Oberlin Blogs

For New International Students, Or, When the Brochure Is Not Enuf

July 25, 2014

Simbarashe Runyowa ’15

Hi, my fellow F-1 Visa eligible non-residential aliens (or not) reading this. One of the troubles I had when I was applying to and subsequently waiting to go to college in the US from the perspective of an international student was the lack of specific, honest and easy to follow information about being in college (and especially with respect to Oberlin) from the particular experience of an international student. So I am using this blog to anticipate the questions and anxieties you might be feeling and then try and address them using some knowledge I have gained from my personal experiences. I hope that this will be helpful to you as you prepare to spend the next four years or more in the United States. :)

The Journey

Unless you are from Canada, chances are the journey you are about to embark on is gonna be pretty long. For me it takes all of about 18 hours or more. With layovers it can add up to 24 hours or more. Your feet will get numb. You will get bored. You will be asked if you want chicken or beef or beef or chicken about 10 times. Children will cry non-stop; get some earmuffs or earphones so you can get some sleep. Also, one of those traveling pillows is essential. In a separate tab, start downloading movies and series to watch because in-flight entertainment ain't what it used to be. Legally, of course. ;)

First Things First

When you get to Oberlin, one of the first things you might want to do is to call home and let everyone know you arrived ok. Unless of course you are traveling with your family, in which case, send your cat/dog/goldfish a whatsapp. They're probably worried about you too.

On that first night, you might need something to sleep on, ideally. So maybe carry a pillow, some sheets or some basic bedding so you don't have to camp on your first day in the land of the free. Also, a universal adapter might be nice to charge your devices. The international students office will organize a shopping trip for you to go to Walmart to buy everything you need for your dorm room later on, but you want to have some essentials to get you going.

When you go shopping, a cellphone is a good buy. I would say hold off on buying a smartphone like the first week of school before you've had time to compare all the service providers and see what plan is best for you. Some international students will form a "family" and get on a family plan so they can split costs. So maybe you can get a "dumb" phone in the meantime just so you are reachable. There is wifi everywhere on campus so you can use your current phone/tablet/iPod etc to contact people through whatsapp and viber etc.

Paperwork on Paperwork on Paperwork

Do all the paperwork during orientation so you don't get multiple emails about paperwork you didn't do like in October when you have midterms to worry about. By the way, midterms are coming, they come so fast. And so are taxes. But that's in the spring; you will have to file taxes to the US government as soon as next semester, just FYI. More paperwork, yay! But the college will help you to do it in your first year. So, relax. ;)

Money Money Money

Before you know it, you're gonna need some cash money. First off, you need to buy textbooks for your classes, most likely. $150 for a single econ textbook whaaaaaaaa??? Yeah, textbooks are very expensive. But BEFORE you go and buy textbooks from the Oberlin bookstore, checkout OHIOLINK on the Oberlin library website. It's a service that allows you to borrow books from most of the college campuses in Ohio. There is a good chance that your books might be on there. You can borrow them instead of buying new ones. Money saved is money in your pocket! YES. Also, Oberlin Classifieds. Some people sell their old books on there. And the book co-op. And the internet.

You might also need to get a job. But before that, you need a social security number. But never fear, the international students office has your back on this one! They'll help you through the whole shebang. Just don't miss the trip to the Social Security office which they organize for you. The office is in another town and getting there by yourself without a car will be a hassle.

And on-campus jobs are plenty. If you can't find one on the classifieds, Campus Dining ALWAYS has jobs. Or apply to be a blogger. :)

Winter Is A-Coming

That Ohio Snow tho. You need a lot of warm clothing. One thing I learned coming from a warm climate is that the cold is TOO real and what we consider "warm clothing" in the tropics is NOT warm clothing and LOL. So it's best to procure coats and boots in the US. Again, the international students office has got you. Free trip to the mall. There's no mall in Oberlin, btw. Online shopping is your FRAND. Did someone say free Amazon Prime account with your oberlin.edu email address?

The Food

Iz OK. Like the first two weeks it's all new and great and then you realize, wait, it's almost always the same food all the time. Expected. Iz ok. Top tip: bring some stuff from your country so you can make some food from your home country. Cuz in October you're gonna be like but I reallllly miss [instertyournationaldishhere]. Dry packaged stuff is usually the best—spices, MILO, condiments, teas, catch my drift? If you try to bring in produce they will throw it out at the airport. Avoid.

