Three things you realise about yourself as an international student

12 Jun 2017
Polaroid pictures on a map

You know what is exhilarating? Buying a one-way plane ticket from your home country to arriving in a new place where you are going to live and study for the next chunk of years of your life.

Working to get into UK universities from my American town I wasn’t necessarily motivated by the fact I would be an international student. I just wanted to study English Literature at Winchester, which happened to be a one-way, transatlantic flight away. Once here, I really did see myself and fellow international students as University of Winchester students first and foremost, as I saw all students here. I was an English Literature student, a Student Academic Rep, a friend of people from London, Sussex, and Kent, and a very regular user of the Martial Rose library. International students are *NEWSFLASH* students, and I think that seeing myself and all others this way didn’t mean I was shunning my internationality at all, but rather highlighted how we were all unified in our diversities under the banner of the University of Winchester.

However, international student I was, and incredibly proud to be so. Upon reflection I’ve realised having the status as an international student means at university alongside your course, you learn a huge amount about yourself and your identity.

1. You’re a global citizen and part of a group of the most amazing people in (quite literally) the world

If you’ve never been an international student, I reckon you would not have known in any great detail about the alternative reality that is the international orientation programme. While UK students were figuring out their Welcome Week timetable, international students have an additional schedule of talks and events to attend that full-on first week.

I was thrilled by this model United Nations that I had stumbled into.  All excited for our new lives, but laughing with nervous energy as we attended info sessions, mandatory talks, and vibrant welcome parties. People from Japan, Norway, Hong Kong, Turkey, the US, Malaysia, China, Nigeria, Austria, Canada, Brazil… introducing ourselves, decoding a map of the campus together, swapping stories of flight times, working out what time our bodies thought it was (thanks jet lag!), a guy from the Seychelles wearing 2 hoodies and a coat remarking on the cold weather, with Scandinavians replying it was much warmer here than there they’d arrived from…

It was exhilarating to be in a group of such diversity and enthusiasm from the very beginning of my time as a student, which never would have happened if we weren’t all international students. Some of these people that I met so early on and learnt about British culture alongside are still some of my dearest friends. They may never have crossed my path if we weren’t lumped together, helping each other figure it all out those first few weeks. Even the international people whose mountain cabins I haven’t ended up visiting in Norway or whose favourite coffee shop I haven’t been lucky enough to be taken to in Vienna I would always stop and have a chat with around campus; checking in, making sure things were going well, looking out for each other. My fellow international students made such an impression on me especially in my first formative year of university for their bravery, their multilingualism, their inquisitiveness, their experiences, their intelligence, their generosity of spirit– all the big stuff. Being automatically and permanently associated with such a group was pretty powerful for this girl from Pennsylvania.

2. Everyone is an ambassador for their country

By choosing to study abroad I feel you consent to becoming an ambassador for your home country. It is entirely possible that you may be the first person from [insert your country here] that coursemates, housemates, the woman working at the store in town has ever met or talked to in any depth. How humbling is that?

Of course no one person is responsible for or representative of the actions, history or culture of an entire country, and sometimes I still have to remind myself of this fact.  However, you are responsible for your actions, your work ethic, your kindness, which people may (rightly or wrongly) translate to take as indicative of your country. If you embrace and feel empowered by this assumed ambassadorial role, it’s idealistic but I think you are helping world peace just by putting a good version of you out there to the world.

Anyone who wants to become more engaged in the current events, geography, history, politics and culture of their home nation should leave that country, I think. Again, whether or not it’s right, as an international student you can get called in by flatmates as the authority on a positive educational policy in your country that’s making the news, questioned by people you’ve just met on your opinion of why your country made the decision it did in relation to climate change, or highly valued by fellow members of your quiz team because of your assumed impeccable geographical grasp of your whole home continent. Your perspective as an international student can also be garnered specifically in lecture or seminars – and hopefully it is. Universities as academic institutions of learning and critical thinking really are wonderful melting pots of different thinking. Don’t shy away from the chance to share what you think or how your experience has been similar or different based on your educational and cultural background.

Also, don’t be scared of letting other people into your culture. One of my most enduring memories from 1st year was cooking a full, traditional American Thanksgiving dinner by myself in my West Downs kitchen for a tableful of English housemates and some Norwegian friends I met in the first week. Was I missing my family and my country that day? You bet. But was it pretty neat to be introducing people to such a wonderful American holiday? Absolutely.

3. The experience of being an international student has meant you’ve developed incredible, lifelong skills

When you take a step back, hopefully you can recognise you are:

  • A dreamer, a decision maker, a hoop-jumper, and a goal-achiever: just stepping on campus for the first time has required an impressive amount of research, self-reflection, form-filling in, academic work, visa-process following, financial ducks being set in rows, emotional processing, and travel logistics. Use the support of the International Team to make sure you are getting it all done. Making it here proves to yourself that you can make complex dreams into realities. It also takes a huge bucketload of courage, strength and resilience which is easy to overlook as you go about your normal student day, but wow…
  • A packing professional (note: this accolade may cause audible sighing with exasperation when you see UK housemates moving in with 57 crumbling boxes, 6 giant IKEA bags, 2 binbags full of protruding coat hangers, 4 storage boxes rattling with shoes, and a cactus for their desk. Have they not heard about efficiency in packing?! All an international student needs is a check-through or two and a carry-on to conquer the world).
  • A linguist: I will forever be in total awe and admiration for all the international students that complete a degree (A university degree! This is not a case of dusting off the school lessons to order an ice cream on holiday avec une boule, s’il vous plait) in a second, third, fourth language and do exceptionally well. You are my heroes.
  • A ‘carpe diem’ believer: International students often are not moving to a new country forever, meaning the sense of urgency to travel, to experience, to do can be dizzyingly strong. My international friends and I toured the Cathedral in our first weeks because it’s Winchester Cathedral! We got absolutely drenched to the bone walking around London in the rain because it’s only a short train ride away to one of the greatest cities in the world. We made ourselves go to the panto at Christmas, oh yes we did. Landmarks are appreciated more strongly, flights are booked more spontaneously, and one-off events attended with a sense of necessity by living and studying very much not in your own backyard. International students, we live our lives by seizing each and every UK day.

About the author

Savannah - (BA) Hons English Literature Graduate

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