There are many things to know about attending college in the U.S. that may not be obvious from school websites and glossy brochures. Here are four things to keep in mind before you enroll.
1. Learning doesn’t stop when you leave the classroom. Courses are among the most important components of college – they’re what you’re paying for, after all. However, a big part of college life is extracurricular activities. There are so many groups and activities on U.S. college campuses – from sports to political groups to film screenings to plays – that it can be a challenge to fit in everything.
It was around my junior year when I realized that the money students pay for college goes toward these activities – whether you participate or not. I realized I should make the most of my tuition expenses and discovered that these activities are great places to forge friendships and learn something while breaking up the tedium of studying.
I joined the taekwondo club and Penn State’s chapter of UNICEF. I’ve learned self-defense and advocated for starving children through these amazing organizations.
2. Office hours can help you beyond your grades. Doing well in courses is important, and if you’re planning to stay in the U.S. after graduation, the connections you make in college can be equally as significant. It’s crucial to have good relationships with at least a few of your professors.
Knowing someone who knows someone at the place where you want to work can be very beneficial. This is why it’s important to network and make connections with your professors. A lot of internships, jobs and grad schools require academic references.
When I first arrived at Penn State, I registered for classes that all had upward of 200 students. It was impossible for me to forge a real relationship with the professors or teaching assistants. I never took the time to visit them during office hours. I wish I had realized sooner how valuable it is to develop a strong personal working relationship with professors.
3. There’s a car culture. One thing you’ll probably notice in the U.S. is that public transportation is lacking. The vehicles – whether they’re buses, trams or subways – are decent enough. The problem is that the routes typically aren’t very extensive and it can take a long time to get from point A to point B. Some cities like New York and Washington, D.C. have excellent public transportation, but that’s not the case in other areas.
When finding transportation to run errands or travel to and from airports for breaks, a lot of international students tend to seek help from friends with cars. And now thanks to ridesharing apps like Lyft and Uber, it’s become a lot more affordable and accessible to hail a ride to run errands or attend events that are far away from campus even when your friends aren’t available to drive you.
The reason for the lackluster public transportation is that cars are a big part of the culture in the U.S. There are a number of schools where more than 90 percent of all students bring their cars with them to campus. As a student, you might not need a car as it’s easy to ride with friends and get a bus when needed. If you want some more freedom, then you might want to see how car-friendly your city is and then look into getting an international driving permit.
4. Curious people don’t mean harm. The stereotype of Americans is they know little about geography and other nations. While it may be true compared with how knowledgeable Europeans are about the countries on their continent, it’s a bit of an unfair comparison. The continental U.S. – not containing Alaska or Hawaii – is almost the same size as continental Europe. Many Americans don’t have as much exposure to other nationalities as someone from a smaller country might.
Depending where you’re from, you might get some obvious and seemingly insulting questions about your nationality and background.
I can’t count how many times people have asked me if I was North or South Korean. This question is a cause for some major eye-rolling for most South Koreans since we’re well aware that North Koreans typically have zero freedom to travel outside of their country due to the communist dictatorship. It’s highly unlikely you would ever meet one outside of North Korea.
When I’d tell people I went to high school in India, I also got a lot of questions about whether I rode to school on an elephant. Another common question I’d get is if Asians knew what rap music was. The questions are endless. In almost all cases, though, the askers mean no harm. They simply don’t know and are curious. It’s best to be patient and teach them what they want to know. They will appreciate it.
Attending college in the U.S. is a unique experience, but it’s not as difficult as it may seem. Just keep your expectations in check. You’ll have a great time.