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Leavin’ on a Jet Plane: Perspectives About the Transition to U.S. Higher Education

By Christopher Wade, Debbie Scheibler, and Blake Mackesy



As international educators are well aware, education abroad is a profound and transformative experience. Both scholarly literature and experience indicate that the transition from high school to college can be daunting. It can be difficult for students educated their whole lives in the United States, but for students coming from abroad the challenge of adjusting can be exponentially more challenging. Adapting to the demands of the culture of higher education requires a number of skills explicitly developed in students at many international schools. However, implicit expectations within the culture of higher education make navigating the new environment particularly complex.


Educators in international schools are perfectly positioned to offer advice and guidance for moving onto this unknown environment. With experiences ranging from K-12 to higher education, the authors would like to highlight four perspectives for consideration by international educators to ponder when preparing students for a successful transition to the culture and community of United States higher education. These observations include the social-emotional, cultural, and academic components of this transition.


Home Sweet Home

International students coming to the United states may find living on campus in university-provided housing an uncharted adventure. Unless students are attending a faith-based private institution, or single-gender institution, it is very likely that housing options will consist of co-ed halls, common community spaces, gender-inclusive housing, and relatively open access for guests. At the minimum, it is almost guaranteed that students will be placed with at least one roommate in a shared living space. While living with a new roommate can be awkward, and also wonderful, the importance of articulating one’s values and expectations for the room cannot be overstated. Prior to moving in, students should be coached on how to express their values, desires, comforts and non-negotiable needs to their roommate(s). This should include everything from guests (including what constitutes an acceptable guest and timeframes/overnight preferences) as well as food/utensil usage, noise/music, and sleeping versus waking timeframes. In circumstances where gender assignment is of critical importance for students, as in cases with certain faith practices, the offices of housing or residence life or the dean of students office are vital resources, and should be contacted and worked with proactively.


Understanding potential differences in cultural ideas of the self and teamwork, personal space and personal time can help to avoid potential clashes. International students should also familiarize themselves with the concept of resident assistants (RAs). RAs are typically upper class undergraduate students who live in the same community with residential students. RAs are highly-trained paraprofessional staff members who serve as conflict managers, social planners/programmers, policy enforcers and general campus resources for the residential facility they are assigned to. They also should assist roommates in the first week or two of class in sitting down and working through their roommate contract, as mentioned previously, so encourage your students to get to know their RAs and to engage with them frequently. International students should know that these students are to be respected, that they are legitimate campus resources available to them, and that they should not avoid reaching out to their RA as needed.


Diversity May Be Thought of Differently by Americans

Students coming to the United States should be aware that the Americans may view diversity through a narrower lens than in some other areas of the world. In the United States, the concept of diversity often refers to race. What this means for international students is that they should not assume that receiving colleges and universities and communities have an understanding of a student’s cultural practices or the multi-faceted nature of identity. What this means is that international students may become experts in describing their backgrounds, experiences, beliefs and values.


We recommend that incoming international students be equipped by their home schools and practice interpersonal “soft skills” that will smooth their transition into their new community. Communication skills such as the ability to introduce oneself in a holistic way, as a whole person beyond a name, one who carries family, social, and cultural traditions and beliefs. Unlike international students coming to the US, many American students may have never met someone who traveled or lived in a country other than the one where they were born. Encourage students to share their personal experiences because this type of engagement will help to forge new friendships. Encourage them to try new, different, and even weird things.


Encourage Learning About the Political and Social Climate in the Area they Will Study

Shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings, one of the authors was visiting China and spent an afternoon with students at PS 159, an elite high school in the heart of Beijing. These students had visited the United States before, in anticipation of a year as an exchange student. During our question and answer session, one student asked about the constant stream of crime-related news out of the United States. Speaking for many of her friends, that student asked if America was as dangerous as it seems. Was it safe to visit?


Students travelling to the U.S. from abroad are entering a different climate than in 2013. It has been well-established that the 2016 and 2020 U.S. Presidential elections have thrown The United States into political turmoil not seen in generations. The United States is politically polarized, and due to the distinguishing characteristics of culture, international students may feel out of place. While American politics is a long and winding series of events that often puzzle the Americans who were raised in it, it is possible to get a sense of the area that individual students will be travelling to.


