It is that time of the year when candidates admitted into the fall semester programmes of various foreign universities begin their journey across the sea. While last-minute shopping, repeated glances at the course electives and a never-ending line-up of farewells top the agenda, there are a few other things which every student venturing abroad for the first time must be aware of.
Apart from cultural issues and a major change in the classroom environment, self-reliance on everything from food and insurance to maintaining a bank account will kick in soon.
S. Vasudevan, director, U.S. India Education Foundation, says that most universities conduct a pre-departure orientation session to smoothen this process of transition.
For students who are weak in English, most universities offer a free two-week refresher course in English language proficiency. Dhanasekaran Loganathan, Head of Education UK, South India, says students will have to check with their respective universities and leave 15 to 20 days in advance to attend the course.
Making a decision on accommodation is a tricky issue for many students. C. Vijayalakshmi, educational advising associate at the U.S. India Education Foundation, says,“Some opt for on-campus housing. But it is generally on the higher side since it comes with a meal plan. Those looking to save on living cost usually find accommodation outside campus.”
Sunanda Narayanaswamy, who will be leaving soon to join a master's programme in Marketing Communication at the Northwestern University, Chicago, says “The apartment hunt is a big hassle.”
After looking up a few rental advertisements on Craigslist, she asked a friend in Chicago to check the place. “It was nothing like the pictures they had put up. The place was quite run-down. Since Chicago is a very cold place, an insulated room is a big, big issue.”
She adds that since the kind of winter clothing here is not going to be sufficient, it is better to buy it abroad during Christmas sales. “Travelling light is a virtue. There is no point packing your entire room into a suitcase. You are anyway moving into a much smaller place.”
If any student needs help, the best place to find it would be the close knit Indian student forums that are present in most universities. The coordinators of Indian student associations can be reached using details that are available in the university's website. If you just shoot off a mail, a senior student might even come to pick you up from the airport and host you with a person who already has a room.
Most universities also have restrictions on international students getting assistance right from the beginning. Scholarships will be based on the first semester GPA. However, that will not be the only criteria, says Ms. Vijayalakshmi, as the U.S. education system always looks for a person who can contribute in more than one sphere.
Unlike United Kingdom, where international students registering for any programme longer than six months in duration get cover under the National Health Service, health costs can become a major burden in the United States.
According to Ms. Vijayalakshmi, it is always better to take a health insurance in the U.S. “Some of our insurance policies do not cover all ailments. Each university will have its own health insurance plan. It will be slightly expensive but has wider coverage,” she says.
On the academic front, it will require some effort to get used to the system of credits. Besides, while reproducing what is there in the textbook will get one more marks in India, it will be termed plagiarism abroad.
But then there are the perks as well. An international student ID card could get one a discount on many things, in Britain for example — while buying a book, to go to the museum or to even attend a play.
As Vindhiya Prakash, who is entering her second year in B.Sc Physics at the National University of Singapore, says “I had a really tough time once I landed in Singapore. In India, the time table is fixed by teachers. There, you decide on the subjects. There is even an online bidding process for the electives. After sitting in a classroom with 40 students where you know the teacher personally, it felt a bit weird to sit in a huge lecture room with 200 students.” However, she says it has been a learning experience that has “definitely widened my horizon.” She calls the experience “both tough and wonderful at the same time.”