This is a post I have been planning for a while based on my own experience as a foreign student, that of friends and fellow students, as a therapist/physician/psychiatrist to foreign students, and a teacher, supervisor, mentor, colleague, and library/coffee buddy. These experiences have given me some insights into what it is like to be a foreign student from a number of cultures, in different countries, and at different academic stages. This includes Saudi students on scholarship, mostly in medicine, but also in other faculties. The timing of the post was triggered by 2 things: Fouad Al-Farhan's recent post (in Arabic); and the upcoming start dates (late August for some, September most often, sometimes October) for the new academic year in Western countries.
Fouad's post deals primarily with how the Saudi student on scholarship can return and impact Saudi society, by a combination of skill acquisition and attitude shift, that culminates in taking action to share these, and act in ways to improve Saudi society. These types are quite universal in my experience, for students on scholarship or not, and whether foreign or nationals integrating into the post-university social fabric of their own society.
As a result this post will be in 2 parts, first my broader contribution, which Fouad's helped to refine, and then Fouad's more specific, but generalizable one, in Part II. Here, then, in no particular order, are my 10 broad recommendations for foreign students in particular, whether scholarship students or not, and generally for students away at university for the first time, followed by 10 tips for academic success.
Chiara's 10 Recommendations
1) See your university as a town (city or village, depending on size)
Explore it and take advantage of all the services and facilities your tuition has paid for. Get to know its ins and outs, and its people. Transfer from one campus to another if preferable, or socialize on a different one than where your program is located, if the other one has more activities and people you do or might enjoy.
A university campus usually has housing, "dining establishments", clubs, gathering places, parks, libraries, stores, cinema, theatre, athletic facilities sports groups, organized trips, etc. Taking advantage of them gives you a more rounded experience and helps you meet people.
There are also academic and psychological counseling services, medical facilities, legal and financial services, all of which you have pre-paid and should use as appropriate.
2) Look for what is there, not what isn't
You won't find Parisian culture in a town on the Mediterranean; despite Lyautey's best efforts, Casablanca is not Lyon; a town that has drawn the greatest Impressionist painters for its light may have precious little in the literary arts; fishing in Canadian lakes and streams is not like finishing in Tripoli (either one of them).
Try something new, something available, or more easily accessible (cost, location, customary) than in your country, whether it is a sport, a hobby, a cultural event, or a social activity.
An international student card, available from your home country, makes traveling as a student more affordable. Add to that proximity and visa facilitation by living in another country and you have every incentive to do so. By traveling--even local day trips, or to sites within your city--you gain a broader understanding of your corner of the country and culture you are in. Travel can also provide a welcome respite from university and student life. If you are invited by another student to spend a weekend or holiday at their home, or travel together give serious consideration to doing so. These are opportunities that are hard to replace.
4) Engage with the mainstream culture
Engage with your host culture even if you do so as part of a group of people from your own ethnic origin, whether new immigrants or born and raised in the host culture; with other immigrants or with foreign students. It is still a beginning and makes it easier to understand cultural assumptions local students may make. It also gives you opportunities to meet more people from the mainstream.
5) Do paid or volunteer work
Work gives you a broader insight into life in that place, and more generally in that culture. It is a valuable insight into interpersonal relationships that serve well, especially if you are to be studying again or employed in a cross-cultural environment. It can broaden your skills as a teacher, or mentor, or in performing a specific task. It teaches patience and teamwork in ways probably different than what you have exactly experienced before.
Try various community associations listed in the local paper, community outreach programs of clubs and faith groups on campus, the YMCA or YWCA, the local recreation/ community centre, literacy programs (there are a number of illiterate or functionally illiterate adults i Western countries), etc. For employment, depending on the country and your visa, you may be restricted to working on campus, or off campus in your academic program's related activities, or be free to work off campus in any job.
6) Be careful about political activities
Being politically incorrect for your home country or the one where you are is high risk. "What happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas", particularly if your fellow students decide to share the information, or it is published, broadcast, or finds its way to a social networking site. As some of you know better than I, some countries pay students to spy on each other. You will be more useful in making sustainable changes if you grow safely in acumen and power rather than flame out in student activism. Students who wouldn't say a word in their own country, may feel wrongly that they are much freer than they actually are abroad.
7) Get whatever help you need--academic, financial, legal, medical, psychological, social, spiritual
Part of your university being a town is that there are many services at your disposal, and for which your tuition fees pay whether you use them or not. These student services are independent of the marks and degree side of campus life, and are legally obliged to respect privacy and confidentiality unless you provide a written release. It is a shame when students either don't know about the services, or are reluctant to use them out of pride, misunderstanding, fear, or stigma.
