How I Survived My First Year of College As An International Student

Kim Yeoh Sep 08, 2022

Studying abroad is can arguably one of the most exciting and challenging life experiences you can check off your bucket list. 


As a high school graduate from Malaysia with a passion for traveling, I knew that moving across the world and immersing myself in cultures that are different from mine would not only be an eye-opening journey but a deeply liberating one.


The good news is: there is no lack of study abroad programs and I enrolled in one that allowed me to transfer to a college in the United States in my senior year. 


I still remember the feeling of walking into the hallway, passing through students more senior than me, thinking, “4 years from today, I will be doing the exact same thing but in a foreign country, surrounded by people that don’t look or sound like me.”


My manifestation came true when I moved to Iowa for college. However, instead of pure enthusiasm, I was lathered with anxiety. Turns out, it was a lot scarier to stand out in a crowd simply because of the way you look. So, here are a few of the moments that I always refer to when I think about how I survived my first year of college as an international student:


1. Money matters and you can’t think in conversion rate

It’s natural and tempting to convert the currency in comparison to your home country currency when you first move to a new country. However, it becomes unrealistic and extremely stressful when you start converting every penny at Walmart, deciding if you should purchase the backpack to hold all your essentials.


Instead, create a budget sheet and list all your income such as financial aid, scholarships, work-study, loans, and stipends from your family. If you know how much you have, you know how much you can spend.


2. Invest in the right clothing and accessories

Malaysia is a tropical country and it’s either rainy or sunny. I had never experienced snowfall or extreme winter up until I landed in Iowa. I only brought one lightweight winter coat with me and I walked through icy campus roads without snow boots for the entire season. 


If you’re moving anywhere with extreme weather, invest in the clothing that will keep you comfortable (and safe!) throughout different seasons; it’s one of those essentials you should really include in your budget sheet.


You would also want to learn the art of layering. Pack flannel shirts or light jackets in waterproof backpacks because the weather can be unpredictable.


3. Be okay with not knowing everything

Most people think of America as a monolith simply based on the global popular culture it has contributed to. However, the United States is a big and diverse country made of people with many different cultural backgrounds. 


I remember feeling intimidated when I struggled to understand the pop culture references or sayings or idioms that are used commonly in the country. It made me feel like an ignorant outsider who was unable to fit in. 


Until one day, I asked my friend, who is an American, if he considered me “too foreign.” And he replied, “No. I see you like anyone else. We’re all kind of different.” From then on, when I hear or see something that I can’t fully comprehend, I would ask the person who brought it up and they are usually elated to explain what they meant!


4. It’s time to master your favorite home-cooked recipes

Unless you move to a big city with diverse culinary offerings within reach, you’re most likely going to start dreaming about the dishes your mom makes or the street food that was once so accessible to you.


Luckily, we’re blessed with delivery services and ethnic grocery stores in small towns that could fix nostalgia by giving you a taste of home. Ask your mom for her recipes and start experimenting with what ingredients you’re able to get. Trust me, the feeling when you open up your lunch bag and all you smell were the memories of home is unparalleled to any Michelin-starred chef could provide.


5. Volunteer yourself and get involved

The beauty about colleges in the United States, big or small, is that they always encourage their students to step outside of the classrooms and participate in community events and organizations; it is largely what the campus culture is made of.


As a foreign student, it can be overwhelming to adapt academically and you may question why you should get involved in activities outside of your syllabus. Well, it’s good for your resume! 


I was very active in my college after a few months of acclimating to the new environment. I knew it was the fastest way to make new friends and feel less lonely. Having a list of meaningful involvement in organizations and events on campus also played a huge part in landing an internship in the city of Chicago later that summer.


6. Know when and where to ask for help

Studying abroad is not all rainbows and butterflies. A few months into my first year in the United States, I started developing unhealthy habits such as staying up all night to watch TV with my friends, partying on the weekend and feeling a hangover on Monday, etc. Worst of all, the short days and cold nights during winter contributed even more to my depression.


Fortunately, most campuses offer mental health resources and support. If you’re from a culture that wellness and therapy weren’t emphasized, it could feel daunting to even consider yourself depressed. But think about it this way: you’ve made it this far, geographically and mentally, you deserve to keep living the life you want.


I hope you’re now more excited about studying abroad than you are afraid! After all, getting out of your comfort zone is the only way for new growth and opportunities to happen.


Were you an international student? Share your experience and survival tips with us on social media using #LifeUnzipped.