We suggest a two-prong approach: provide students with an informational overview of the current political climate in the U.S., from dissent over vaccination status to former President Trump’s Big Lie about the stolen election, to signs and symbols they should take caution around participating in. For example, red MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats are not fun cultural symbols in the same way that an ‘I Heart New York’ hat is. Students should be aware that, in many cases, colleges are often located in more liberal areas and almost universally inclusive and welcoming of different cultures. Even when a student is in a more socially conservative area, colleges and universities are usually more liberal enclaves than the region they are in.


Secondly, we would encourage students to be educated on the difference between real news and opinion writing, as well as how to spot misinformation, prior to arriving in the U.S. Further, students should consider subscribing to a trusted news source in the city where they will be living. While the news coming out of the U.S. may seem bleak, individual experiences are almost always positive experiences. The press never runs a headline when every plane lands safely, as they almost always do; American media is built to cover disasters, but it should not be understood to mean that America is a monolithic crisis.


Academics: Grades are not negotiable or “Bartered”, Plagiarism, & Faculty Accessibility

In the United States, higher education is source-based, resulting in the necessity for students to cite their work extensively. Failure to do so may result in seemingly well-intended students being charged with plagiarism, which carries steep academic integrity consequences. This may be different from other educational settings where the educational process weighs less on writing and “ownership” of intellectual property, and more on the collaborative, interactive process of shared learning and knowledge. The concept that knowledge is openly “out there” for the consumption of the community may result in international students arriving at U.S. universities with little understanding of the classical definition, or concept, of plagiarization as it is understood in U.S. academia.


In cultures where students have the perception or experience of their instructors being in an authority-is-always-right position of power, it can be daunting to ask for help or clarification in regards to plagiarism or any other classroom challenge. It may come as a surprise to international students of the approachability of U.S. instructors and administrators; we hope that incoming international students are able to embrace this accessibility. In most cases, faculty members and staff have open door policies or have clearly posted office hours where they are available to meet with students by drop-in or appointment. The ability to self-advocate and ask for help will be important, especially in the critical first weeks in a new community.


While we recognize the need for America’s schools to better prepare their students for the global space they will someday occupy, this is a long-term endeavor. The globally-minded students that international schools send to the U.S. positively impact individuals and communities of the colleges and universities they attend. The successful transition to college involves multifaceted skills and sensibilities. A frank conversation about these points prior to arrival in the U.S. can help to maximize both the social and educational benefits of studying abroad.


 

Biographies:


Christopher Wade has taught in the Forest City Regional School District in Pennsylvania for the past 17 years. A 2021 graduate of the Wilkes University in the Doctor of Educational Leadership program, his research focused on the effects of the lived experiences of rural high school students as they navigate their individual paths to their lives after high school graduation. Teaching Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics and dual-enrollment psychology, Dr. Wade is also the author and instructor of a diversity, equity, and inclusion curriculum, This Is Water, that has been mandatory for all 9th grade students for the last six years. His email is christopher.wade@wilkes.edu.


Debbie Scheibler is the Director for Residential Learning and an adjunct instructor at Rowan University. A higher education professional with more than 15 years of student affairs experience, her research is focused on the lived experiences and learning perceptions of students residing in collegiate curricular residential environments. She is a 2021 graduate of Wilkes University's School of Education, earning her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership Studies. In addition to her work at Rowan University, Dr. Scheibler is a past president of the Mid-Atlantic Association of College and University Housing Officers (MACUHO) and current co-director of the MACUHO/NEACUHO Regional Entry-Level Institute (RELI). She can be reached at scheibler@rowan.edu, found on LinkedIn, and on Twitter via @DebbieScheibler


Blake Mackesy is an Associate Professor at Wilkes University in the Educational Leadership doctoral program. With over 20 years experience in higher education, she brings expertise about transition to college. A 2013 graduate of Wilkes University Ed.D., she enthusiastically endorses and promotes the program. The Wilkes Ed.D. is specifically designed for international teachers and leaders who want to improve education around the world. Following a cohort model, students in the program enjoy online learning combined with three, four-day residencies at international sites throughout the world, including Dubai and the United States. Learn more at www.wilkes.edu/eddinternational, blake.mackesy@wilkes.edu, Twitter via @WilkesEdD.



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