I once met an African woman in a university coffee shop whose scholarship had been delayed. She had been living in her office and sleeping on the floor not realizing that the university would make financial accommodations, and also has emergency funds, and loans available (often not well advertised to prevent abuse). I also recently met a Guinean grad student who dropped his studies to work full-time because of problems in his country/home; he is now getting advice from his prof and student loans in order to complete his studies.
No matter how well you have done academically elsewhere, academic skill sets may differ in your new country, eg the order of a physical examination is different in UK and US medicine, a French explication de texte is a unique form of literary analysis. Get academic help with these types of skills from seminars, tutorials, and academic counseling services. Language demands in a setting where most are native speakers will be higher than where most are not. Both oral and written expression are important, and you should take the opportunities to improve these, including language labs to improve your accent. Major universities have international student services which coordinate the main needs of most international students.
8) Relationships--Friendly, Collegial, and Romantic--Work with the cultural differences
Relationships, particularly romantic ones, are fraught even where language/ culture is not a confound, and can be even more fraught bilingually/ cross-culturally, though just as, or more, positive. Whatever length of time you will be in an academic setting is too long to be without real life, including here and now relationships, no matter what long distance and virtual ones you are maintaining (also important). Friends, classmates, co-workers, and romantic relationships all enrich the experience of being in a foreign country, and broaden cross-cultural understanding in both directions.
Friendships make life infinitely more interesting and it is good to be open to forming them with others, whether others from your country, other foreign students, immigrants, or others from the mainstream host culture. Friendships have a way of growing exponentially, even for shy people. Having one breeds more. Take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, and persist with various attempts until you make some. If you are cripplingly shy, read and do the exercises in The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook, written by Martin M. Antony and Richard P. Swinson, and highly recommended by colleagues, some of whom have used it for themselves.
Romantic relationships--everything from a flirtation to a commitment--make life infinitely more interesting, but can also be more of a roller coaster. This is where cultural paradigms and the differences will be felt most intensely and dramatically: taboos, and different communication styles, morals, and expectations are all more acutely experienced in these types of relationships. It is more challenging for those from a culture with no accepted dating practice, or those where the structures are very traditional and formalized.
A number of situations recur. One is young men from traditional cultures thinking that the appropriate romantic age difference is about 10 years, whereas Westerners view this as too wide a gap, thinking about 2 years is more appropriate. Also, depending on local ages of consent and the age difference, one can find oneself, either male or female, in statutory rape territory. So be sure of the real age, and my general advice is to never go below the age of 18 (21, if you are a grad student).
Another recurring situation is young women from traditional cultures wondering "how far to go", and if they want to remain a virgin (in the broader sense, and in the sense of maintaining an intact hymen). This is an important consideration, and a rather irrevocable one in the latter instance. Remember to where you are returning, and your own long term goals. Most importantly, will you respect yourself in the morning?
Peer pressure is just as powerful, prevalent, and often as fake as anywhere, even among those who pride themselves on their individualism. You would be surprised at how many people, men and women, aren't doing "it", whatever "it" is. Television, film, theatre, literature and the visual arts are all rather misleading about social norms, particularly romantic, family, and work relationships. No one in real life is quite that much of a risk taker, individual hero, and most are not getting so much of "it", whatever "it" may be.
If you do decide to do some forms of "it", use protection: from STDs (condoms) and from baby-making (condoms + something else). Most contraceptive methods are Islamic for most Muslims. If you are among the 10% who believe personhood occurs at conception (when the sperm meets the egg), rather than at ensoulment (40 days gestation, or 120 days gestation, depending on which Islamic fiqh), you are limited to barrier methods (condom, diaphragm, cervical cap, cervical sponge, spermicide, and in combination), and the Pill. Natural and rhythm methods are better for making babies than preventing them. If you don't want an "oops", be sure the contraceptive method is actually used, is used correctly, and is a highly reliable one.
Generally, don't transgress your core values--or be prepared to deal with your conscience if you do. If necessary or desirable, get help doing so or having done so--whether from the university chaplaincy service (including Muslim chaplains), the Dean of Students, professional counseling, or highly trusted friends. As many a student has heard me say "You don't have to live hanging on by your fingernails, you can have a more solid grip"; "There is no glory in NOT seeking help, taking medication, going for therapy, etc..."; "Martyrdom is overrated."
