus housing, transportation, and more.
The continuously increasing number of students from abroad provides significant opportunities for international and local students alike. With a more diversified student body comes the chance to connect with new people, question familiar routines, expose oneself to different cultures, and ultimately broaden one’s mindset in unexpected ways.