Tag Archives: International student

Making Friends and Building a Community when Moving to Boston

from an international student’s perspective

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

Congratulations! You made it!

You are moving to the Boston area and are possibly even coming from the other side of the world.

Your parents are proud, friends are jealous.

As time goes by, maybe they start to be more bittersweet. They think you are too busy living the dream life to FaceTime with them as often as you used to, but they have no idea how difficult it is to wake up at 5 am to make sure you call them at a reasonable time since there is a 10 hour time difference. You sound “annoying” or “displeased” when you complain about the tremendous amount of grad school work-load because your loved ones think you do not appreciate your opportunities enough. It looks so easy when you see the third-year international students, because they all seem settled down and have already built their communities. They are all incredibly fluent in English while you still take your time to construct your sentences in the most grammatically perfect way not to be judged by native speakers, and sometimes give up on speaking up because you are exhausted of overthinking.

I get it.

I moved to Boston from a country where America is only known for its fast food, huge cars, and “drive thrus.” Maybe also for TV ads of prescribed medications (like seriously?).

Even though I traveled abroad a bunch, lived in different countries and went to an English medium university (which are supposed to teach me English), it took me a long time to feel comfortable with my new first language. I still remember the first time I landed at Boston Logan Airport and not understanding a word the security guy said to me. I was freaking out about writing a scientific article or a textbook chapter in English. The first research group meeting I attended was a nightmare – leaving aside the scientific content of the discussions, I could barely understand the language that they spoke. There is a difference between “native speakers who speak English” and “internationals who speak English.”

Language shock is not even the first challenge you face when you move in from another country. Yes, we live in a more global age and all of us are exposed to other cultures and understandings, but this does not necessarily mean that we will immediately adjust and things will go smoothly. There are so many small cultural differences and nuances, such as different gender roles, work ethics, and gestures that are not visible at first. You will learn how to write e-mails, how to flirt, or what to say someone who has lost a significant other in another language. Health insurance, contracts, financial agreements, leases; all these small things work differently, and now you have to read everything before pressing “I agree to the terms and conditions.” It is like learning how to walk again, although you thought you had expertise in it. On top of all these challenges, there is also the time you realize you came to this country all by yourself and you have to make friends and build your own community to survive.

The first big step to take is to accept the fact that you will need to put in effort. You probably will not find yourself in your perfect friend group spontaneously without making the first move. Luckily, Boston is such a diverse and international city. It is easy to blend in. It might feel strange or new to hang out with people with different backgrounds at the beginning, but Bostonians have been doing this for such a long time. Plus, you speak their language! This makes a huge difference because if you were to move in another country where the first language is not English, it would be much more difficult to befriend locals. Despite the fact that they can speak English if they want to, people will hardly give up on the comfort of speaking their first language to have you around. Are you not confident about your accent? Well, think about it as an ice breaker because you will notice that the question “where is your accent is coming from?” is a classic pickup line. So, own it!

There is a metaphor I really like: it is called “Peach People vs Coconut People.” You can look it up for more details, but briefly, it defines certain people as “peach people” and others  as “coconut people”. Peach people are easy to approach, love small talk, yet they still have the core that they will only share with their core group of friends or significant others (this does not mean that you will never be a part of it). Coconut people are the opposite, with an annoyed resting face; but once you get to know them, they are ready to tell you about their aunt’s new boyfriend or why they chose a particular medicine. Just remember that people will be different, and keep this in mind to understand different reactions when approaching others and getting to know them.

Obviously, it is easier to connect with other expats. You will receive plenty of e-mails from Tufts International Center about upcoming events – attend them. If you want to bond with people from your country, find their communities and show up at their gatherings. But please remember that balance is the key. Keep your conversations and friend groups diverse. Of course you will feel homesick and will need your own people, but try not to call home every time you find yourself in this situation. Actually, you know what? You will soon realize that you see home in a different light. It will take time, but once you get there home will not be “where your heart is,” but instead might be where you can connect to the VPN.

Last but not least, know what you like to do and keep doing more of it. Pursue your hobbies and find others who share the similar interests. If you like scuba diving, become a member of New England Divers. If you enjoy photography, go take a course about it and meet others who enjoy it too. Do you need people to hike together? Just invite them and get to know each other during the hike while there is no distraction except the nature.

