Commentary: An International Student’s Advice on Transitioning to SMU

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By: Malvina Fahel

As the end of fall semester nears, you may feel like you’re walking up a never-ending slope. We’re in the midst of midterms, probably a little homesick, and with our motivation on the decline.

Most of us left our homes to go to college. I’ve not only left my family and friends to come to SMU, but I’ve also left one wonderful culture for another. I went to high school in London, England, and then came to the States for college. I’m a third-culture kid, or a “global nomad.”

During the first few weeks of school, how many times did you get asked, “where are you from?” I’ve lived in Houston, Beijing, and most recently, London. I don’t identify with a single place, so I didn’t know how to answer that question at first. I resorted to naming London as where I’m physically come from. Immediately afterwards, I’d almost always get a “what?” or a “London, England?” While it felt cool to shock and intrigue people, I began to realize how out of place I felt.

The transition to college from one country to another brought me a lot of mental, social, and practical difficulties. I’m on the other side of them now, though. I’ve successfully repatriated and adapted to life at SMU. I’ve come up with some funny stories lined with pieces of advice that may be beneficial to you.

Whether you’re a Texan studying at SMU, or an international student studying in America for the first time, you will have already encountered a few challenges. I hope you’ve dealt with them well so far, but let this advice support you further through the rest of your year.

I’m incredibly grateful for having witnessed the world outside of America. I’ve seen how people live differently, and that has widened the perspective I have on my own life. After witnessing the cultural norms in China and England, my arrival in Dallas had me a bit shocked.

Guess what? That’s completely normal.

As a freshman, I slid into the SMU bubble and worked to meet other international students so that I could create a diverse environment for myself. I became friends with all of the unique people I could find, especially in my dorm. If you seek out diverse individuals, each one will teach you their perspective on life based on their different life experiences. I encourage you to empathize with, embrace, and respect other people’s life experiences.

I want you to push yourself to meet new and different people. Socialize hard because almost everyone else is still open to finding friends. Still, don’t forget to keep in touch with friends from back home.

Feeling a little homesick, I called my parents every day. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself mocking your home country and homesickness turning into other negative feelings. Instead, take your time to grieve your losses, whether they be a pet, a friend, or your favorite restaurant back home. Don’t rush it. A lot of freshman are also likely feeling homesick.

Now for something more embarrassing. Growing up in multiple countries and away from American popular culture, I never watched Big Time Rush or Star Wars. I didn’t know football terminology and expected tipping amounts. When I arrived at SMU, I felt ignorant to sports culture and politics, which led to a few embarrassing miscommunications. To easily prevent awkward situations, do your research and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.

Say you need to find a nice hair salon, reputable dentist, or you need to find more resources for enhancing your experience at SMU. I encourage you to rely on SMU’s network for opportunities and for help with navigating your college life. Even for exploring what Dallas has to offer, don’t be scared to meet more people and to ask them for help.

I’d like to recommend The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition by Tina L. Quick. It goes more in depth about the international student’s transition from home to university. I read this book before coming to SMU. In doing so, I have avoided negative thoughts and many awkward mishaps.

Remember, you’ve already made one of the more major changes your life. Relax, give yourself a break, clear your head, and even pick up a hobby. Let my advice be your armor as you finish this semester. Good luck and stay positive!

Malvina Fahel is an American citizen, but she is also a “third culture kid”. She has lived in Texas, Colorado, London, and Beijing. Spending more than half of her life abroad, she’s grown up exposed to different cultures and traditions. Her varied experience has given her a broad background and an adaptable mind-set.

After attending an international high school with students from Saudi Arabia to Latvia, she learned the importance of being surrounded by a multicultural network. She has developed a mixture of perspectives and a unique social skill set that allows her to connect with and help different types of people.

She hopes that sharing her experience and sound practical advice will help other SMU students enjoy and survive the rest of the school year.

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