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I had the opportunities to study abroad twice: the first time, 15 years ago in France, and the second time, two years ago in the U.S. at University of Missouri, Columbia (MU).

The difference between the two experiences is huge

15 years ago, I did not have any idea of how to prepare for studying abroad. The Internet just started in France but was not around in Vietnam. At that time, there were not a lot of people studying abroad, including in France. Nobody told me what to do. 15 years ago, Vietnam was not as open as it is today. Everything outside of Vietnam was so different. Going to France was a jump in the unknown.

Things are so different today. There are Internet forums where you can ask questions and get answers from current or formers students in the U.S. Some universities such as MU even have Vietnamese Student Association to help newcomers before and during their stay in the U.S. The Fulbright Program also is very useful in terms of pre-departure orientation. I remembered the session in Hanoi before my departure where we met with Vietnamese students with previous experience of studying in the U.S. We also met with American students. But the conversation with the Vietnamese students was obviously more helpful because we share a lot of common things. The Missouri University (MU) where I was going to study already assigned an advisor to me. She provided me with helpful information regarding house rental, names of professors, I also contacted the MU’s International Center who accepted to pick me up at the airport.

There are many questions we can ask before the departure. You can have them divided in three groups:

1. Departure issues, and settling down

For some students, there can be stressful moments with many things they have to handle, such as saving money, contacting booking agencies, buying cheap tickets that make students travel up to 50 hours. With a lot of baggage, and a lot of plane changes, it is very challenging. Besides, a delay can add a lot more stress to the already long travel. It can also be overwhelming for students with no prior experience in international trips and big airports. Ideally, students should have an airport pick-up. If this is not possible, a travel guide to the city of the university should be provided.

Settling down: Unlike the wedding where the first week is usually the honeymoon, the first week after landing on the U.S. can be such a stressful moment that it may take months for many to overcome psychologically.

After landing, it is important to know where to go. Some students have a room readily available in a more or less permanent way. Some students like me stayed at our friends’ place temporarily before hunting for a place to live. It is usually advised to the newcomers not to be too picky, and they should stay closely to the university, at least during the first months of their arrival.

With my experience of living 2 years in France, I got a pretty well prepared plan. I booked my flight about 10 days earlier. I wanted to have enough time to rent a good apartment, buy a good car, and enjoy free time before the serious time began. Everything happened as planned. I got the airport pickup, and a temporary place to stay for 2 weeks. I visited several apartments and car dealers. So, I rented a good apartment and bought a decent car.

After everything necessary to a normal life is in place, I stated enjoying life. In the evening, I visited bars to enjoy night life. I spent a couple of days visiting New Work city. I wanted to be as relaxed as possible before getting down to serious work. Work and life balance is even more important for students studying abroad because we are taken out of our familiar environment. The psychological support from family and friends is no longer there or becomes very remote. It is difficult to have good study if you don’t have a good life. I mean if for some reasons, you don’t like your city, your neighbors, or even the road from home to the university, things add up.

So the most critical things during the first week are not only material needs, such as a place to live, but also psychological needs. If the university or some volunteers can help during this first week, most of the challenges will be reduced significantly. This will also set a tone, I hope a positive tone, for what follows. The key here is to have enough information, have a good plan, get as much support as possible from everywhere, and everybody.

Mizzou students running through the Columns. Photo by Thinh Tran.

2. Campus life

Again, psychology is important for everyday life. It can also affect negatively or positively your academic performance. The right expectation should be set at the beginning. Studying in a foreign language, away from family and friends, in a totally new environment is not like spending vacation on a beach. For those who have to worry about financial issues, it is even more challenging. However, with the right expectation, a good attitude, a good plan, things can become easier or even enjoyable. This is the story of the cup which is half empty and half full. I found a lot of good things while living in Columbia, Missouri. As a book lover, the MU library is one of my favorite places. It is even better that I can search and order books online. Amazon is also a great site to buy cheap textbooks and books. The gym was a 5 star facility and very accessible and affordable. We even had sauna, Jacuzzi, and spa. The only problem was that, sometimes, it was difficult to concentrate on a financial assignment when you are surrounded by young and nice ladies in bikini there. There are dancing clubs, English clubs with native speaker students to help international students. At MU, there is Vietnamese Student Association to help those who are too homesick. Actually, as a part of its marketing plan, the University of Missouri, Columbia has increased its attractiveness to potential Vietnamese students by promoting the association. This is a network effect. When you have a critical mass of Vietnamese students at the university, who say good things about the university, more of their peers will want to come to you.

I found the Fulbright orientation program useful in terms of explaining the difference between American and Vietnamese cultures. We know American are not like us but we don’t know how much we differ and in what aspects. It can be a shock. For example, for some of us to discover that many American never travel out of their state and a lot of them don’t know that Vietnam is a country and no longer in a war. This is a situation where I see the value of educational and cultural exchange programs like the Fulbright with the aim to foster mutual understanding among nations. I myself tried to do something about it. With the support from my university, I organized a photo exhibition about Vietnam and Vietnamese people in Columbia, Missouri. The reaction was very positive and many left appreciation notes in my notebook. I was invited to do a brown bag lunch to talk about this by the Journalism school. So you see, it is a matter of attitude. You can either complain about something or do something to change that.

3. Academic life

One of the challenges facing Asian students including Vietnamese in American universities is their classroom habit. It would advise newcomers to be more outspoken in classroom. Many professors give credits for class participation. By participating, you show how prepared and confident you are. In our culture, students or even employees are not often encouraged to speak their mind. It is even harder when doing so in a foreign language. For American professors, a better understanding of that cultural habit would help to have the right classroom atmosphere and encouragement. For example, you can distribute the right to speak more or less evenly and not just be attracted to the most outspoken students. The rest of the issues can be handled through study guide designed for foreign students in mind. For example, it will help you to deal with how many credits to take for semester, how to test a class to see if this is the one you like.