Do not forget that flux has no season in a diverse and international city like Boston. People come and go all the time. They all feel like a fish out of water at the beginning. Everybody needs friends and there is not a “more normal” thing than the desire of being a part of a community. Just be yourself, show up and bring your beautiful unique accent and slightly broken English with you wherever you go! 

Ready-to-Use Advanced English Learning Tips

Written by Amanda Wang, Innovation and Management M.S.I.M. student

I still remember my first day as a Graduate student at Tufts: doing self-introductions with my 33 classmates in M.S. Innovation and Management, which to me was something way outside of my comfort zone. Despite almost 20 years training in English and a decent TOEFL score, I could not even do a self-intro with confidence and fluency.

One year later after the orientation, I no longer have to organize sentences in my mind several times before I start speaking. Looking back, I wish I could have known some of the ways to improve my oral English before I came to the States. This is how I got the idea for this blog: to help my peers consider multiple ways to improve their English speaking. I picked four of the most important rules that I found essential. You do not have to follow what I suggest here, as they can be very personal experiences that may not apply to everyone. However, hopefully you can still find something that ‘clicks’ for you, and figure out your own magical way!

Rule #1. Mistakes ≠ Failures

Yeah, I still make mistakes sometimes, but after all, I am not a native speaker, so it is totally fine. Being afraid of making mistakes is due to our high self-consciousness: ‘I MUST sound like a dumb person.’ Let’s take a step back from this scenario – have you ever talked to a non-native speaker of your mother tongue? Did you think in the same way about them as you imagined people would think about you before talking in English? No, because we tend to overthink that we are ‘being judged.’ Therefore, keep in mind that making mistakes is very natural. Plus, do not feel embarrassed if someone kindly points out your mistakes – that actually helps you improve way faster!

Rule #2. Talk, talk, talk

This sounds like a nonsense: how can I keep talking when I am not THAT good at talking? Or after all, I am an introvert. I don’t even enjoy talking to people endlessly using my native language. Why do I have to do that?

The best way to learn a language is to live in an environment where you have to use that language to live. Now you are a student in a university in the United States, which means you have the perfect opportunity to practice. Try to speak up in the class, talk to your professors and peers, or greet the barista you meet every morning. It is not difficult at all if you follow Rule #1. Being an introvert, I finally realized that ‘introvert’ means that you spend energy when you gather with a group of people, like at a party, but you can still want to do small talks. Lower your ego, don’t be too self-conscious, and start the chat. The merit of talking is that you also gain input from other people, so your brain will pick up some colloquial expressions and turn them into your output in no time. Talk is a great and easy way to learn new terms, as you do not have to memorize a vocab list.

Rule #3. Build a real network

Sometimes, becoming an international student also means you left most of your old friends at home. Do not let loneliness in a new place overwhelm you. Instead, build a real network here so that you really feel like part of the community. How is this related to language skills? First, you have more chance to talk, as said in Rule #2. Second, you can talk about the things that you have a real interest in, make new good friends, and enrich your life experiences.

At the same time, as you naturally catch up with people in your network, you will feel that your feet are more to the ground, and more confident because you are more an insider of life here. I tried to catch up with my professors, mentors, and friends this summer, and I can feel that I am improving again. More specific to English skills, I also get to know people’s interests and passions, and opportunities keep popping up during conversations. If you’re not sure how to start the networking, check graduate school calendar and go to events to add people to your network!

Rule #4. Reading and writing as a daily routine

You are being educated, and you want to speak intelligently. Sometimes, small talk seems to be fine, but what if you have a presentation or interview coming up? My suggestion is to benefit from reading and writing, and make it a habit. In the Tisch Library Tower Café, you can find all kinds of magazines and newspapers to keep yourself updated. Or simply download some news apps (FYI: all Tufts students have access to the New York Times through the Tisch Library). Do you have some novels written by American authors that you liked when you were a child? Find the English version and re-read it in English, you will remember better as you have the scenes in memory. The ability to generate pictures while using a language helps internalize the language and apply it quickly when you speak.

