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Life and School in America

March 26, 2024 :: Rose Ngo

Studying in the U.S. offers a world of opportunities and experiences, but it also comes with its own set of challenges and cultural nuances. This guide aims to provide international students (and more specifically, students from China since we work with so many) with a comprehensive overview of what to expect and how to navigate life and school in America. From understanding cultural stereotypes to mastering classroom dynamics, choosing the right housing, grasping tipping etiquette, dating, and thriving in the workplace, we’ve got you covered.

Understanding Cultural Stereotypes

All around the world, everyone thinks of others as like themselves, or not like themselves, based on stereotypes. There are TONS of stereotypes about Americans. We’re fat, we’re ruthless, we’re obnoxiously loud. There’s a stereotype about stereotypes, that there’s a kernel of truth in each one of them. Groups of people can have common cultural traits, but people are so different from each other regardless of their “category” that you can’t judge an individual person by the stereotypes about their group. Also, people change… they’re different at different times. 

You know those stereotypes about Americans? Well, there are stereotypes about the Chinese, as well. The “stereotypical Chinese person” is:

  1. Good at math, but bad at English
  2. Extremely patient
  3. Excellent at playing piano or violin
  4. A poor communicator
  5. Polite
  6. Quiet or shy
  7. A bookwork
  8. Skinny
  9. Hardworking

What does all this mean for you as you apply to schools in the US? How about living in America? In either case, it means you should just BE YOURSELF. Show people that you’re UNIQUE, through your talents, interests, sense of humor, and creativity. Especially with the adcom, it’s important to make yourself unforgettable, both by standing out from the crowd and by presenting yourself as a PERSON, not just a profile. Once you get to school, regardless of state or country, the people you meet will want to get to know who YOU are, no matter your race, nationality, or favorite sports team. Even if parts of you feel like a “walking stereotype,” remember that Americans are stereotypical in others. You’ll be okay.

How Do American Classrooms Work?

If you’re an international student planning to apply to colleges in the US, you may be wondering how American classrooms work. Is it a free-for-all idea exchange? Do people still use notebooks and pencils? What’s important for you to know before you get here? Here’s some basic info to help you get to know the territory.

Classrooms in America can be as different from each other as night and day, as cats and dogs, as climbing Mount Everest and napping on the beach, as…well, you get the idea.

Introductory classes at big universities, especially in the sciences, often have hundreds of students all sitting in an auditorium, scribbling notes and swallowing information about phytoplankton or surface integrals of vector fields.  While classes can be GIGANTIC in the sciences, lecture classes in literature and history can give them a run for their money, especially if the professor is particularly popular.  These large courses will sometimes, but not always, have a lab or section requirement in addition to classroom time.  In the lab or section, students are usually divided into groups of 10 to 20 and meet with teaching assistants or the professor once a week.  This gives students the opportunity to practice what they’re learning or to discuss the subject directly with the professor.  In large lecture classes like these, some of your overall grade will be based on your lab or section participation, but the vast majority will be from your test or essay scores.  Study HARD.

Other classes, like upper-level sciences and writing workshop courses, are seminar-style.  Here, each class meeting is like the labs and sections of a much bigger lecture course.  Every hour is spent in an intimate discussion with classmates and the professor, and this time is much less about what the professor thinks and much more about what each student thinks.  It is CRUCIAL to be prepared for these classes.  Not only will you learn more if you can contribute fully and understand what your classmates are talking about, but your final grade will probably be based largely on your participation.  Unlike in a big class, if you haven’t read “Knockdown of DISC1 by In Utero Gene Transfer” by Niwa et al., or if you haven’t finished Moby Dick, everyone, including the professor, will know.

Classroom practices, like laptop use and attendance lists, are completely dependent on the professor’s personal preference.  Most professors, but not all of them, allow laptop or iPad or gadget use in class.  Attendance-taking also varies, and will usually only matter if participation is a big part of your grade.  If participation doesn’t matter and you’re good at learning exclusively from the Powerpoint slides (which will often be posted online), you might not have to go to class at all.  However, even if you are great at learning by yourself, it’s always important to go to class—you get a much broader appreciation of the material, the chance to meet other students, and, crucially, the opportunity to establish a rapport with the professor. And, since you’re probably paying for this class, why not show up?