The Holidays Are Coming

Thanksgiving will come and all the Americans will leave and you might become a sad panda unless you plan ahead. Sometimes a friend might invite you to their house. You can stay on campus and commiserate with your fellow internationals. BUT a really cool thing to do is to sign up for a host family so you can get to spend holidays with a real family so you won't miss yours as much PLUS free food can I get a hell yeah. Also, winter break (end of December). This is when the college shuts down entirely and everyone has to leave, including all non-residential Aliens F-1 visa status (U & me:( ) This is a good time to go back home, travel around the US (I went to NYC one time). For me it's not feasible to go home because plane tickets are expense to the ive. So I made a plan; start making yours today.

The Culture

Google "culture shock curve." That's what you are going to go through. Homesickness is real. Call often and stay in touch back home, but not so much that you become unable to make connections in your new home.

You will inevitably deal with some stereotypes. You from Africa? Is it true you ride elephants to school? HAHAHA SUPER FUNNY. You will get lots of such types of questions. Friend, Keep Calm and use this as a moment of cultural exchange. Gently explain the reality of your situation in your country. Share your culture with others when you have the chance. Everyone will be curious about you/will want to learn more about your background. Indulge them, and also keep an open mind. Everyone can teach you something.

And oh, when you go out to a restaurant, you must always leave a tip for your server. Ideally 15% of your bill at the minimum. It is considered extremely rude to not tip your server because they depend on tips for the bulk of their income. This is the American way. So, leave a tip!

Just a Small Town College

Oberlin is a SMALL town. So downtown Oberlin is no high street. It's a series of quaint little shops which nonetheless will have most of what you need. A decent selection of restaurants, some Chinese, a burger place, a Korean place, about 4 pizza joints, 2 cafes, a Subway and a Domino's. A general dealer and a bookstore and that's about it. So if you are from a big city, you might have some adjusting to do. For shopping, there is always the internet. For leisure, you will be entertained by the zillions of things happening on campus. It's all very cute, but once in a while, you might need to leave Oberlin to buy stuff or to see a concert. School breaks, winter term, and summer are great times to take a hiatus from the "bubble."

Get Involved

Follow your passions and expand on your interests. Like singing? Why not join an a capella group? I did that, it was fun. Also join other international student groups representing your region/country. Like for me being part of African Students Association has been like being part of a family. When things get tough, these are the kind of people who will get exactly what you are going through and will most likely have good advice and/or a support system in place for you. Seek them out.


Probably a different system from what you are used to. It definitely was for me. Choosing classes is always hard because of balancing my curiosity with my natural abilities in certain areas versus lack of ability in other areas versus career goals versus graduation requirements versus parental expectations versus... you get the message. I learned in the past 3 years to just go with what I think is right for me. Most classes will be good if not great. A few might be not so great. That's ok and expected.

Plagiarism is taken super seriously so learning how to do citations is really important. Chicago style, whatupp. BTW, Microsoft Word can do citations. When I found this out my life changed forever. You're welcome.

Getting Misunderstood

So you obviously speak English. But over in America you will be sad to find out that they speak American. You heard it here first. An example: if you are from the Commonwealth, or Britain itself, when we talk about biscuits, we are talking about round baked things with cream in the middle that you take with your four o'clock tea with milk and sugar thank you very much. In America, a biscuit is basically a savory scone. Served with GRAVY... Whaaaaaa?? And they call biscuits cookies. In short, no one will understand what you are talking about. Eventually you will assimilate to the American way and start calling biscuits cookies. Then you'll go back home and say that and get blank stares. Eventually no one will understand you at all. Start accepting this now for your peace of mind.

Taking Advantage of Opportunities

So you made it. Hello American dream. Now is your chance. Ever wanted to travel abroad? Apply for a winter term grant to study X in some country across the world. Internships? Career services has GOT you. If you need money to travel/do a special project/research, guess what, there is financial support floating around everywhere in Oberlin. The catch is, you have to be proactive about seeking it out. But really, anything is possible. It is most likely that only your imagination will limit you.

And yeah, if you have any questions, drop them in the comments. Good luck with your Oberlin journey, fellow aliens! Hope to meet you in a few weeks :)

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