Like listening and speaking, reading and writing are great companions. I have honed my English skills by being a blogger at Tufts Graduate Blog. Writing as a practice gives me the time to organize my thoughts in a logical way, and thinking in English while writing is a ‘double language drill’ for both speaking and writing. I am always talking to myself in English while writing, and so both things become natural gradually.

To sum up, make the most out of your graduate journey at Tufts, and always be confident as you are already a bilingual person (yay!). As you practice, you will see a door to a broader world opening in front you.

Looking back: what Tufts gave me

Written by Amanda Franklin, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

I’m coming up to the end of my PhD which means I’ve spent almost five years at Tufts University. I’m becoming nostalgic as the time to leave comes closer, and I’ve been thinking more about all the amazing experiences I’ve had in the USA. I thought I’d share with you some of the good memories Tufts has given me (and hopefully it’s not too sappy!).

Me on fieldwork in Belize. I conducted my fieldwork at the Smithsonian research station on Carrie Bow Caye.

I moved to Boston in 2012 with my husband. When we moved, we knew no one in Boston and I’d never been to the USA before. Tufts has many facilities to help international students with the move. For example, the International Center can help with the essentials like paperwork and visas, and they also host events to help you get settled and meet other international grad students. One event that stands out is the international student orientation event. At that event I met some wonderful people that I could chat with about American culture. We became great friends and still regularly chat even though we now live in different states.

The Graduate Student Council also organizes many outings and activities which makes it easy to meet other grad students. At these events, I had the chance to get to know other students in the Biology Department, and also to meet grad students in other departments. I now consider these friends my “American Family”, and wouldn’t be able to live here without them. A good graduate student council is so helpful for meeting people in an unfamiliar land!

Tufts also provided great support for my research. As my research plan developed, it became clear that I was going to need a fair amount of research funds (I had decided that I wanted to conduct fieldwork in Belize). The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has a grad student grant program. This scheme was useful to me on several levels: I received feedback on my proposals, I was awarded research funds, and I had the opportunity to assess and provide feedback on other students’ proposals. In fact, this inside view of how grants are assessed was the most helpful part to improve my grant writing skills. I definitely recommend it if you get the chance!

One project I conducted was a collaboration with the Tytell lab. They lent their expertise in biomechanics so that we could measure force of mantis shrimp punches.

Throughout my time, I secured enough funds to go to Belize six times. Part of the reason I could schedule so many trips was that the Bio Department is very supportive. If necessary, we can TA two classes in one semester so that we can go on fieldwork in the next semester. We also are financially supported over summer, which is essential as most ecology grad students need to do fieldwork over summer. My field trips not only gave me that chance to dive the Belizean barrier reef, but I could conduct research in the natural environment of my study species (mantis shrimp), and meet marine biologists from across the US. It was an amazing opportunity I’ll never forget.

Another great thing about Tufts is the faculty. Everyone wants the grad students to succeed and are willing to help you out if you ask. Even better, they are all so enthusiastic about research and will gladly collaborate on research projects. I have collaborated with other labs in the Bio Department and also with labs outside of the Bio Department. This collaborative atmosphere has allowed me to learn about other research fields and develop different skills.

Sunset over Tufts campus after a winter storm.

When you need a break from academics, the Tufts campus is so beautiful to walk around. I will definitely miss seeing the four seasons pass by. I spent many days in summer sitting outside and reading papers. I loved to do this on the library roof which has a nice garden and a view out over Boston. Fall was gorgeous on campus with all the leaves changing color. I have a favorite tree that looks like it’s on fire if you catch it at the right time (pro-tip: it’s near the corner of Winthrop and Capen St). I also enjoy seeing Tufts campus with a fresh layer of snow, even though I hate the cold and slipping around on ice. And then my favorite season, Spring, comes along. Trees covered in colorful flowers in stark contrast to the lack of color during winter. It’s stunning.

I have so many fond memories of Tufts and my time here as passed way too quickly. It certainly does not feel like almost five years have passed. I’ve tried to see and do as much as I can while I’ve been here, but I still feel like there’s more to do (e.g. I never went whale watching! Don’t worry though, just booked it in for a treat after my defense). So, if you do choose Tufts, seize every opportunity (and there will be many)! Your time here will pass by before you know it.