Adjusting to life in a new country while also trying to find your footing in a new academic setting can be quite challenging, regardless of how mentally and emotionally ‘mature’ you might be. As an international graduate student, it took me a very long time to fully settle in, and there are several things I wish I’d known when I first arrived. To fully understand what settling into graduate studies in a new country entails, I spoke to four international graduate students at the University of Manitoba who shared their experiences and useful tips on adjusting to a new country. They are Carlymar Roque from Venezuela, Xiaojie Yan from China, Joshua Akom from Ghana, and Samuel Ariyibi from Nigeria. These are some of the points I garnered from these interviews.
Adopt a positive mindset
Although it may seem obvious, it’s important to note that a positive mindset goes a long way in helping individuals to settle in quickly and properly in an academic environment. Carlymar said that she channeled the excitement of moving to a new country into overcoming unfavorable situations she encountered on her arrival. She explained that the less-than-favorable situation in Venezuela made her quite willing to move to Canada. Similarly, Joshua said that he was excited to come to Canada because he considered it an important step towards fulfilling his long-term goals. Xiaojie and Samuel also believe that their excitement to come to Canada helped them adapt.
All the international graduate students interviewed emphatically stated that they were excited and had a positive outlook about moving to Canada and that this helped them in settling. Thus, channeling whatever enthusiasm you can muster – whether it’s from reflecting on the unfavorable situation you’re coming from or a more general excitement around being in a new country – into a motivation for working hard and staying positive can assist in the process of settling into a new country.
Try to make new friends
Friends make up an essential social support system everyone needs, especially if you’re new in town (or better yet, new in the country)! So where does a new international student make friends? Apparently the answer is “anywhere.” Xiaojie made most of her friends in classes and at parties; Samuel met his friends at a religious student group; Joshua made friends through the Ghanaian students’ community, Graduate Students’ Association office, and church; while Carlymar made friends at church, classes, at the gym, and while volunteering.
The major take away from this is that as an international student, putting yourself in situations – beyond classes – where you can meet people is the first step to making friends. Staying all cooped up indoors, basking in your lonesomeness, is a sure fire way to quickly dislike the country you just moved to. So join student groups, volunteer, actively participate in departmental events, and do anything else you can that involves meeting and interacting with new people. And of course, be open to making new friends, and not just with people from your country.
Prepare for a change in food, and buy home favourites when you can
Asked what she misses the most about home, Carlymar jokingly responded “FOOOOD.” She quickly added that she actually misses her family the most, but also longs for “our food, warm people, our sense of humor, and the sea!” Joshua also misses his local food and weather the most. Xiaojie misses being able to buy “cheap things in China,” but also her local food. Samuel misses his country’s “local delicacies.”
Moving to another country, you definitely expect to encounter a lot of things that are different from what you’re used to, but the consensus among our interviewees seems to be that food is a critical aspect of culture shock. So you might as well prepare your taste buds (and stomach) for a learning experience, and hopefully, you can find an ethnic food store where you can purchase some of your favourites from home (if only occasionally, because they tend to be quite expensive).
Touch base with family or friends at home when you need to
The home sickness usually hits sooner or later. When it does, it’s important to handle it properly to prevent it from degenerating into full-blown depression or some other serious emotional problem. Joshua said he’s always been independent and that he rarely gets homesick, but when he does miss home, he phones his family to hear their voices. Carlymar did not really start to miss home until her second year in Canada, and she overcame the feelings of homesickness by calling to mind her reasons for coming to Canada, and also spending time with the friends she’d made here. Xiaojie and Samuel speak to their family and friends via calls and chats when they miss home.
All the interviewees also highlighted other unique challenges they faced as international students. Xiaojie said the language barrier has been her greatest challenge (aside from the weather) in Winnipeg. Carlymar faced difficulties with financial barriers and in interacting with people with very different cultural backgrounds. Joshua considers sales tax to be challenging, as he’s accustomed to taxes being pre-added to the cost of commodities, and here shelf prices regularly differ from prices at checkout. He also finds oversleeping in winter to be challenging. Samuel finds frequent encounters with individuals who act cold towards him to be challenging.
Final thoughts about moving to Winnipeg
Asked what they wished they’d known before coming to Winnipeg, Samuel and Joshua said they’d researched a lot on the city before coming, so they did not encounter any major surprises. However, Joshua added that he wished he’d known a little more about the culture because he “committed serious blunders” in his early years in Winnipeg which he did not wish to recount. Carlymar said she wished she’d known to spend as much time as she could outdoors in the summer because she wouldn’t be able to do so in winter. Xiaojie wishes she’d known it takes much longer to get things she purchased online delivered here, unlike in China.
Advice for new international graduate students
When asked for any advice they have for new international graduate students, Samuel saidys to stay focused and not get distracted by the cold. Carlymar said, “set your goals, stay positive, find friends who you can have fun with, and always remember the reason that made you come here.” Joshua said discard past glories and focus on the future; don’t focus on making money to the detriment of your academics; don’t be afraid to ask for help with problems (both academic and otherwise); make friends and network; and have “a relationship with God.” Xiaojie said to bring warm clothes, adding “it’s extremely cold here.”
While these stories and tips are meant to help you to survive the transition to life in Winnipeg, it’s important to note that you are bound to face unique challenges. You may have to miss your way home a couple of times before understanding your bus route or buy the wrong kind of noodles a few times before finding the one that tastes like the one you eat at home; just don’t let this get you down. Cheerfully embrace experiential learning – learning through your experiences and mistakes – as part of settling into a new country. Regardless of how nasty these experiences may seem, be determined to rise above them, and don’t let go of your positivity; it will save your life. Also, try to remember that learning experiences that seem bad today tend to make funny stories in years to come.