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Congratulations! You were just accepted to Columbia University, one of the top-ranked universities in the world. You may be thinking, “So, this is a really big commitment: to come to the United States all the way from (insert your home country here) and leave my family behind. Why should I want to go all the way to New York?”
While many American students also move away from home for the first time when they arrive on campus, the adjustment can be much more daunting for international students. Here are some things, both the challenging and wonderful, to consider before you commit.
Perhaps the most obvious challenge of attending university in a country other than your own is the language barrier. Even if you speak English pretty well, American English and slang can still be difficult to pick up. The good news is that you can learn pretty quickly through conversations or by watching American TV (just another excuse to pop on Netflix for an hour or two or five).
Especially in European countries, university education is heavily subsidized by the government. In the U.S., this is sooooo not the case. Even state universities have high tuitions compared with colleges outside the U.S., and Columbia is notoriously expensive.
To make matters more complicated for international students, it can be extremely difficult to receive financial aid since many of these programs (FAFSA, for example) require that you be an American citizen or have a Social Security number, which is only possible with certain types of visas.
However, like all students, you may be eligible for merit-based scholarships in the coming years, once you have declared a major or entered a program. There are also some scholarships only available to international students, but these are different from federal financial aid.
All wrapped up into a short bundle: While the quality of education and name brand of the university are certainly important to consider when looking at where to get your degree from, the cost is going to be considerably high.
There’ll be a time when you want to call your parents to tell them about that A+ paper you got back, and they will be asleep. Texting and WhatsApp are great, but you might have to deal with waiting hours before getting a response or having to schedule inconvenient times to FaceTime. Expect a lot of missed calls, but just remember: It means that they care about you (and you should call back).
It happens to the best of us. You can almost expect it to happen when you’re sick, feeling lonely, or missing out on a family gathering. Unfortunately, that’s one of the most difficult parts of growing up that we all go through at some point.
The good news is that you’re not alone in this struggle—international students are not the only ones who get homesick. Being with friends and staying busy are your best bets to avoid the feeling. But if that doesn’t help, there are always counselors on campus that you can talk to who can help you manage your homesickness. .
This mostly pertains to Thanksgiving, the last Thursday of November. Columbia has a break from that Thursday to Sunday. But if you live far away, this break can make for an awkwardly long weekend where many of your friends probably all went home to spend time with their families while you’re still stuck on campus.
Depending on the type of person you are, this might not be as bad as it sounds. The free time off from school will give you a couple of quality days to either relax or properly explore the city. For Thanksgiving Day, you can always check out the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the insane Black Friday sales, but it might also be nice to plan to go home with a local friend and experience a real Thanksgiving meal. The choice is totally up to you, and either experience can be a ton of fun.
Winter break housing
Conversely, there are many students for whom going home is simply not an option. Whether it’s because you live too far away, travel is too expensive, or anything else to that effect, you have no option but to stay on campus.
In past years, staying in the dorms over winter break wasn’t an option for some students. While all Columbia dorms are now open over break, Barnard has dealt with a winter housing crisis for the past several years, closing off all dorms except one (Plimpton Hall). Your housing sitch is mostly sorted out if you’re in CC or SEAS, but you will have to apply for winter break housing (with no guarantees) if you’re in BC.
In any other year, this would be entirely irrelevant, but with the new presidential administration, there have been instances where international students were barred from re-entering the U.S. after traveling to one of the six Muslim-majority countries cited in the ban. While many courts have struck down the ban, we still don’t know what this might mean for international students in the coming years.
On the positive side though, you’ll be coming to a university that has publicly stated that it is dedicated to making sure that each student's education will be protected.
Legal drinking age adjustment
In many countries, the minimum age for purchasing and consuming alcohol is 18. In the U.S., we like to be different in just about every way, so our drinking age is 21. While you may have been able to have a glass of wine when you went out to eat back home, you will not be able to do so in the United States.
That isn’t to say you won’t be able to drink alcohol—there is sure to be plenty at most dorm parties you attend.
ISSO and IISP
Sometimes, you’ll just need a little extra support. At Columbia, you’ll have the International Students and Scholars Office, while at Barnard, you will have the Office of International and Intercultural Student Programs. They can help you sort out your visas, figure out employment and taxes, and assist in any other technical and logistical things that might be too confusing and annoying to fill out on your own. (And even if you don’t actually need their help, much of the matriculation process will be done through these offices.)
International student orientation
A week before the New Student Orientation Program, which all Columbia and Barnard students attend, you can apply to participate in a focused program with other international students from around the world who are also adjusting to life in New York. There, you might learn about quirks in American culture that will be entirely foreign to you, and you can also meet people who are going through the same process as you, which brings us to...
Sure, you’ll meet a ton of people during International Student Orientation Program who are going through a lot of the same adjustments as you, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll only be able to make friends with other international students. You’ll find when you get here that a lot of students are not only interested in other cultures, but also willing to learn more about them. So if you’re worried about making friends, don’t—sure, it might take time to find the right group, but just like every other student, you’ll get there eventually.
So coming to Columbia as an international student is equal parts daunting and exciting, but one of the good things about being here specifically is that there are tons of resources, support structures, and people who want to help you make the adjustment. Right now your biggest concern is probably leaving your friends and family behind, but by the time you head home at the end of the school year, you’ll feel the same about your new friends at Columbia.
Jackie Hajdenberg is a Spectrum trainee and a Barnard sophomore. Though she’s not an international student, she still doesn’t understand slang. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.