By developing key skills related to communication, connections and beyond, Indian students thrive at American universities.
For students coming from India and around the world, building a support network is a key skill for success. Photograph courtesy University of Southern California.
Studying in the United States can be a thrilling, eye-opening and deeply transformational experience. It can also feel like a big, scary challenge. That’s why the right preparation—especially when it comes to developing vital skills, both inside and outside the classroom—can lay the groundwork for international student success.
Experts advise prospective students to start networking before they leave India for their higher education and lay the groundwork for successful relationships at school, brush up on basic conversation skills to communicate effectively, be open to adapting to a new learning style, and equip themselves with basic life skills like cooking and doing their laundry.
Connect with other students
Learning to forge meaningful relationships with other international classmates can prepare students for their study abroad experience and set them up for success once they arrive in the United States.
Nora Sandoval, executive director for student engagement at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, says building a network of those who are on a similar journey can give international students a community and camaraderie, and help them know what to expect when they arrive in the United States. “So many students from India get to know each other before they arrive at our school,” she says. “That network is really a key resource.”
To build those connections, Sandoval recommends working with the U.S. university the student will attend and seeing what resources are available to help. For example, the University of Southern California has a dedicated social network to help students connect from anywhere in the world, she says.
“Learning to build your own network in the United States is a vital skill, and it’s important to remember that everyone’s support network is going to look different,” she says. “Connecting with other students coming from India is a great place to start.”
Brush up on conversational English
Karan Manocha, who leads Kashico Consulting Services in Hyderabad, studied engineering at the University of South Florida. When he first arrived in the United States, Manocha found that expressions and pronunciation used in everyday English conversations were not what he had expected, despite his many years of studying the language.
“Not being able to communicate effectively in a language that I felt I was quite proficient at led to a bit of frustration,” he says.
To develop his conversational language skills, Manocha got creative. “I would often call up toll-free numbers of airlines or credit card companies,” he says. “While this may sound like something done in jest, it helped me immensely. Later, I took up a job at the alumni center, where part of the role was fielding calls from alumni.”
Whether through phone calls, as per Manocha’s example, or studying television shows like University of Houston president Renu Khator did, or entirely another creative route, building conversational English abilities will help set students up for success from the very first day on campus.
Stay flexible inside the classroom
Indian students coming to the United States may find a completely different style of learning from what they’re used to. Uncomfortable as it may seem at first, building the skills to adapt can make a huge difference.
“There is so much flexibility in the [American] curriculum and one is constantly encouraged to be interdisciplinary in approach, not to mention the heavy focus on research,” says Itihaas Singh, EducationUSA adviser at Kolkata. “Hence, there is usually a learning curve to adapt to and thrive in the new system.”
Ojas Rawal, a successful Mumbai television and film actor who studied science at the University of South Florida before changing gears and launching his entertainment career, agrees. “In the United States, education can be like a chorus, where everyone has to sing together while also singing correctly individually,” he says. “Contrastingly, in India, there’s a lot of rote learning, and very little to do on your own other than just memorize information.”
By developing the skills to adapt, Rawal says that he reaped big rewards. “If I hadn’t been exposed to undergraduate research in the United States, I never would have learned teamwork, comprehensive analysis and interpersonal communication, which is something I now do regularly,” he says.
Once you get used to the philosophy and practices of American higher education, Singh adds, “the intellectual growth and evolution is quite life-changing.”
Learn the new environment
Indian students who have never lived in the United States may need to learn a variety of new skills, says Rawal. For instance, many students might be unfamiliar with cooking and doing one’s own laundry. “It’s important to take the time to develop the practical skills you’ll need for day-to-day life both in and outside the classroom, and that opportunity I got in the United States.”
Sandoval agrees that adjusting to a new campus, community and country can require students to develop a special new skill set. “The more you learn about your new environment, the more empowered you can feel to navigate it,” she says. “Understanding the housing situation and finding a place to live, for example, can be a challenge for international students who have never done it before. Again, working with your university, asking questions, and building your network will help international students figure things out.”
As you investigate places to live, don’t hesitate to seek help. Universities will be able to provide resources like housing guides, dedicated student residence opportunities, connections to trusted real estate professionals and more.
Learn to spot scams
“Unfortunately, international students can be targeted for scams, and my colleagues and I work very hard to educate our students on how to avoid them,” says Sandoval. “International students may not know that American government agencies will never call asking for bank account information—and that if someone does call claiming to be from immigration or the FBI and demands money, hang up and get help.”
For Americans and visitors alike, spotting scams can be hard sometimes. But Sandoval believes it’s a vital skill for international students to develop. Beyond a university’s efforts to provide education about scams, “if students from India face any sort of situation where something doesn’t feel right, they should never hesitate to reach out to their university’s office of public safety and ask for advice,” she says. “Public safety staff members are there to help.”
Get involved, but not distracted
For Rawal, participating in student clubs and organizations was a godsend, and just as educational as his formal studies. “The more I got involved with the student community, the more I saw a whole new world,” he says. “Student life experiences gave me the skills and abilities to discover solutions to all sorts of personal and professional challenges.” Rawal attributes much of his success to connecting with people, speaking publicly, managing difficult projects and to his involvement with student organizations.
While extracurricular engagement can provide priceless opportunities, Manocha cautions against overcommitting. “At any given time on most American campuses, there were a plethora of events going on,” he says. “While these are quite useful and help with integration into the culture, attending a lot of these is also time-consuming. And since most of these are open to nearly all students, it is easy to get distracted and lose time instead of focusing on developing skills or completing coursework.”
When it comes to involvement in student activities, there’s no single formula for success. “It is important to find a balance between your academic and social life on the campus,” says Aditi Lele, EducationUSA adviser in Mumbai. “This can be challenging as you begin your journey as you have to do all by yourself.” Lele suggests one strategy to help figure things out. “At the end of the day or week, sit down and ask yourself what were some tasks that you were not able to complete and what could have been possible reasons,” she says. “Try to make changes to adapt to a new lifestyle.”
Manocha says that students just arriving from India may take some time to acclimate to American culture but curiosity, exploration and openness can help overcome cultural differences.
For many international students, learning to manage fear of the unknown can be a key skill for success. “One must learn to break out of the comfort zone to learn new things,” says Lele, “so don’t hold back even if something looks challenging in the first place.”
Michael Gallant is a New York City-based writer, musician and entrepreneur.