Jerome Avenel is a French international student. Like many foreign exchange students, Avenel had trouble adjusting to living and attending classes in the United States.
“The first week was really difficult, and I began to wonder why I was here,” Avenel said. “Everything here is different compared to France: cars, roads, buildings, the campus and food. Everything is different and bigger, so I felt kind of lost in this huge country.”
The Department of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) and the Department of Study Abroad collaborated to help students such as Avenel adjust to life here both academically and socially.
Study Abroad, aside from setting up overseas educational programs for USF students, works with foreign exchange students. The ISSS focuses on international students, particularly emigration and cultural-adjustment issues. Both departments set up programs and provide aid and counseling for students from foreign countries.
Homesickness, language barriers and cultural differences often await these students, making a year filled with hard classes even more difficult. Culture shock, or a state of confusion and anxiety experienced by someone upon encountering an alien environment, is more often than not present in their daily lives.
“The first day I went to the Study Abroad office they gave me a map of the campus and told me about the necessary things I needed to know, like about insurance and my student ID,” said Farsh Mohammadi, a British foreign exchange student.
However, the problems these students face are often more complex than registration requirements and vary from student to student.
“(Culture shock) is a very wide concept, and it can be as simple as, ‘Where can I get some Japanese food?'” said Antonio Depina, coordinator for Study Abroad. “Obviously we can help a student in that regard, but sometimes they might be suffering academically, or it’s more psychological, like a student going through depression, having a hard time adjusting to life here, having difficulties with classes, etc.
“The student shouldn’t feel like they have to be left alone or that there is nothing that they can do while they are here. Our office is here to support them as a collective effort between the two offices.”
The process begins at orientation, where international students learn about life in America, what their resources are at the University, how they can survive a year in the United States and how they can stay on top of their classes.
One issue many students have is the adjustment to a different school system. Often, the teaching methods and classroom organization utilized at USF feel strange to international students.
“The main problem for me was the different language, so I had to be more focused in class than I was in France,” Avenel said. “The major difference between the French and the American college system is that in France we have more class time, but we have less homework. These differences affect me because I didn’t expect so much homework, so I had difficulties organizing my time at the beginning.”
This issue is also addressed in orientation. This semester’s orientation explained how American classrooms are organized. A professor gave a speech explaining our educational system, something most accept as commonplace.
Aside from academics and registration problems, international students may find it difficult to socialize with their fellow students as a result of cultural norms and language barriers.
“At orientation, we either have a speaker or one of us talks about the fact that you have to not be frightened of talking to Americans,” said Marcia Taylor, the interim director of ISSS. “We tell them, ‘When you are in the classrooms, when you are going to a study group, just speak up and start talking about your culture. Try to foster those relationships. Talk to the students.’
“Sometimes that’s more difficult then we realize, because Americans have a tendancy to be more superficial than other cultures in regard to friendship. For instance, in the classroom you might meet somebody that you only speak to in the classroom. That’s a normal part of American culture. The more you meet people, eventually you’re going to find a group of friends that will want to study together or hang out together.”
To prevent against social isolation of international students, the two offices offer social groups, monthly mixers and a mentoring program for international students. A weekly group called International Connections allows the students to voice their input.
“We just had a Thanksgiving feast (for the students), which was a huge success,” DePina said. “Typically, we’ll take them to some area of Florida, like Universal Studios or Riverfront Park. It’s more of an outreach to say, ‘There are things that you can do here, and we want you to feel included.”
The International Student and Exchange Student programs benefit not only the international students visiting, but the campus as well.
“Nothing can be more valuable than the exchange of ideas, the exchange of cultures – and the first step to it is getting a student overseas and bringing one over here,” said James Pulos, the assistant Study Abroad director. “It is really a practical fact, and on a humanist level it is a necessary fact, that we will only understand each other better if we get together and start to exchange our thoughts and ideas.”
Despite some of the problems that international students face, the experience remains enlightening and rewarding for the students.
“It was a difficult experience at the beginning, but afterward I experienced happiness meeting new people and discovering this new culture,” Avenel said. “This one-year trip to the USA will be the most enriching experience I have ever had.”