I moved to DC from the UK last year to begin studying for my PhD at the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) at the George Washington University (GWU). The decision to study abroad in another country, particularly for graduate school, can be a difficult decision to make. However, whilst it is not always easy there are good things along the way too. Every international student’s experience will be different, so here are a few of my experiences and the top five things I wish I’d initially known as an international student.
Going to graduate school allows you to pursue a topic that is of interest to you and you’ll meet a wide range of people who share your passion for your chosen subject. This is a great opportunity to consider different approaches to the research questions that interest you, and studying somewhere new will expose you to a whole range of new ideas that may be beneficial for what you want to learn. Also, due to the wide ranging reach of many universities you’ll often find that you’re not the only international student. Studying at GWU has given me the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world.
The people that I have encountered during my studies abroad have been very friendly. One of the worries I had when moving to the USA was forming new friendships, however, I have been lucky and found a group of supportive friends. They have been great at showing me how things work, especially as there’s more paperwork than you’d initially expect! The CASHP environment encourages collaborations between fields and I have had the opportunity, both inside and outside of class, to learn things from my friends who conduct research across a wide variety of fields. Outside of my studies, they have also introduced me to new cuisines, given me many suggestions of things I should do during my time in the USA, and are there if I just want to talk.
Studying abroad means living in a place that you are not familiar with, so go out there and explore! As an international student you’ll find that you learn things not only about your research area but about the place you’re living. DC is a unique place to live, and one of my favourite things to do whilst exploring the city is to observe the wide variety of architecture. Whilst you will spend a lot of time studying as a graduate student, it’s always good to get out and investigate the local area. It can be a great way to clear your head too if you’re stuck on a research related question. DC has a whole range of museums, theatre shows, and concerts, as well as the beautiful parks and streets with interesting architecture, so there’s always something going on.
There are many cultural similarities between the UK and the USA, however, there are a lot of differences too. I never thought about having an accent until I came to the USA, and whilst the language is very similar, there are definitely differences in the vocabulary and pronunciation, which have led to some amusing and slightly confusing situations! For example, I recently discovered in my anatomy class that I pronounce duodenum as ‘dew-o-dean-um’, whereas in the USA it’s pronounced ‘dew-ard-num’. This resulted in a few cases of both pronunciations merging together as we review things in class. Some of the differences are only small, such as vegetables having different names, or the traffic using the opposite side of the road, or the dates being back to front (American translation: backwards). The weather is just as variable as the architecture, and I’m gradually learning how to convert between Celsius and Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius is a very warm day, but 30 degrees Fahrenheit is a bit on the cold side). Also, biscuits are an entirely different thing – in the UK you have them with a cup of tea, in the USA you have them with gravy. The realisation of all the small differences can initially feel a little overwhelming, but you will get used to them over time and they can be interesting things to share with everyone back home!
However, it’s not always sunshine and good things. You will get homesick, and that is ok. Homesickness can mean that you feel isolated from time to time. However, thanks to modern technology there’s a whole range of video and messaging applications that mean that you can talk to everyone back home, although this may mean that you have to learn to live in two time zones. The UK is five hours ahead of DC, which means that if I want to talk to people back home I have to work my schedule around their work/school schedules too. This can be tricky when you have class all day! However, working out regular times when you can talk face to face is useful, and there’s always messaging.
With this in mind, here are some of the key things that I’ve picked up on, or wished I had known earlier, as an international student during my time studying in the USA.
Communication is key. Whilst you will be busy with classes, making time to talk to those you care about back home can help you feel connected to them and less isolated. Remember that it can be as much of a struggle sometimes for them as it is for you. Video calls are great for this, but if you find your class schedule doesn’t always give you time to talk face to face, sending a message can still let them know that you are thinking of them.
If you’re finding it tough, talk to someone. This could be a friend you’ve made over here, someone from back home, one of your professors, or a university counseling service (they often have groups specifically for international students). These people are there to support you, and in most cases you likely won’t be the first international student that’s come to talk to them.
Be a tourist. One of the highlights of living in DC is the access to the wide range Smithsonian museums. The sheer number of museums and exhibits here means that I’m still working my way through them! Whilst many people will only have a week or so to explore when visiting a place on holiday (American translation: vacation), living and studying in a new city gives you a longer opportunity to see everything – so you can balance exploring with your studies. So take a break occasionally and make the most of exploring a new and unfamiliar place. Also, there’s a lot of beautiful National Parks in the USA, so don’t forget to branch out and explore further afield too!
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re new here, no-one is going to expect you to know how everything works right from the start. Students in the years above can be a great resource for this, particularly when it comes to navigating an unfamiliar academic system. Also, don’t be afraid to ask more general questions. I’ve learned a lot about American history since being here, and that there is a surprising amount of wildlife roaming around the USA that you don’t see back home (one of the highlights here was seeing a black bear in a National Park with my fiancé on one of his visits).
Enjoy yourself! You have been given the opportunity to study something you’re interested in at a leading institution. Take the opportunity to explore your particular area of interest as well as learning about a wide range of disciplines (at CASHP we take a range of classes including courses in hominid paleobiology, paleolithic archaeology, and genetics, so there’s always something new that you haven’t studied in depth before). Also, don’t forget point 3. A work-life balance is essential for successfully being able to navigate the challenges of graduate school.
Overall, being an international student is a challenging but rewarding experience, and it is something that is best shared with friends on both sides of the pond (note: ‘pond’ = Atlantic ocean).