Dear Student Union Community…

Dear Student Union community,

When we launched the Student Union almost exactly three years ago, we didn’t really know what we were doing. Or, more accurately, I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that it should be a place for international students to share their stories – stories to help other students who were going through the same things and to inform prospective students who were just starting to pursue their dreams.

Some of our very first bloggers visiting VOA

I think the only guidance I gave writers at the beginning was: “Make it more profound than your diary and more personal than an advising service.”

Not exactly the most refined concept. But boy, have you guys run with it.

You’ve shared stories about unexpected and fascinating cultural differences – like seeing a left-handed professor for the first time, or the way Americans complain about every perceived inequality – and the tension between embracing these differences and retaining your own identity.

Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick
Nick’s brilliant illustration of his struggle with Americanization

You’ve given firsthand perspectives on some very real concerns – like whether Muslims are discriminated against, whether Americans actually like international students, or how high the extra costs of studying in the U.S. can actually get – and told inspiring stories of persevering through adversity.

You’ve shown how you’ve succeeded and how you’ve failed – both in and out of the classroom – so others can learn from your efforts.

I am a rising senior at Phillips Academy, a private boarding high school in Andover, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. There are around one thousand students in our school, with students from 47 states and 41 countries. I came to Phillips Academy last year as a new junior (or as we say, new upper). Although junior year is rumored to be tough, I really enjoyed my first year in America, and especially in Andover, this little town. PICTURE ONE This is my best friends and me in downtown Andover during the town’s annual “Clown Town” fair. We all live in the same dorm, Smith House, so we are super close to each other, and we go out together to have fun during weekends. Our school’s motto is “youth from every quarter,” and in my dorm, my five best friends are from everywhere around the world! In this picture, from left to right are myself from Beijing China, Sonya from Hong Kong, Janani from Mumbai India, Camilla from New York City and Catherine from Palo Alto California. We shared our stories and cultures from our home countries or states; for example, I gave them Chinese fans for the Spring Festival! PICTURE TWO There are many types of dorms on campus: some of them are big, with around forty girls, and some are small like Smith House with only twelve girls. First year students are assigned to a certain dorm, but from the second year, we can pick either big or small dorms according to our preferences. For me, I do like Smith House, because living in a small dorm makes me feel like spending time with a family. We help each other with homework, order Thai food together, have sleepovers in each others’ rooms, or pull all-nighters together. At Andover, staying up late for essays or tests are normal for a junior, and having someone to push through a long night with you is motivating and vitally important! PICTURE THREE As the first place swimmer in breast stroke and freestyle back in my old high school in Beijing, I was pretty confident in my swimming, and I hoped to get on the varsity team and compete for Phillips Academy too. However, after I arrived here, I realized how good they are at sports. My freestyle was just about the average. In China, almost only the people in sports school are good at sports, but students studying in a normal school could never get a chance to train for swimming like American students do. I never made the varsity team, but I got to be part of the junior varsity team, and like the varsity team, we competed at meets with other prep schools. I got to visit our rival school Phillips Exeter Academy to compete against their swim team. Our two schools have been rivals since the 1700s so the competition is intense, and the audience cheers for their teams fervently. The big blue school spirit made me so pumped for the meet and I ended up with my best personal time in breast stroke. Every time I made the turn at the end, I could see and hear my teammates and coaches encouraging me to “Move! Go!” When I reached the end, there was always someone lend me a hand to pull me out of the pool. Other than my family in the dorm, I could also feel myself belong to another tight group of people who helped each other in the pool. PICTURE FOUR In case you wanted to know more about the Phillips Academy v. Phillips Exeter Academy rivalry, this is a photo of Andover/Exeter Weekend. Every term we have A/E weekend where we compete against each other in all different sports. During this weekend Andover alumni come back and all the students dress up in blue with blue face paint to cheer for the athletes. It’s the best time of year to celebrate school spirit. PICTURE FIVE I also joined the orchestra and band, and I am part of the Chamber Music Society, which I can create music in a much smaller group. In this group, we work on a quartet and have a concert at the end of each term. I can hear both my solo part on the clarinet and the integrated sound. Cooperation among the group members is much more important in such a small group, and gradually I learned how to find the balance between the sounds – how to stand out and how to remain in the background. I had been playing clarinet for eight years before I came to Andover, and it was one of the few things that I was familiar with in this completely new environment. In some way, it is like the constant of my life. It was through music that I began to make friends, to listen, and to see myself in this new community. - Joy
Joy and her international friends at Phillips Academy. Just one of the many amazing people who’ve been part of the Student Union.

I hope that in return we’ve been able to give you an honest account of the positives and negatives of studying in the U.S., to help you formulate advice that’s right for you and your unique path, and to impart to you that success in life is about your own drive and resilience and not about achieving any specific goal (not even if that goal is studying at a U.S. university).

And I hope we’ve been able to have some fun together. I’m pretty sure we’ve at least succeeded at that one.

After the Dashain celebrations!
e Abhushan certainly had fun. This is him after Dashain celebrations at his school.

I feel profoundly lucky to have met so many amazing students from all over the world through my role as editor of this site. You have all inspired me and taught me and pushed me to do better, and I cannot thank you enough for that.

So it is with some separation anxiety, but also a lot of excitement about the future (both for myself and for the site), that I am turning the Student Union over to a new editor, Doug Bernard.

Doug is a talented journalist and a great guy, and I can’t think of better hands to put the Student Union into. I can’t wait to see where he – together with you – takes the site in the future. (Seriously, check out how cool he is!)

Anyone who’s written for me over the past three years knows, and has probably come to dread, my rules for giving advice. “Don’t write ‘you should’ and tell people what to do,” I remind writers all the time. “Write ‘I did’ and let your readers learn from your experience.” So I’m not going to leave you with any profound advice, but just share one last thing that I’ve learned from this experience.

It is this: People want to help you. Every EducationUSA adviser, every professor, every university official, every student, every alumnus I’ve met has been genuine in their eagerness to guide others. Most people are. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those in a position to advise you, direct you, and help you when you need it.

But remember, when you do ask for someone’s time or assistance, it’s your responsibility to show that you’re deserving of it – that you’re making an effort to help yourself. Do your own research first using all the resources available (and there are many – our weekly events list and resources page can direct you to some of them) so you come in armed with knowledge and ready to ask the important questions.

Few people are braver and more tenacious than an international student. You kind of have to be to decide you want to move to a new country with a new culture and language, no less to actually do it and thrive there. So be brave in reaching out to those who can help you, and be tenacious in taking advantage of everything that’s already out there to help you help yourself.

… Okay, maybe I lied. That edged into “you should” territory, didn’t it? Oh well. In that case, I’ll break my own rules completely and end with one final “you should.”

You should: Apply to write for the Student Union during the 2013-2014 school year! Send resumes and writing samples to Doug if you’re studying in the States and interested in being a regular contributor. (Of course, you’re always welcome to share your stories, even if you’re not on our staff.)

Getting to meet Tom and Annisa, two of the 2012-2013 writes (who, incidentally, bravely suffered many “you should” corrections … and many other of my pet peeves)

Thanks again for an amazing three years, and I can’t wait to see this community grow and flourish with more stories, more experiences and more advice (“I did” advice, of course) in the years to come.

Your grateful and humbled former editor,



  1. Hello Jessica,

    I thank you Jessica for inspiring me with your blog, ideas and for being so engaged about telling the true stories of international students in the USA.

    You definitively brought a cross-cultural perspective with this blog, which is invaluable in our global society.

    I hope to have the opportunity to cross your path again.

    To your dreams.


    Jean-Marc Dedeyne

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