When we, international students, make a list of schools we will be applying to, we may have a lot of criteria. For some of us, academic reputation is the most important factor, and for many availability of financial aid will play a decisive role. Location also tends to come into our calculations. But a commonly neglected criterion is probably the availability and range of services that a school has to offer specifically to international students.
While we tend to disregard this factor at the stage of school selection, it becomes an integral part of our daily routines once we arrive on campus.
Where to find information
When you’re applying to schools, you’re probably dealing mostly with the admissions office, and if you’re lucky there may be an international admissions office that specializes in overseas students. But once you’re on campus, there’s a different office that will coordinate most of the services for international students. It’s usually called something like International Student Services or the Office for International Affairs.
You can look on that office’s website to get a sense of what services they offer to international students.
So what are some of these services we may want to pay attention to when selecting the “right” school? Here are some of the things that Mount Holyoke College has offered me as an international student, which might help you think about what kinds of services you need.
Probably the first international student service most of us will encounter is orientation. Many schools have a special orientation just for foreign students before their general freshman orientation.
At my International Student Pre-Orientation at Mount Holyoke College, all the new international students learned about immigration regulations, completed the necessary immigration and financial aid paperwork, received the required vaccinations, and were taken to the store to buy the necessities.
What made Mount Holyoke’s orientation program stand out to me, I think, is that it continues the whole academic year. Throughout the year we come back together to learn about various issues such as classroom culture and alcohol and drugs in the U.S.
These YouTube videos show examples of international student orientations from other colleges around the U.S.:
One thing that most people need help with while on campus is filing their U.S. tax return. This process is pretty complicated, especially if you do it for the first time. If you try to do it on your own, as I had to do once at a previous school, you may make a mistake that can cost you money. MHC has a professional tax workshop on campus in the spring, which international students can attend. Trust me, it saves a lot of time and nerves.
As I said, the website of the international student office can help you find out what types of services a school offers its international students. It’s also helpful to look at the number of international students who attend a school – the more foreign students they enroll, the more attention they are likely to give to international student services.
MHC has one of the highest international student populations of any undergraduate college, and I think it shows in some of the more unique services they offer to international students. To help students prepare for their first winter season, the school organizes trips to the nearby stores so that they can buy affordable winter clothes. MHC also provides transportation to grocery stores during school breaks when the dining halls are closed.
Not every service that helps international students is coordinated through the international office. The career services office can also have a big role to play when it comes to finding internships and jobs.
It is well known that international students are not always eligible for the same job opportunities as American citizens, so a career development center that is sensitive to the needs of foreign students can be important.
Some career centers actually hold events tailored specifically for international students, or make a point to target career opportunities to the students who are eligible for them. MHC’s career development center holds joint events with the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives to provide specific career-related information tailored for international students.
Religious and cultural accommodations
A school’s cultural and religious offerings aren’t tailored only for international students, but they can really benefit our well-being and sense of belonging on campus. Take a look at the range of cultural clubs and religious services a university offers to be sure it will meet your needs. Things like whether a university makes it easy to observe your dietary restrictions, religious ceremonies, and holidays can make a big difference.
For example, Mount Holyoke has a kosher/halal kitchen and dining room for Jewish and Muslim students who observe those dietary laws, and has a variety of other services for different faith groups – Christian and Protestant services, Hindu Puja, Zazen meditation, etc.
I also think it’s important to look at what opportunities a school offers for experiencing other cultures. If someone thinks that these types of cultural services are insignificant, I would like to remind you that cultural diversity is also what attracts many international students to the United States.
Schools in the U.S. find many ways to celebrate diversity, explore various ethnic, racial and religious identities, and to help students connect with one another through culture. They may hold lectures, art exhibits, small group discussions, workshops, and more.
Some schools are especially creative in the ways they do this. I’ve really enjoyed attending dinners dedicated to a country-specific cuisine and culture-specific events, such as African-Caribbean night or Chinese New Year Party. It feels like learning about cultural diversity is integrated into my daily life, and I like that.
So when you are choosing the “right” school in the U.S., it may be insightful to look at these things to see what your daily routine will be like once you arrive on campus. Go on the websites of the relevant offices to see what information they provide, talk to current and former students, reach out to the leaders of cultural clubs on campus that interest you. Your final decision might come down to how much financial aid you receive, but knowing about the international services you’ll encounter once your arrive can be a valuable addition to your pros and cons list.