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College Life Lessons for the International Student

Culture shock is normal, ignorance can be your advantage and travel a lot for an enriching college experience.

By Diana Odero, Chapman University

College is a time in our life that we await with so much angst, eagerness, fear and excitement… But why?? Because it is a point in our young lives that we are truly on our own, fully dependent on ourselves for our safety, our health, our education, our social life, our spiritual life and last but not least our love life.

Those are some of the main aspects in a normal student’s life; a student going to college in his/her hometown or country. Now for people like me who decide to go to college in a whole different continent, leave alone a different country… that list is a bit longer as we are fully on our own in a whole new area, we have to deal with adjusting to a whole new environment, the culture shock and the major levels of homesickness.

I am Kenyan, born and raised, I came to the United States 4 years ago in 2009 for college and I can tell you first hand how much of an experience it is to study abroad, not just for a semester, or a year but for the entire 4 years! It has been quite the journey and I for sure have learnt quite a bit when it comes to life in general and preparing for the real world away from home.  So from one international student to another, here are a few tips and lessons I have picked up along the way…

Culture Shock is Real, Take it in Positively

I don’t even know how I can explain this but basically whichever country you visit or relocate to, you will have some culture shock added to your experience. To talk specifically in regards to America; I didn’t think I would be super shocked as I had already visited a few years back when I was younger but things do change and as such I had to adapt accordingly.

My first real culture shock was of course the food. This is no good for a foodie like me and so over the years I have learnt how to eat smart and healthy with a cheat day here and there. America super sizes practically everything you eat and with all the genetically modified food everywhere it was very hard for me at first to take anything down because it all tasted bland… one good thing that came out of that though, I learned how to cook!! All on my own too, I got so tired of the artificiality of most food served in the school cafeteria I took it upon myself to learn how to make basic dishes, then went on to make fun dishes, and soon enough I had mastered the art of cooking and I now experiment in making all kinds of things. Cooking has become a hobby of mine and a form of therapy as well, it keeps me at peace, happy and content. Doesn’t hurt that it tastes good doing it too!

College room mate image

My First Room Mate and I

Another piece of culture shock came by in the form of Race and ignorance. Being an African in the middle of Orange County, California is basically like being a needle in a hay stack. You are the ONLY one of your kind. My school is located in the heart of Orange County, in the historic town, Old Towne Orange. This area is mainly occupied by wealthy senior members of society and the wealthy kids of Southern California, thus mainly Caucasians and hispanics. Truth be told I felt very lost and alone during my first year here. It kind of intimidates you when you notice you are the only one of your nationality and skin color in a sea of Americans, I hardly ever spoke to anyone leave alone participate in anything.

My roommate at the time was a bubbly curly haired girl from Oregon, we got along fine and she was the only friend I had for quite a while before I got the courage to socialize with more people. Adjusting to that albeit was a tad bit hard for me but instead of retreating into a corner like I normally would do in such situations, I decided to be proactive about it and see what happens. Not only did my roommate become one of my closest friends in college, but I formed a close knit circle of friends all from different countries, states, and all in different professions; students, professors, restaurateurs, models, cab drivers just to name a few.

International Food Festival image

International Food Festival last Fall

To touch on ignorance; we all know the image portrayed to the western world about Africa… well its not all starving kids and dry deserts, contrary to popular belief. I had a lot of people ask all sorts of ridiculous questions about my home country and Africa in general that would really beg me to question what people are taught in their History and Social Studies classes. I took it all in stride and corrected each and every statement, theory and question with the right facts and enlightened them with even more information about the motherland that they never knew but were very intrigued to learn about. This goes back to my newly found love for cooking, I took part in the annual International Food Fair my school held every year, to introduce the locals and the campus community to the various dishes known in Kenya and Africa in general as well. This not only allowed me to continue practicing my cooking but also let me show my country in a positive light, because each dish is a staple to a particular ethnic community and Kenya has over 40 ethnic communities/tribes so it was a really good feeling to explain it and see people’s reaction to it. Being an international African student in America taught me to accept and not judge the people’s ignorance, but rather to help them understand why the media portrays us that way and to show them that there is more to the continent than what we see on TV.

Travel & Explore, it’s good for your soul!

Being an international student in another country or continent officially makes you a tourist for your entire stay there. The world is your oyster-literally! Because you know what’s cool about being an international student, you get to study abroad, TWICE, even three times if you have the time in your program. Most schools, I think all actually normally have various types of study abroad programs where you can take a semester or a year of your coursework in another country. There is also semester at sea if you are feeling adventurous where you can visit over 7 countries in exactly 3 months and still learn while on board a ship and still get all your credits in! I really really wanted to partake in this option but I switched my major in my junior year and thus had very limited time to complete everything if I wanted to graduate on time. I was not too disappointed as I was already abroad anyway and decided to travel to most of the states when I could during my school breaks.

