Step 1: Researching Colleges – Though this is something all students have to do, it is even more difficult if you live in another country. This struggle comes in different degrees. The first degree is faced when you go to an international high school. In this case, there is some connection between the counselors and the colleges, which allows for much easier research. The struggle of the second degree is faced when you go to a local, public school in your country. In this case there are usually limited, if any, connections to colleges in ‘Murica. This means that you are left alone to survive through the entire research process. Living far away from the ‘Murican colleges also means that in most cases it is extremely expensive to visit the college. This way you cannot base your selection on personal experience, but rather on the experiences of others. Start preparing early and make use of the college search engines.
Step 2: TOEFLS and SAT –In order to become an international student at a ‘Murican College, one must take a series of standardized tests. Not only does this include the SATs, which all applicants have to take, but it also the TOEFLS, which test your English skills. There are no, I repeat, NO exceptions, even if you have been speaking fluent English since you were two years old. Be prepared to learn many words that you will never see or use again.
Step 3: Acceptance dance and partying (and popping champagne) – Once you have finally applied, you can get accepted. Acceptance to a foreign school (and especially to your first choice) is usually followed by a lot of bouncing, jumping, giddiness and yes, even dancing and partying. Some people go for the champagne (which is legal in most countries) and some people prefer to calmly share the news with their friends and family and sometimes (most of the time) post their success of facebook. Decide what fits you best and go wild!
Step 4: “Picture Yourself” and other perks – Refer to point 2. Not being able to go to any of the events before arriving on campus is a little disappointing You cannot simply attend a “picture yourself” weekend. Also, you don’t get anything in physical form. Since shipping is pricy, many foreign students do not get to enjoy things like the Emerson Beanie or the Boston Strong t-shirts. Some of the letters/forms (yes even the acceptance letters) aren’t physically sent, because it is cheaper to do it digitally. Though we do receive some of these after arriving on campus, it would be nice to have something from your college before starting the school year. The sooner you come to terms with this truth the better.
Step 5: Receiving I-20 – The I-20 form is the first physical thing we, as the international students, get. It is what we need to get our student visas to be able to actually go to the college. Along with this we receive the packet for internationals, where they outline the customs and possible differences between the foreign culture and the US culture. Though some of them seem kind of ridiculous, like “when someone asks you, ‘how are you’, they do not expect an actual answer or your life story”, some of the reading is actually helpful.
Tip: Guard your I-20 with your life! That piece of paper is very important!
Step 6: Visa forms and procedures – Once you have received your (precious) I-20, you have to fill out all the necessary forms to apply for your F-1 visa, starting with the long, long, long questionnaire that every applicant has to fill out. There you have to write all the dates of entries and exits into the USA and all the different types of visas you have held in the past. You will also be required to answer if you plan to fund a terrorist organization, or bring drugs into the US. Yes, we don’t understand the point of these questions either.
Step 7: Figuring out how to actually get to the college – Trying to figure out the simplest, cheapest and fastest way to actually physically get to your college can be quite challenging as well. You have many different options. Do you fly with Air France, even though they lost your luggage last time? Or is Swiss Air better, even though it doesn’t quite match your ideal schedule? If you fly with Lufthansa you will have a layover in an airport you have never been to! These, as well as countless other questions cloud your mind as you browse through the available flights. Make sure to book your tickets as soon as possible!
Step 8: Packing and trying to fit the limit – Airlines have a limit to how much luggage you can have and how much each can weigh. For the economy class it is usually one luggage per person and each luggage 23kg (50lb). This is an issue. How do you pack everything you will need for the next year? How do you pack your entire life into ONE or two suitcases?? Simply impossible… You have to get creative; fill every nook and cranny in the suitcase, while also managing to stay within the weight limit. I guess it’s bye-bye to your diary from elementary school.
Step 9: The actual trip to the college – Now that you managed to pack up everything, you have to get it across the seas and mountains. You arrive at the airport with one large suitcase, one carry-on and a backpack, hoping that somehow you will get through the TSA check points without anyone noticing you have too many and too heavy carry-ons. At the security points you have to take out the laptop, the liquids, the iPads, potentially jewelry, take off your shoes and jacket and then manage to quickly put everything back on (because you are kind of holding up the line) and get to the gate on time. How will you ever manage an hour-long layover in Charles de Gaul airport in Paris? No one really knows!
Step 10: Meeting all the other internationals – Since you didn’t get to meet anyone from your college over the summer now is your chance to share stories with people like you and bond over your lack of understanding of the strange habits of this foreign land. Though at the beginning it may be a little awkward, soon enough you make friends for a lifetime. Though throughout the first couple of days most sentences you say begin with “in MY culture…”, soon enough you will find other topics to talk about.
Step 11: Visa meetings and restrictions– Youhave had some fun, now you have to focus on some serious things, like the visas. It’s time to get your I-94, which proves that you entered the country with the right type of visa, and turn it in to the office of international affairs. You then listen to all the lectures on what you can and cannot do, which takes me to my next point: Restrictions! Not only do you have to fill out lots and lots of paperwork, but you also can’t have an internship unless you go through EVEN MORE paperwork and even when you do, you are limited to 12 months during your studies, which is next to nothing, especially compared to those who can get unlimited amount. This internship has to be related to your major in one way or another. Also, you can’t work off campus, why? Just cause….no reason given. I guess they found out that you came to the US specifically to steal the jobs of its people! Oh, and if you do get a job on campus, guess what? MORE PAPERWORK! Our advice: take a deep breath and move on to step 12.
Step 12: Breakdown because of restrictions – Does this really need an explanation? Whether you like it or not, the stress of your visa status will catch up with you. To feel better, rant to and cry with other internationals that understand you. DO NOT turn to ‘Muricans. They will never get it.
Step 13: Meeting the domestic students (the ‘Muricans, as they often call themselves) – For many of us this means meeting our roommate and potentially the rest of our suite. This can be awkward. You are already accustomed to the flow of the college, whereas the domestic freshmen just came and have a lot to get used to. You have to establish old friendships, while also starting new ones. This balance can be hard to accomplish, but sooner or later you will get the hang of it.
Step 14: Coping with not understanding all the cultural references – You don’t want to look uncultured, but you can’t follow along, Lizzie McGuire simply didn’t make it to your home when you were a child. So how are you supposed to join in the conversation when it turns to these cultural references? This can sometimes make things difficult and might even make you homesick. You start missing your own childhood movies and TV shows and you realize that there isn’t anyone you can share these references with. Look for a resident of a country close to your own with which you might share these memories.
Step 15: Learning how not to get offended by stupid questions –Is that next to Yugoslavia? Do you take camels to school? Some people might ask stupid questions which at first will annoy you and even offend you. You might think to yourself “how come they don’t know about my country? How come they don’t even know where it is?” However, later in the semester you will learn to ignore these questions and even jokes like “Czech it out!”. You still won’t think they are funny, but you have decided it’s not worth it getting mad over such small things.
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE FOLLOWED A LONG AND HARD WAY BUT YOU ARE NOW OFFICIALLY AN INTERNATIONAL STUDENT AT AN ‘MURICAN
Co-written by Cornelia Tzana and Pavlina Vecerova
Drawings by Cornelia Tzana