The opportunity to travel, live independently, meet new friends, experience new customs, and learn a new language, all these while obtaining a world-class education. It’s an exciting chapter of your life. Plus, the international exposure looks good on the résumé!
But not everything about studying abroad is nice and rosy. International students deal with situations they wouldn’t face in their home country. Explore the nine most common challenges international students endure when studying abroad and what you can do to overcome them.
1. Culture Shock
Navigating an unfamiliar environment and a different culture can be confronting and confusing at the same time. Many international students struggle to assimilate into the culture of their host country and feel like outsiders. The campus may also present a different culture that requires the student some time to adjust to, such as co-ed dorms, a less formal relationship with professors and authority figures, and discussion formats to debate various viewpoints in the classroom.
Solution: Research your host country thoroughly before arriving to know what to expect. Observe the locals, mingle with them, and immerse yourself in their culture. Don’t hesitate to ask them to teach you about their social norms. Often, you’d find that they are more than happy to introduce their culture. And in return, they may want to learn more about yours! Learning a new culture takes time. So be patient, stay curious, and keep an open mind.
2. Language Barrier
Singapore has one of the highest English proficiency levels in the world. But no matter how well-acquainted we are with the English language, when studying overseas, we would still have to overcome the strong accents, local slang, and the fast pace at which our peers and professors speak. This may hamper a student’s learning progress, cause alienation, or even lower their self-esteem.
Solution: There is no need to be intimidated or embarrassed when dealing with a language barrier. See it as a learning opportunity. The best way to improve your language skills is through immersion. As with learning a new culture, don’t just stick with people from the same background. Socialise and interact with local students consistently. If applicable, take classes in the language of your host country to communicate with your peers better. Most universities offer such language support programmes for international students. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will become. Plus, mastery of a second language would be a bonus asset to take home!
On the other hand, there are scenarios where you have to get used to others not speaking your native language perfectly. And this itself presents another learning opportunity for you to practice clear, concise communication and be tolerant towards others who are also trying to overcome the language barrier.
As much as systems around the world advocate diversity and inclusion, the reality is that discrimination still exists. International students are sometimes subject to racial and ethnic prejudice, stereotyping, and false assumptions about their native cultures.
But in fact, the campus is the best place to advocate diversity and educate one another on cultural differences, cultivating appreciation and respect for the various customs, traditions, and beliefs through sharing personal narratives, showing support, and making everyone feel accepted. So let us all do our part!
When everything around you is unfamiliar, it is natural to feel homesick and miss the people and things that comfort you. Compounded by academic, social, cultural, and financial pressures, as well as the emotional conflict that one should feel privileged to have the opportunity to study abroad, this may lead to stress, anxiety, or even depression.
Solution: Keep yourself busy by making friends, talking with people, doing volunteer work, and getting out to explore your new home and campus; there’s so much to do! With a shift in mindset and a positive attitude, you will soon move past any feelings of homesickness.
Thankfully with technology, we can connect with the people back home anytime. Although there are time zone differences, it is important to keep in regular contact with your family and friends in your home country—not just to let them know how you are coping but also to keep your support system close and know that they always have your back.
5. Forming Relationships
International students often arrive on campus alone. They don’t have people they know in the local area who can help them pave the way, and they are likely to have fewer common activities with their local peers. The holidays they celebrate are not always acknowledged in the host country, and they may have no attachments to the holidays observed there. Being so far from everything they are familiar with, international students naturally gravitate to those from their own cultures and avoid social situations, further isolating them from fully integrating into their new environment.
Solution: It is worth remembering that when arriving in a new country and school, while you may feel outnumbered by local students, other students are feeling just as nervous. Many students like you have come from all over the world, yearning to connect with someone on the first day of school. So why not be the one to make the first move?
Pave the way to forging blossoming friendships and take the initiative to join sports clubs and student groups to find like-minded individuals whom you can enjoy spending time with outside the classroom. It is also crucial to build your professional network as you study. Actively participate in career fairs and networking events, leverage university mentorship programs to seek a mentor, and establish professional connections on LinkedIn. The rules of engagement are the same whether you are in your home or host country.
A word of caution. While you conquer the social aspects of moving overseas, do not neglect the academic side of things. It can be easy to fall behind, especially if you have plenty going on outside the classroom. Otherwise, there are always resources on campus, including international student services, that can help you with anything.
6. Money Matters
We all know that studying abroad is a costly affair. Unless you are supported by a scholarship that can help reduce some financial burden, students must account for their tuition fees, housing, food, transportation, and other day-to-day living expenses. Costs are higher in bigger cities and will depend on your lifestyle, choice of accommodations, and spending habits.
Solution: Take this opportunity to learn how to budget and manage money. Constantly keep your finances in check and spend wisely. Indulge once in a while but do save for rainy days. If you need to work for extra money, look out for internships, part-time jobs, or gig work. You may want to check in with your university for such opportunities. But before you start job hunting, be sure to look up the employment rules for international students in your host country.
7. Currency Differences
You must be thinking that it is a silly idea to be concerned with currency differences. It’s not all about fussing over exchange rates and brushing up on your mental calculation skills. There are also other monetary differences to keep in mind.
For example, some countries do not include taxes in the displayed selling price of a product, and the tax must be calculated and added separately at checkout. There is also money slang to familiarise yourself with. For instance, in the United Kingdom, a quid is an argot term for one British pound.
And finally, make sure your bank cards work abroad. You may think that all banking systems are interconnected globally, but no. In some countries, you can only pay with a debit card, not a credit card. And some only accept chip-and-PIN cards and not the older magnetic-stripe cards. So look it up!
8. Independent Living
Before you celebrate the opportunity to live on your own, you must first secure suitable student accommodation and decide between living in a dorm on-campus or staying in an apartment off-campus. Should you choose to rent an apartment, finding safe and budget-friendly housing in an unknown location can be stressful and challenging, not to mention the fear of encountering housing fraud and being taken advantage of by overpriced rents.
Either way, you are likely to live in a shared environment (unless you rent the entire apartment), where getting along with your housemate or roommate would be crucial, and you need to start being responsible for chores you might not be used to doing yourself. At this point, you might be asking yourself if you could really do all that.
Solution: Start accommodation hunting once you get your acceptance letter, and always go with reputable student housing agents. Leaving home and moving somewhere new on your own is quite a big deal for most of us. If you cannot decide between a dorm and an apartment, the general advice would be to stay on campus during your freshman year. It is a smart way to ease into university life, establish a routine, familiarise yourself with the new city, make friends, learn how to live in shared environments, and gradually become more independent. All these whilst putting your studies first and giving yourself time to make an informed decision later—on apartment options, location, roommate selections, and the type of lifestyle you seek.
9. Saying Goodbye to Your New Home
After overcoming all these challenges, you are finally happily settled in your host country. Before you know it, your studies are complete, and it’s time to leave!
Saying goodbye to the place you’ve called home in the last three to four years would be a challenge on its own. You will miss the friends you’ve been practising your language skills with, the food (although you are excited to come home to all the deliciousness in Singapore), and many of the small, everyday things you have grown attached to while studying abroad.
But the time has come for you to move on and rise to the next challenge of your academic and professional journey. And you shall now return to share the incredible and enriching experience you had studying abroad.