5 Tips for International Students: How to Thrive in a New Culture

Students at campus.jpg

Nita Korsten

This month many students will be leaving their home countries to study abroad, joining an ever-growing number of international students. Approximately five million students will study abroad in 2015, a figure that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) expects to increase to seven million by 2020[1].

Potential for Global Teamwork

No matter where they’re from or where they go, the students will learn far more than what their school’s academic curriculum offers. They can expect to be exposed to new cultures and languages, new ways of thinking and opportunities to learn the essence of global teamwork.

Surviving the culture of their new university

In New York and Amsterdam, I’ve worked at various universities with international students from over 70 countries.  As a guest lecturer and mentor, I feel energized each time I have the opportunity to interact with students who are truly motivated to get the most out of their international experience.

Often students ask me for tips on how to survive in the different culture of their new university. I cannot and do not want to send them off with just a list of simple do’s and don’ts for their host country. There are a few reasons why offering a protocol wouldn’t be adequate. Firstly, the list would depend largely on where the students are from, secondly most students need to interact with an array of students from various other countries so one set of rules would not be enough, and thirdly their professors have diverse backgrounds as well.

The best advice

Actually, the best advice I can give international students is to develop their cultural competences and usually I tell them to start working on the first and basic competency: Intercultural Sensitivity[2]:

5 tips on developing Intercultural Sensitivity:

1.    Be curious

Approach your new environment with curiosity. Often you will be challenged by all your senses: what you hear, see, smell and taste might feel all new to you. After the first few months, some students have the tendency to think they’ve seen it all, while in reality this is where it starts. A Chinese student I mentored in the USA I gave the advice to use her curiosity to dive deeper and try to find out what really drives people from the cultures she was dealing with.

2.   Get out of your comfort zone

You have taken that important step to start studying in another country, which sometimes takes great offers from yourself or your family. Most of the time it’s exciting at first, many times it can be a bit frightening as well. Remember that people learn tremendously from stepping out of their comfort zone.

Often students prefer to interact with students from their own country or region. Once I was in a panel for international students at Baruch College and a student asked me what she could do to get out of her comfort zone. I told the students: “Challenge yourself. Don’t just group together with people from your own country, but mix and mingle and work on assignments together”!

3.   Assume positive intent

One of the easiest things to do is to get together with people from your own culture and complain about: how strange your professor, how weird your fellow students, and how stupid the (educational) system of your host country is. It might give some relief to hear that others have similar experiences, but it’s a lot more effective and insightful to suspend your judgment and assume positive intent instead.

4.   Remember everything is relative

When I’m running workshops I sometimes hear: “What I really like about culture XYZ, is that they are so nice and polite” to hear another participant comment: “ Are you kidding me, I think culture XYZ is very insincere, your never know if they really like what you’re proposing”.  In short: Einstein was right when he said that everything is relative.

5.   Reflect on a different perspective

Understand that cultural assumptions are deeply ingrained in the way people think and behave. That doesn’t just count for the people from the other culture; it counts for you as well! One of the best insights is not: what is normal for someone else is weird to you, but rather: what is normal for you is really weird to someone else! Reflect a moment on this thought and to try to take the others’ perspective next time! What can you learn from this?

One day a student told me he thought it was too bad a Chinese student in his team didn’t contribute to discussions in class. I encouraged him to start a conversation with her about what is expected from students in China and to reflect on how this could influence her. Why would she not speak up and voice her opinion? After that, he could discuss with her what is expected from students in The Netherlands and how he could help her to contribute to the group process. 

When you’ve gone through all of these steps, please start all over with step 1, and be curious!  There’s always something new to learn!

Luckily more and more educational institutions recognize that they absolutely need to offer their international students programs in which they can reflect and share their experiences. This is crucial for students to learn the competences they’ll need to succeed both at university and in their international careers. Intercultural learning needs reflection of individual and collective social experiences with people from other cultures rather than the mere contact as such[3].


[1] UNESCO Institute of Statistics. Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students. Last modified May 05, 2014. http://www.uis.unesco.org/education/pages/ international-student-flow-viz.aspx
[2] Brinkmann, Ursula and Weerdenburg, Oscar Van, Intercultural Readiness, Four competences for working across cultures, Palgrave Macmillan 2014
[3] Otten, M. (2003). Intercultural learning and diversity in higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7(1), 12–26.