Coming to America: How to Make the Most of the International Graduate Student Experience

Each fall, first-year graduate students descend on universities and colleges across the United States and abroad. While these students have different interests and career aspirations, they’re all in the same proverbial boat; each is experiencing the rigors of graduate school for the first time.

But international graduate students face an extra challenge since many haven’t lived in the United States before and these students often struggle to understand and flourish in a different culture.

We’d like to help; and in this post, students and alumni from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the graduate programs offered by the School of Engineering share what they did (and what they wish they had done) to make the most out of the international graduate student experience.

Put Yourself Out There

Want to meet new and interesting people? Dust off your dance shoes and get in touch with your inner Ren or Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman. Photo by

There are times—whether it’s in music (rappers Jay Z and Kanye West); business (Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page); or filmmaking (the Coen brothers)—when having two people is better than one. This is true for international graduate students as well; they can benefit tremendously from getting to know people intimately familiar with American culture. The key to making these social connections range from hitting the dance floor to selecting the right roommate.

“It’s really important to take the initiative socially,” said Fridrik Larusson, an electrical engineering graduate student who came to Tufts from Iceland. “It is incredibly easy to go full force into your research when you don’t have the social networks to pull you away from it. I would suggest finding a hobby that requires a partner. Take up climbing, dancing, sailing, or anything that interests you. If it’s an activity you haven’t done before, take a course at a gym or at your local organization. Also, go to grad school pub nights and other social events organized by graduate students.”

But before taking the social plunge, Larusson suggests doing some school-based research ahead of time.

“I would advise graduate students to spend some time reading up on the different organizations at their school, concentrating specifically on graduate student councils or other groups which focus on graduate students,” he said.

Tufts GSAS biology alumnus Ranjith Anand, G10, who hails from India and is a postdoctoral fellow in the Haber Laboratory at Brandeis University, adds,

“It’s very useful for students to get in touch with the appropriate graduate student organizations for help and advice. At Tufts, for example, students can become involved with the Indian Society at Tufts.”

For Yaguang Si, who earned a Ph.D. in biology from GSAS in 2007 and is originally from China, having the right roommate can make a big difference.

“I highly recommend having a roommate from another country so you have to practice speaking English,” said Si, a scientist at Agios Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I was lucky to stay in a dorm with other international graduate students. I quickly made new friends and we helped each other during the transition from our home countries to the United States. Since we were all from different countries, we had to speak English all the time so my oral English improved quickly.”

You Will be Shocked

International graduate students may be shocked by the lowbrow interests of American culture.

International graduate students can expect some level of culture shock when they come to the United States. The food is different. The people are different. And the interests are really different and varied; from the lowbrow (the Kardashians and the films of Adam Sandler) to the highbrow (the Renoir exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the annual TEDxBoston event). There are steps students can take to alleviate this culture shock, though. One suggestion is spending time in the U.S. before the first-year begins.

“It was a major challenge for me to become comfortable in my new setting before my busy academic schedule started,” said Ranjith Anand. “It was challenging to find housing which I liked; it took three semesters and three moves before I found a good place with good roommates. Also, seemingly simple processes such as starting a bank account, getting a cell phone, and acquiring a driver’s license require quite a bit of time. I realize now that the first year of graduate school is extremely busy and difficult, and the sooner you can settle the personal matters of your life the sooner you can hit the academic ground running. Also, make sure to get an unlocked GSM phone before you leave so you can get in touch with family and friends immediately after you arrive in the United States. If I were to go back in time, I would give myself a full extra month to get comfortable before the first semester began.”

Okuary Osechas, an electrical engineering graduate student from Venezuela, found it useful to speak with some undergraduates who were in one of his classes.

“I had no idea what it was like to take a class at an American university,” said Osechas. “There is pressure to perform well, as you must receive a grade of B- or better for each course you take. It helped to talk with the undergraduates about classes, instructor expectations, and other matters related to courses here at Tufts.”

Help is Closer Than You Think

While it’s tough to understand what it’s like to be an international graduate student if you haven’t been one yourself, there are administrators at your university or college whose job it is to help you find your way, especially during the first year.  It’s important to reach out to these people both before and during your graduate student experience.

“A great resource for me was Tufts’ International Center,” said Yaguang Si. “They organized many activities for international graduate students and it was a good way to learn about American culture and life. Also, for Mandarin-speaking students Tufts offers a program called ‘One-With-One.’ Through the program, students are matched with an English-speaking student who wants to learn Chinese. It’s a great opportunity for both people to practice different languages.”

Adds Tai Frater, a GSAS occupational therapy graduate student from England,

“I was able to settle my housing before I came to Tufts, and since I’m from an English-speaking country I didn’t have any issues with the language, although it took me a month to work out what parenthesis are! Although I had these ‘advantages’ coming in, I still needed to go through some administrative processes and the International Center helped me through them.”

