Students Reflect: Challenges in the First Year of U.S. College

Another academic year is close to the end. For many students in my introductory composition course, it was the first time being away from their home countries and families, the first time being in a different culture, and certainly the first time studying in a new academic environment. I wanted them to reflect a little bit on their first year in college, and asked them two questions:

  1. “What was the biggest challenge you faced this year in college?” and
  2. “How do you think the university or professors can help you and other students with similar challenges?”

Students’ thoughts and ideas were quite illuminating. I asked their permission to share their responses. Here they are:

Challenge: The biggest challenge for me was not knowing how to plan ahead.
Solution: Professors can send notification emails to remind us what is going to happen next; they can also do weekly “what’s up?” sessions telling students about the main schedule for the week; and, finally, they can give small lectures about planning.

Challenge: It was difficult for me to find the purpose/reason behind going through the exam-oriented education. I find that the individuality is very prominent in the U.S. People strive too much to obtain greater GPA without taking into consideration the value of education (not everybody of course).
Solution: Professors should construct a learning environment that would encourage students to have the liberty to choose/self-propagate in pursuing knowledge instead of feeding students with things that will be tested in exams or quizzes. They should also put emphasis on the theory of knowledge.

Challenge: I didn’t want to go to bed on time. I didn’t want to study until the last minute.
Solution: I think these problems come most from myself. I need to change it myself.

Challenge: The biggest challenge in my first year in college would be making friends. The way of having classes in college is very different from the way in high school. It seems that in a big lecture room all students come on time before class and leave right after class. It makes it hard for me to chat with people.
Solution: I think the university can have more activities to let domestic students and international students interact more, or even have a program that would let domestic students show American culture to international students. Instead of being a single event, these activities should continue throughout the academic year.

Challenge: The biggest challenge for this academic year was that I didn’t know whether I chose the right major for me. This challenge kind of kept me away from major-related courses, and when my mind was set, it was somewhat late.
Solution: Maybe professors should provide help to students like me, or the university should appoint counselors to students like me to help them figure out what they want to do.

Challenge: Time management was the biggest challenge for me this year. I could not sleep when I had too much homework.
Solution: The university could offer a course on how to manage time wisely. Professors could also make homework easier.

Challenge: The biggest challenge that I had this year was that I found America was like a big countryside, but everything was expensive! When I was in China, there were big cities everywhere, and even in small cities we had taxi everywhere, and big squares and supermarkets everywhere. Everything was cheap and in good quality. But in America I can hardly see cabs on the street, and everything is awfully expensive! But the irony is that everything here is “made in China,” and those things are actually the same things that I bought in China! And also, in America, you cannot go anywhere without a car, and cabs are super expensive! So I was stuck on campus for about a year!
Solution: I just need to get a driver’s license next semester, buy a car, and ask for more money from my parents!

Challenge: The biggest challenge for my first year at Purdue was to study in an entirely different way. In middle school or high school, I used to study by following my teachers’ instructions step by step. Teachers would see how my study was going and helped me immediately. However, in the U.S. college I could only depend on myself for most of the time. Professors or TAs are usually busy, so they cannot focus on a single student. I went through a hard time getting used to this new study mode and did poorly on the study at first. Now it’s still challenging for me but it seems to be much better.
Solution: Maybe professors are not the ones who can help much with this, but I know the university provides some resources that international students can reach for help. However, many students are not aware of these resources when they are going through their hard times. So I think the university should give students information about how to get help to get used to the new mode of study.

Challenge: Communication and networking were the biggest challenges for me. I know I have to break my shell and socialize with other people, maybe in the classroom, or clubs, or career fairs. Also, it’s challenging for me to understand other peoples’ thinking.
Solution: Some courses should provide recitation where there would be small groups of students working together, or give some tips as a guidebook or motivate students to socialize.

Challenge: The biggest challenge that I had was socializing with the locals (Americans). It’s because they share very distinct and different values from what I thought before coming here. In my mind, I would prioritize the relationship between friends and I would always keep in touch with them, but in this local culture people are sort of individualistic. If they don’t feel like being friends with you, they would not be friendly to you. Thus, I will try to change my own perspective and integrate myself to the local culture better than I did.
Solution: I also think that the university can have more social events, such as sports or conferences that group up students of similar interests regardless of their backgrounds. I believe that with this approach, locals and international students will be able to mingle more together and build better relationships.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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One Response to Students Reflect: Challenges in the First Year of U.S. College

  1. Sasha Bogdanovskaya says:

    Interesting comments!

    It seems like students would really benefit from support services. In my conversations with staff from a few colleges/universities in Boston the general consensus is that (1) the institution has these support services but not many international students take advantage of them; (2) the institution realizes that there is a need but has not implemented sufficiently effective services.

    How do we motivate students to take advantage of the services available to them and how can institutions implement effective services?

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