The more professors who know and like you, the better off you’ll be.  Professors can offer wonderful learning experiences, from teaching assistant opportunities to paid internships.  If you’re interested in what a professor is researching, inspired by their work, or if you were amused by something they said, go talk to them about it.  They may be busy and famous, but most of them will be very excited to talk to you.

So dive in—talk to all the students and professors and deans and janitors and everyone else you meet.  Be curious, open-minded, and take a mixture of all kinds of courses, and you’ll likely have a successful first-semester and an awesome four years.

What Do I Look For When I Look for Housing?

What to look for in housing is a little bit like picking out a good dish from a menu you’ve never tried: there are a lot of options that can, at first, be difficult to decipher. However, once you know that you love spicy things and don’t like the taste of carrots, everything gets TONS easier. For housing, one of the biggest “flavors” to think about is whether you want to live on- or off-campus.

On-Campus

Most US colleges and universities offer on-campus housing for first-year students. This means living in a dorm, usually with a roommate, in a hall with other brand-new college students JUST LIKE YOU. Living in a freshman dorm is a unique experience and one that many people absolutely love. The friends you make in your first year will likely be your friends forever—you might even marry one of them.

After freshman year, things change a little bit, depending on where you go to college. Some colleges provide four-year on-campus housing if you want it. In some colleges, this will mean living in small rooms with a roommate (or two), for three more years. At other institutions, you might have your own room along with a big common area with couches and a television, and a full kitchen. Every college is different, so when you’re curious about where you might end up living, ask someone.

If you’re not near the school, just call the admissions department and ask about the best dorms, the worst dorms, the places farthest away from classes, and the ones right in the center of campus. If you’re lucky enough to go visit, ask any student walking around—they’ll be glad to talk to you, and you’ll be glad you asked. If you choose to or have to live off-campus, keep reading…

Off-Campus

If you want wood floors, or a pet, or a nice kitchen, or if your school doesn’t offer four years of on-campus housing—and most don’t—you’ll need to look elsewhere to keep a roof over your head. Generally, off-campus housing offers the opportunity to live in a house or apartment with a group of good friends. This means more independence, the opportunity to experience a more “adult” life, and lots of fun.

Another big perk of living off-campus is that it can be cheaper (and nicer) than living in a dorm, and the quality and proximity of your home to campus will usually dictate the price of rent. If the walls are made of cardboard and the rooms are tiny, you’ll pay less than if you’re living in a palace. A palace next to campus will be more expensive than one that’s a few blocks away.

Flexibility

Mostly, like when picking off a menu, the most important things are to compromise and appreciate what you ordered. You might not love carrots, but maybe you can just push them to the side. Your bedroom might be absolutely perfect, except on two nights a semester when the house across the street throws a big party. Well, either invest in a good pair of earplugs, find a different place to rest, or join them!

How Does Tipping Work in America?

Tipping is an integral part of American culture and can be confusing for international students. In the U.S., tipping is expected in many service industries, such as food service, travel, and personal services. The standard tip for restaurant service is 15-20% of the total bill. For delivery services, tipping around 10% or at least $2 is customary.

Which brings us to coffee shops and tip jars. You can go ahead and throw some coins into the tip jar, but don’t feel obligated to. Baristas – the coffee makers and servers – are not categorized as “tipped employees,” so they’re making at least minimum wage. You should always tip at bars, on the other hand. $1 per drink is the norm, or 15% of the total bill.

The Dating Scene

A common stereotype of Americans—with the possible exception of New Yorkers—is that we’re friendly. We smile at strangers, say hello to neighbors, and are eager to make new friends. While the extent to which this may be true is open to debate, there’s no denying that our culture is an informal one. We are, after all, the proud pioneers of “casual Fridays.”

So…whatever you’re looking for: soul mate/the occasional romantic encounter/activity partner or something else entirely, school’s a great place to find it; in fact, one in five people meet their match at school or work. Either scenario is not without its hazards: you’d best think twice before putting the moves on your classmate on the first day of the semester—you’ll likely be seeing them daily for the next two years.

Romance in the U.S. is all about that famous American institution: the date.  Dates come in all shapes and sizes: a cup of coffee at the local café, a skydiving trip, or the classic combo or a dinner and a movie. A date will not necessarily involve intimacy. More than one date may be promising, but is by no means an indicator of commitment.