Know Who (or What) the Green Monster is

The Green Monster and the trials and tribulations of the local nine make for great discussion topics. Photo by Aidan C. Siegel.

In a place like Boston, sports are king. Most residents know why Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett was in hot water a few months ago (an ill-advised golf outing) or what’s the current state of New England Patriot Quarterback Tom Brady’s hair (fortunately, the “Bieber” is gone; Gisele’s hubby is now sporting a short cut). But Boston is also home to world-famous museums, a thriving theater community, and famous historical landmarks.

The lesson for international graduate students in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other locales?

It helps to know the local sports and culture scene.

“The friends I made when I first came to Tufts taught me how to watch football and baseball, which are must-know sports for any Bostonian and make for great conversation topics,” said Yaguang Si. “My general advice is to stay confident and open-minded. If you do, you can enjoy the new culture around you sooner.”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

Do you have any tips for international graduate students? Are you an international graduate student with some questions? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below!

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12 Responses to Coming to America: How to Make the Most of the International Graduate Student Experience

  1. Jim Stephens says:

    Another great article! I’ve always thought that it must be so hard for international students. Everything about the USA is complicated, including all the dialects. I can’t imagine how tough it must be. It’s even hard for me when I travel to the New England and Mid-Atlantic states (which I do several times per year ) from the mid-west. Everyone talks so fast, like they just chugged 3 pots of coffee. No offense, but Boston-speak is even tougher. Likewise, I suspect that my slower cadence is trying for the locals. Adjustment does mercifully come in a few days.

  2. Here in Tisch Library, we notice that the students who were not previously exposed to the American academic system find certain aspects of the library to be mysterious! Many American libraries are open stack, permitting students to wander around the collections on their own rather than having to request items. The print collections usually are organized by the Library of Congress Classification system, which is based on disciplines, whereas in some countries, the organization is based on other criteria, such as acquisition date or book dimensions. And as much as we librarians may try to be global in our outlook and approach, we may inadvertently use localized terms and acronyms during our instruction sessions or in our research guides.
    Any international student who finds the library collections or services at all confusing is encouraged to ask the staff at the Circulation or Reference Desks for assistance or to make arrangements with their subject librarians for a tour and overview of what we have to offer. The library’s collection also has numerous references to help interpret words and phrases that are not taught in the typical English language class!

  3. Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for sharing these excellent tips that work for Tufts students – and other international graduate students around the country. As a recent Chronicle of Education story made clear, far too many international students feel “lost” and “isolated” from Americans during their academic studies. The best practices identified here can – and I would suggest – should be widely adopted.

  4. Leslie Limon says:

    A critical (but often overlooked) factor in international student success — whether for undergraduates or graduate students — is providing adequate cross-cultural training. And not just for the students, but for faculty and staff.

    The case could be made to involve EVERYONE — including U.S. students — in cross-cultural training on campus. Fordham University’s Master’s in Global Management program does just that for both international and domestic graduate business students. The program includes the vital “reflective” element cited in last week’s Academic Impressions post on what’s missing in campus internationalization: The director hopes the program will set a standard for training all graduate business students.

    As someone involved in intercultural communications training for years, I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of cultural orientation that goes beyond the typical 90-minute, hit-the-high points, “welcome to the U.S.” orientation session. Debriefing of culture clash scenarios (whether real or simulated for training purposes), in order to enable reflection, is vital.

    Simply placing people of different cultures in proximity to each other, or sending them to Fenway Park together to watch a ball game, does not automatically produce cultural understanding. This is because culture shock is an emotional — even visceral — response. Discussion and reflection (at the hands of a competent, non-judgmental facilitator) is needed in order to get beyond the “affect” and into the “intellect.”

  5. video Haber says:

    It’s wonderful that you are getting thoughts from this article as well as from our dialogue made here.

  6. Pingback: The Lack Of Social Life In Graduate School And What To Do About It | The Grad Student Experience

  7. Lance Johnson says:

    An interesting new book/e-book that helps those coming to the US is “What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to understand crazy American culture, people, government, business, language and more.” It paints a revealing picture of America for those foreigners who will benefit from a better understanding. Endorsed worldwide by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it also identifies foreigners who became successful in the US and how they contributed to our society. It has a chapter that explains how to be accepted to an American university and cope with our new culture. Half of foreign students stay here after graduation. It even has four chapters that explain how US businesses operate, a must for those who will work for an American firm or with a foreign firm in the US environment. Two chapters identify the common grammar and speech errors made by them and how they can easily overcome them. However, most struggle in their efforts and need guidance from concerned Americans and books like this to extend a cultural helping hand so we all have a win-win situation.

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  12. Very much hoping to come over to the US either to work or do further studies of some kind after my PhD, so this made for an interesting read. I’ve also had a read through your articles on careers after your PhD; I don’t suppose you have any plans of writing a supplement for non-US nationals with the particular difficulties we might find? Not least thinking of Visa requirements and such! Would be great to hear the experiences of someone who has been through it.


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