Preparing for study abroad: not just test scores

By Ma Yingyi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 25, 2012
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Mother's competitive advantage [By Jiao Haiyang/]

When I travel to China to visit family and friends, one of the questions I get asked most frequently is "when is the best time to send my children to study abroad"?

I always reply: it depends on how prepared your children are.

"How should my children prepare?" these inquirers further probe. "Should they take English classes? How about the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)?" These speculations almost always center around testing. If parents are asked what else studying abroad entails, people may mention other indicators of academic success. Simply put, academic preparations are what most Chinese families fixate on.

While an outstanding academic background might be enough to gain admission into top colleges, it is far from sufficient to ensure a successful life abroad. Social and emotional preparations are integral to a successful move to a totally new environment that students often set their feet on for the first time.

This, however, eclipses the attention of most students and their parents in seeking to study abroad. Students are often most concerned about what schools they will apply to, what fields of study they will choose, etc. They rarely bother to think about basic life skills, ranging from cooking and driving to personal and professional networking. Once abroad, students may share a flat with roommates for the first time in their life, and their roommates may come from distinctly different cultural and social backgrounds. How to make a home in a new place may pose enormous challenges, yet is immeasurably significant for a newcomer who is away from their family and friends.

Colleges and universities in the US are often the top choice for a large majority of Chinese students and their families. The lush and picturesque campuses, inspiring professors, well-equipped classrooms and labs are often the first things that come to the minds of those aspiring applicants. However, these students may have little to no awareness that most of the American universities are located in small towns or countryside, where urban amenities such as public transportation, shopping malls and familiar entertainment like karaoke might be out of reach. In fact, seasoned Chinese students in American universities have dubbed the US as a "big countryside", which might be antithetical to the images many Chinese students conjure up in their minds before going there.

If they are not prepared for this culture shock, students may feel lonely, lost, and likely homesick. That's exactly why I argue that social and psychological preparations are keys to a successful life studying abroad.

I came to Johns Hopkins as a graduate student 12 years ago, and then started to teach at Syracuse University six years ago. Not surprisingly, I am familiar with the international student life at American universities. I have the following suggestions for those aiming to socially and psychologically prepare for studying abroad, particularly at American universities.

First, be aware. The initial step towards getting ready is to be aware of the difference between the prospective environments that one desires to study and the home environment that one is accustomed to. The more knowledge and awareness of the differences you have, more prepared you are. Try to get connected with people already living in the new environment and get concrete information on the living and studying community there. Social media now facilitates this kind of connection. Usually major American universities have a CSSA - Chinese Student and Scholar Association, the organization that often can provide much information on living and studying from the perspective of Chinese students. Getting connected with such organizations prior to arrival is a good idea.

Second, be independent. If there is only one word to characterize life abroad, independence would be it. Independence in basic life skills and independence in studies are two pillars of life for an international student. Many Chinese students have to learn such essential skills as cooking and other household chores for the first time. That's not hard if one is open for change and learning. More challenging is gaining an independent study style. Students must recognize that the American education system distinguishes itself by encouraging students to be an independent, creative and critical thinkers and learners. Under such a system, students, college students in particular, are often required to conduct independent course projects, including identifying the topic of interest, to conducting research and writing. Independence is the bread and butter of learning at American universities.

Third, be proactive. Independent ability and mentality does not mean living in isolation. Instead, being proactive and reaching out for help is integral to exerting one's independence. In this increasingly interconnected world, interdependence is integral to success. Newly arrived students essentially have to formulate their own social networks, acquaintances and friends to fulfill their basic needs, which could range from getting a ride to the store for food to spending some quality social time together. Those who are passive socially are more likely to feel lonely, upset, or even depressed. This in turn negatively impacts their ability to lead an independent life. As such, acquiring more social experience and sharpening interpersonal skills prior to studying abroad can help students be prepared.

Studying abroad is a major life decision that entails preparations on all fronts, not just academic studies. Social and psychological readiness is a key dimension to success yet it is often neglected by many students and their parents. Starting to pay attention to these factors, even if you don't have much time before you go, can still make a huge difference in your experience once you get there.

Ma Yingyi is currently an Assistant Professor in Sociology at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She is also an affiliated faculty member with the Women's Study Department and the program of Asia/Asian American. She obtained her PhD in Sociology at Johns Hopkins University in 2007. Her work explores issues of social inequality related to education, gender and migration.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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