The first question, of course, is how to get a date in the first place? These days, there are two possible routes to take: ask someone out in person or set up an online dating profile. Each has its pros and cons: real-world asking out is more direct, and you know for sure that you are at least initially attracted to the person. But, of course, it’s not always easy to meet people you find attractive, and some people aren’t so good at turning on the charm when it’s needed. Worse still, your opening may fall on deaf—or disinterested—ears. Online dating has the advantage of relative anonymity —and a message not replied to is easier on the ego. You can browse hundreds of profiles, choose a few that seem promising, send a well-crafted message, and wait (hopefully) for a reply. After a few messages, you and the prospective object of your affections set up a date and wait for the magic to happen. 

Once you do set up a date with someone who seems promising, there are a few ground rules to keep in mind. First, the age-old question: who pays for the date? Despite it being 2024, people still tend to be old-fashioned about this, and the person doing the asking-out is generally expected to… if not pay, at least to offer to (and maybe have to be talked out of doing so). At least on the first date. After that, “going Dutch” is common—that is, splitting the cost of the date.

If things go well, and things get romantic, you might end up “hooking up”—a term that can encompass ALL KINDS OF …hmmm, contact … you should keep in mind that, as someone once said, “a kiss is not a contract.” Even after this, things might well still remain casual and open-ended. Communication is key here, and it helps to keep your expectations flexible. Actually, that’s really the no.1 rule in all of this business: keep the channels of communication open and realize that there are many different ways to date. In America, the cliché is actually quite true: anything goes.

Ten Mistakes to Avoid When At Work

You nailed the interview (we knew you would) and you got the beautiful phone call telling you the job was yours. Now how keep that awesome job? Avoid these classic blunders:

  1. Getting to work late. Sometimes, it just happens—there’s a transit strike or your car breaks down, and you’re late for work. But forgetting to set your alarm clock or hitting the snooze button too many times is a big problem. Showing up late (especially if it happens often) makes you seem lazy and unreliable. No boss wants that guy or gal handling important clients or large sums of money.
  2. Not asking for help. If you’re new on the job, you want to show that you’re competent and smart, but sometimes the pressure keeps new hires from asking for help. That’s when job performance can suffer. Don’t worry about asking a dumb question. It will look worse if you make a huge mistake because you didn’t find out the answer to something simple.
  3. Showing off, being too eager. It’s great to show enthusiasm for a new job and of course it’s important to do well. But nobody likes the guy who HAS to get everything in four days earlier than everyone else and who continually volunteers to take on extra work and who is constantly seeking approval. Be good at your job, and let your work speak for itself.
  4. Not admitting you made a mistake. If you realized you screwed something up, don’t just hope it goes unnoticed. It will get traced back to you. Let someone know you made a mistake as soon as you realize it so that it can be fixed.
  5. Not being receptive to feedback. If a supervisor or your boss gives you some criticism or advice about your performance, don’t get defensive. Show that you care by listening openly to their feedback. Ask questions if you have any, but be mindful that your tone doesn’t sound argumentative or annoyed.
  6. Being anti-social, or being too social. A workplace isn’t necessarily a place to make friends (though it can be,) but a certain kind of camaraderie does develop, so try to be a member of the team and socialize with people from work and be pleasant in general. But don’t waste work time to chat about personal matters, and don’t distract others from getting their work done.
  7. Talking about controversial topics. You never know what someone’s religious or political views are, so keep these out of the work environment. You could inadvertently offend someone.
  8. Losing your cool. Sometimes people get stressed by the workload or frustrated with an incompetent co-worker, but having a freak-out and yelling at someone at work is inexcusable. Stay calm and express yourself in a diplomatic and clear way.
  9. Sloppy attention to emails. It’s easy to make silly mistakes when it comes to email, but those silly mistakes can add up and make you look like a space cadet. Always reread an email before you send. Remember to add the correct attachments. Recheck the email address of the recipients. Spell check. Spell check. Spell check.
  10. Complaining about work, at work or in public. If you have negative things to say about work or the people you work with, those conversations should happen in the privacy of your home, not at the office, the parking lot, an email to a coworker, or on someone’s Facebook wall. You never know who is listening.

Now go set your alarm clock for work tomorrow, since it’s on your mind.

Conclusion

Transitioning to life and school in the U.S. as an international student can be both exciting and challenging. By understanding cultural nuances, classroom dynamics, housing options, tipping etiquette, dating practices, and workplace expectations, you’ll be better prepared to navigate this new environment. Embrace the diversity and opportunities, and remember to be yourself, as your unique qualities will help you stand out and thrive in your new journey.