Life as an international exchange student: the struggle, the shock and the adaptation

by Dorothy Guo

Life as an international exchange student is not easy. The adjustment to brand-new academic styles, major cultural differences and the general lifestyle change are huge challenges for students who grew up in a completely foreign environment. How is life for an international exchange student? How do they adjust to the shocks and the struggles?

Sara Okada is a sophomore studying international development studies. Coming from Japan and having studied at King’s College London for the first half of her college career, Okada is finding new academic possibilities here. Studying in the U.K., as Okada describes, is very different from the American college system in terms of the course scheduling and the frequency of exams and quizzes. However, UCLA has also offered her more flexibility in course selections and the potential for exploring herself as a more well-rounded scholar. “I was required to take courses such as the development theory, quantitative and qualitative methods and other sociocultural approaches,” Okada said, “but in UCLA, I’m actually not taking any course related to international development in my current quarter. I’m taking courses like management, sociology, public affairs and global studies.”

Jinhue Koo, a senior from South Korea majoring in world art culture, also has strong feelings about the increased academic flexibility at UCLA. Koo has taken theater classes, which were not open to non-majors at her home school, Yonsei University, to fulfill her dream of becoming a drama producer and a musical theater director. “In my university, the majors are very separated and we are not allowed to take other majors’ courses,” Koo said, “but the professors at UCLA encourage me to take non-major courses even if I’m just on the waitlist.”

While the pursuit of diverse academic opportunities is a positive aspect, international exchange students still face some unique academic challenges. According to Okada, UCLA has a different system for grading and assessment compared to her home university in the U.K., which is “a bit stressful” but also “fulfilling.” “There are some academic difficulties like adjusting to a new discipline that I’m not used to,” Okada said, “but luckily, I like the teaching style here. Many of my lecturers are very fun and I didn’t have that many fun lectures in my home university.” While Okada seems to be optimistic about the academic challenges she encounters, things are more complicated for Koo, who studied in a non-English speaking institution. Koo suggests that the use of English as the primary teaching language is her biggest obstacle as a non-native speaker. “Listening to English is not a problem for me because I can translate it in my head,” Koo said, “but I’m still a little bit afraid of speaking English. I’m afraid of causing misunderstandings.” To catch up with the course, Koo has to not only adjust to the difference in class arrangements and learning style but also conquer the language barrier.

Additionally, international exchange students have to adapt to other factors beyond academics as well. The more ubiquitous lifestyle differences and cultural shocks also affect their daily lives. “When I first got here, I didn’t really face much of a culture shock, because we all spoke English,” Okada said, “but I guess there’s more of a shock in terms of the lack of convenience and transport like the buses.” Okada mentions that the transportation system in Los Angeles and the actual presence of gunshots in the city are things that she did not expect back in her home university. What she finds most intriguing among all of this unexpectedness, however, is the social life at UCLA. Apart from being able to “meet people on campus and just talk” and feeling a sense of community anywhere on campus, Okada said she especially appreciates the roommate system. “In the U.K., usually people do not have roommates — we usually have a suite, which is like private rooms with a shared kitchen — and there are not many interaction opportunities to make friends,” Okada said, “but then here, since I came to the U.S., the roommate system is amazing and it’s quite easy to make friends. It feels less lonely, even though you’re in a new country for the first time.”

Koo has also experienced multiple cultural shocks since she arrived at UCLA. “People wear shoes inside their rooms” was what she said when considering the first surprising moments she had in the U.S. Koo also did not expect to discover the difference in lifestyles between American and South Korean college students. “Students in Korea are crazy to do extracurricular activities and interns, but here, it is freer and people won’t judge others for anything,” Koo said. In terms of social life, Koo finds it easier and more comfortable to interact with her Korean friends and students who share her Asian background. “I want to make friends with more American students, but there are always some cultural barriers and sometimes I can’t get their jokes,” Koo said. Koo is determined to get out of her comfort zone and reach out to friends with more diverse cultural backgrounds, which she recognizes as a useful method to improve her oral English and expand her horizons.

Adjusting to a foreign environment is always a challenging process, and both Okada and Koo have their coping methods to reconcile with the struggles and shocks that they are facing. “I rely on my friends most of the time,” Okada said, “I didn’t even know about Canvas until my roommate like mentioned it to me.” Koo also agrees that making friends is helpful in her adaptation journey. She particularly points out how the Korean American Student Association has assisted in making her feel at home in a new environment.

Both Koo and Okada claim to have benefited from the mandatory Exchange Students’ Orientation. However, they feel that the school should provide them with more resources to help them adjust. “A little checklist would be kind of nice,” Okada said, “I think I just think I was just too lazy to check the email. If there is a little checklist in terms of what to do once we get here or the resources that we need to be aware of would help me to figure out what we need and what we don’t need to do.” Koo mentioned her confusion about ways to join student clubs and organizations when she first arrived on campus. “A club fair for exchange students would be nice and also a detailed school map. We didn’t know a lot of locations since the campus is huge, and a map would help us to figure out the specific places like the difference between the two Epicurias on campus,” Koo said.

Surprisingly enough, though, both Okada and Koo were unaware of the various activities and workshops that the Dashew Center provides to international students. The Dashew Center website offers detailed guidelines on how to adjust to different aspects of life on campus and in LA upon the international students’ arrival, as well as workshops and activities such as the English Language Circle that provides a safe space for international students to practice English and learn American culture. Furthermore, the Dashew Center also has unique opportunities for international students to showcase their talents. For example, the Envelope Magazine 2024, a magazine featuring creative work from the International Student, Scholar and Staff community, is currently open to submission. International students, especially those who have just arrived on campus, can all benefit from the Dashew Center’s enriching resources.

With their distinct backgrounds and active engagement, international exchange students like Okada and Koo bring new cultural perspectives to campus. Struggles and shocks are inevitable for international exchange students; however, both Okada and Koo’s journey of adaptation has demonstrated that self-accomplishment will eventually be achieved if one maintains an open-mind and embraces the various resources and opportunities that are accessible.

Illustration by Erin Park/BruinLife.

Illustration by Erin Park/BruinLife.

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