Privacy and confidentiality are not overrated, however. You should think twice about with whom you share your personal information, including Westerners who are not as free of stigma about mental health issues as television and film would lead one to believe. University counseling services are independent of the academic side and are legally bound to respect privacy and confidentiality (unless you are about to kill yourself or someone else).
Regarding academic and workplace (including "the lab") relationships, they are--in North America more so, but also in Europe--flatter; that is, not as hierarchical as in more traditional cultures. However, there still is a hierarchical structure. You may call your prof or boss by first name and joke around, but the power relationship still exists. Forget that at your peril.
9) Go where you are wanted and loved
This is perhaps the single best piece of general advice that anyone has ever given me, which was from a colleague and friend about where to invest my career energies (subtext, where her husband was the director--I didn't follow the subtext, and I was wrong). This means be with the people who are nice to you and want/enjoy your company; the workplace or volunteer service where you are appreciated and treated well; and, study with the prof and take the course where you will be treated fairly and learn something of value to you.
As an academic example, a South Asian student told me he registered for a class in South Asian studies as an elective. The white feminist professor had very distinct views, and a specific approach with which he didn't agree, and so he left. I once dropped a course because I perceived the professor would be grading students based on how hard they laughed at his jokes. I knew I couldn't respect him because of it; it would show all over my face; and I couldn't fake a laugh at his unfunny jokes even if I wanted to. So, I dropped it after the first class. 3 months later, I was talking with a student who was beside herself about this terrible class. She asked me why I had dropped it. I told her, and she was aghast, "How did you know? That is exactly what he is doing!".
10) Enjoy yourself!
Even if you have to fake it till you make it happen (a proven psychological technique), this is an exciting time in your life, and also a long time to be miserable. Sometimes a change of residence, joining a new club, finding a new activity, friend, or social group, or a deliberate shift in attitude can make all the difference. Many students find themselves liking the place and wanting to stay, sometimes after 2 years of hating it, and counting the time to graduation. In the meantime, staying active and engaged, keeping a positive journal (a nightly record of the positive things that happened that day, including positive reformulations of seemingly negative things; at least 3 items), and remembering the here and now, as well as the past and the future, are helpful strategies. Maintaining your academic status is essential, and more likely to happen if you are reasonably happy.
Chiara's 10 Tips for Academic Success
1) Stay on top of readings, assignments, and test preparation. You are bright, but not bright enough to make up a university course in the exam study period, and do well. Study in the library, you will feel less lonely.
2) Plan ahead, and use good time management skills. Tell your professor ahead if you have special needs, special holidays (eg religious), special absences (eg for high level sports), or the dog really did eat your homework.
3) Take advantage of the "How to" academic seminars provided by your department, faculty, student services, library, and especially language and writing labs. Those include ones on academic ethics, and plagiarism which can be cross-culturally misunderstood with very negative consequences.
4) Attend the first class of a course you are/ may be interested in, and judge it carefully for suitability (content, approach, pedagogical method, assessment strategies, sanity of professor) before finalizing your registration. If you make a mistake in choosing, drop it and add another before the deadline, or drop the course before the final deadline so that the course won't show on your transcript as an incomplete or a fail. If you are a grad student, be sure your supervisor is on side or CHANGE! EARLY!
5) Don't take any course without the formal pre-requisite. Everyone else in the class will have it, and many are just as bright as you are. Your marks will suffer in comparison, and yes they do matter.
6) Attend classes, prepare ahead, and participate appropriately. You will enjoy the course more, and learn more from it. If you need a favour from the prof, regarding absences, extensions, or modification of assignments, you will be in better standing.
7) Know your student hand book, faculty calendar of programs and courses, and university website as if they were sacred texts. They are your resource guides for a variety of academic and associated needs.
8) Take advantage of the advice of the Undergraduate or Graduate coordinator or adviser about courses to take and academic goals. Use favourite and like-minded profs for the same purpose.
9) Deadlines are DEADlines. Miss them and you are dead. That is Western time, ie BEFORE the DEADline. Apply widely and on time to give yourself the best program/course options.
10) Read Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By to understand the key underlying concepts of American and Western culture. Then apply your knowledge. Mostly academia is dialogue, but sometimes it is War!
What advice would you give to others on these topics?
What experiences taught you valuable lessons?
Which aspects do you think deserve further elaboration?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?
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Advice to Saudi and Other Foreign Students Studying Abroad: Part II Fouad Alfarhan's Advice and Typology: The Fool, The Fearful, and The Hero