How to get the most out of your study abroad experience as an international student in the US

I recently applied for the H1B visa and as I am awaiting my fate, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the great experiences that I have had which have and how each of them led me to this moment today. United States of America is one of the top nations for undergraduate and graduate programs in the world; Don’t take my word for it, do you own research and then come back to read this article. A record 900,000 students studied in the US during 2013-14.

In my time here, I have come across a lot of the international students who are so focused on getting a degree that they often times overlook the other things that these universities might have to offer. If you are currently an international student in the US or aspiring to be one, here are some things that (I did and) you can do to have an awesome college experience:

  1. Join/Start a Student Organization: One of the best things you can do. Every US university has tons and you can easily find 2-3 that are based on your hobbies, likes or interests. Don’t find one that you think is the right fit? You can always start one. At a micro level, there are learnings from this that you can take and use if you intend to start your own company in the future.
  2. Volunteer: Find causes you care about and sign up to volunteer. This will help you meet like-minded individuals and give back at the same time. Moreover, this allows you to quickly grasp the accent of the place as well as the local lingo that everyone around you uses since you will be interacting with people a through volunteering. This way, when next time someone says something like ‘My Bad’, you know they are apologizing.

    Want more reasons to volunteer? Read this article by University of California San Diego

  3. Participate/Attend college events: College events are a big part of your college experience especially here in the US. By attending/participating in one, you become a part of those traditions and the history of the university. Additionally, you always take back with you plenty of stories to tell.

    Here is a list of some crazy college traditions.

  4. Seek out locals/diversity: This seems obvious in retrospect but what I am talking about is not just befriending classmates for working together on assignments. We have a tendency to find and stick around with people from our own countries even when we go abroad, which is the worst thing you can do. If you want to look at things from a different perspective, build relationships with a diverse group of people for it will enrich the way you look at things. This is the single best way to challenge your biases.
  5. Become a campus tour guide: if you love your college, you will love this job. You can become as creative as you want and by convincing prospective students to join your college, you can make a real impact on the college bottom line and the student.

Use the time between you getting your acceptance letter to you starting your first semester wisely. Research and make a list of things you would like to try out or experiences you want to be a part of or the places you want to see while you are pursuing your studies. Then go out and try them. I can bet you will have one hell of a college experience.

If you are a college student in the US reading this, what would you add to this list?

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Why you should start or join student organizations in College

Q: What is something you wish you had known when starting college?

A: The importance and benefits of joining/being a part of a student organization

I am not going to state the obvious (I totally will: Your degree will not guarantee you a job) but what I am going to tell you is that the more involved you are with student organizations on campus, the better your chances of landing a job out of college or in the case of international students even getting sponsored by a company for your H1B visa (if that is your ultimate goal as an international student). My only regret about college was that I didn’t join student organizations right from year one!

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*(image credit: http://www.wordwritepr.com)*

Here are 9 more benefits of joining student organizations

  • Gets you out there: Every student organization usually ends up having a faculty advisor. These advisors see 100’s of students every day but if they see your face 2-3 times in a week and work with you closely, they are bound to remember you, which will help you with #2
  • Letters of Recommendation for grad school/jobs: Having worked closely with you, these advisors are then very comfortable writing letters of recommendation for you whether it is for a job or for a masters/Ph.D program.
  • Practical experience in teamwork, leadership, events management or other soft skills: Reading a Harvard Business Review article (or any other article for that matter) won’t teach you as much about this as real life application will. When we were recruiting new members for our student organization, we would ask everyone who would come one question: ‘Where did you hear about us’. The answer to this one question made us realize that we were wasting money putting posters around campus as most of our audience came through class presentations, social media promotions and word of mouth. Working with a tight budget, it also saved us a lot of money next time.

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*(image credit: https://chipsifraternity.files.wordpress.com)*

  • You get to apply the skills you learn and in doing so get better at it: I have seen this happen first hand. One of my very close friends joined the Student Alumni Association with me and started doing all the graphic design work for them. The more she practiced her craft, the better she became at it. Soon she had a good enough portfolio and a great story with it to get admission into the California College of Arts (one of the best art schools in the country)
  • You can also learn new skills: Consider this scenario – your student organization needs a website and none of the members know how to build one. What do you do? You go learn how to do it – that’s what you do.

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*(image credit: campus.albion.edu)*

  • Opportunities to strengthen your weaknesses: You can also use this to step out of your comfort zone. In my case, it was public speaking. I was scared to death of public speaking, but I knew this was a barrier I had to overcome if I wanted to succeed so I used this as an opportunity to improve on my public speaking skills. If I ever get second chance at this, I am definitely going to try work on my selling skills (I would have said dating but I don’t think that there are student organizations that permit you to do that yet).
  • The network and the relationships: If you don’t already know this: Who you know > what you know. Most of the people still get hired the informal way (that is through referrals from people who know the person) and that is why networking and forging relationships is such a big deal; Big enough that there are coaches who have made this into a career. A lot of my friends in college got their first jobs through those relationships that they forged in these student organizations.
  • Chances of getting an internship or a job increases: My only internship in college was due to the student organization I was a part of. My first job out of college was with a company that was owned by my friends dad. A friend who was a part of the same student organization in UGA that I was a part of at Georgia State University.
  • You get to try different things: You can be a part of the marketing team one semester and the recruiting team in the next. There really is no limit to what you can try if you are willing to jump in. In doing so, you might even end up discovering something you are naturally good at but never knew about it.

Lastly, don’t forget to have fun! Some of my best learnings and fun experiences came from participating in, organizing and volunteering in student organization activities. Consider this as your laboratory: Experiment, Learn, Fail, Build and Repeat.

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