Balboa Park in San Diego image

Balboa Park in San Diego last Fall

I LOVE travelling. It’s one of the reasons I joined College Tourist, and I hope to have traveled the world by the time I’m 40. Yes, I am that ambitious… Team positivity! Anyway, despite not being able to study abroad(out of the states abroad), I visited various states and each one was an experience and a memory I will have forever. I think I have been to over 10 states now, still yet to discover the rest. My top 3 states being New York, Atlanta and California. I met different people on my travels, experienced different traditions and customs, and made numerous memories with friends I keep dear to me. Being in college gave me the freedom to do all this travelling even with a crazy school schedule, I managed to balance my life in a way to have the best of both worlds.. school and leisure while abroad. Some trips I made alone and these were by far the most rewarding as it gave me time out for myself, time for reflection, time to build a plan for my life, time to reconsider certain decisions made or waiting to be made… I urge all international students to take advantage of this opportunity because once college life ends and the real world beckons, you won’t have as much time on your hands or that many opportunities to travel often. Study abroad as much as you can, it barely costs you as most of these programs have hefty packages for financial aid. By doing this, it taught me to be more accepting of this entire country and its citizens plus it really helps lessen the homesickness!!

So there you have it, 3 tips from me to you with love… Culture shock is normal, ignorance can be your advantage and travel a lot for an enriching college experience.


Diana Odero

Chapman University | 19 stories

Diana is a recent graduate of Chapman University having studied Graphic Design & Sociology. She is an international student from Kenya and is currently working in Atlanta. She is an adventurous person who views the world with an artistic eye. She loves to travel, to read & write, design, cook and meet new people. In addition to writing for The College Tourist she is also working on building her brand as a freelance designer and lifestyle writer. Check out Diana's blog .

4 responses to “College Life Lessons for the International Student”

  1. Barrington webb says:

    Deep!! Compelling Article. sorry u had to deal with the headquarters of ignorance we call “America”…(especially California the most shallow state). And it worked out for the best because u enlighten countless souls. Maybe more people can respect mama Africa. I wish i studied abroad after reading this article.

  2. andreabouchaud says:

    Hi Diana,
    I extremely enjoyed your post. It was very personal and encouraging. I also want to say that you are my personal hero for having studied abroad for 4 years. I did it for ten months and I am not sure if I could do it again knowing all that I know now. I also want to thank you for being patient with the fellow American students. We are not taught much about Africa and the only information given to us are the heart-wrenching commercials on TV which do not inspire many people to further investigate Africa and its numerous countries. I agree with you 100% that culture shock is real- even if you studied the culture. I studied abroad in France and was a French major for a few years before going abroad and I still had culture shock/things I was not prepared for. I see in your bio that you went from CA to NYC- how are you adjusting with that culture change? That would be too much for many Americans :p

    • D.od Michaela says:

      Hi Andrea!,
      You are so precious for saying I am your study abroad hero, lol, thank you! I didn’t always want to study abroad actually, but when an opportunity came by, I knew I would always regret it if I didn’t take it so I took a leap of faith and here I am! And I think I will do a post specifically on Africa just because of that. Because it baffles me that it’s only Americans who don’t seem to know anything about the continent, and that it is an actual continent and not a country as mistaken by many Americans. On NY, I have visited NY plenty of times before finally moving there and I fell in love with it on my very first visit. Back at home I grew up in a city much like NY, busy, filled with sky scrapers, bursting with energy and that’s really what I like to be surrounded with. I enjoyed California but it was a bit too chill for me. I loved the hustle & bustle of NYC because it reminded me so much of my hometown. Also the people in NY I tend to think are much nicer and welcoming and that may be because NY is filled with people from all over the world and thus more diverse. So I didn’t feel as ostracized as I would feel in California especially in Orange County where diversity isn’t as prominent. I am now in Atlanta actually, my time in NY was only for the summer and I chose yet another metropolitan type of city to settle in because that’s just where I feel comfortable. Having travelled a lot I have learnt to adjust to different lifestyles and cultures pretty quick, its just a matter of immersing yourself in it.
      Once again, thanks for reading and for your insightful comments!

      • andreabouchaud says:

        Atlanta! That’s funny how our stories are kinda similar. I am a New Jersey native (but not Jersey Shore!) and moved to Dallas, TX about 1.5 yrs ago. I absolutely love it and what is even more shocking but in a really good way is that there is a large French population here. To explain, I was a French major in college and studied abroad in Paris. I never would have thought to come to Dallas to find a French job but when I found it, I jumped on it and I speak more French now than I have for the past few years. I hope that Atlanta is treating you well. I look forward to a post on Africa

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