Being an international student can be lonely, but you can get over it

International education doesn’t need to be isolating.
International education doesn’t need to be isolating.
Image: AP Photo/David Goldman
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It’s the culture shock of loneliness: 40% of foreign students in the US have no close friends on campus. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Even as you go through a tough cultural shock, you can come out having a good social experience.

I’m one of the many readers who can relate to the sense of isolation you can get as an international student overseas. I went to grad school in the US, coming from Belgium. It was very different from my experience in my own culture, Europe.

When I was studying in Europe, abroad in countries like Spain, Germany or Italy, the prime reaction of my fellow international students was to bond together. We put our intercultural experience first, and studying came second. Loneliness was the last thing on our minds.

My US grad experience was quite different.

First off, the focus of all students was much more on academic duties than on social life. Studying journalism at Columbia University in New York, I had at least two articles to write each week. I often worked on Fridays until past midnight, instead of going out. My friends in law school or engineering, or pretty much any other school, went through a similar experience.

Moreover, the cultural adjustment I had to make as an international student was much more profound than expected. Sure enough, in International House, the New York residence I lived in, there were countless initiatives to make us interact with each other and with our American peers.

But as often as I saw people bond, I saw fellow students get their food from the in-house restaurant, and then retreat to their room to eat on their own. They didn’t feel part of the American student body, nor even of the international student body. American culture, despite its notoriety from Hollywood culture, is a very different animal than European, Asian or African culture.

What can we do about? Having talked to many other people who went through the same adjustment period, I know the feeling of isolation doesn’t need to last. One person that I found particularly inspiring, especially in the most difficult moments, was Orit Gadiesh.

Orit Gadiesh now is the chairman of Bain & Company, an American management consulting firm (I worked for Bain before going to US grad school). Yet, despite being the most powerful woman in global consulting, Gadiesh once was a somewhat lonely international student in the US herself, she told me in an interview for my book “Before I Was CEO.”

Gadiesh managed to get in Harvard after her college study in Israel, her home country. After the initial excitement of being accepted at the iconic Ivy League school, however, reality kicked in quite fast. Despite her stellar academic background, the Hebrew-speaking Gadiesh could barely speak English, and her knowledge of American culture was close to zero. At first, “I could hardly say ‘Hi’, ‘Hello’, or ‘How are you?’,” she says. “I certainly couldn’t have a conversation about politics, and I took hours to read a text.”

But the hardest thing, she says, was not knowing about the American culture. “I had never been to a super market. I had never eaten cereals in my life. And I didn’t know who Johnny Carson was.” That was a problem, says Gadiesh, “because HBS is all about case studies, and one of the first cases we had was about whether or not Kellogg’s should add another cereal to its offering.”

It was all very overwhelming. “We had to study at least 3 cases per week,” says Gadiesh. “With my English, I had to translate every word at first. It was hard. Take the word ‘contribution.’ It didn’t mean what I thought. It took me six hours instead of one hour just to read the case. In class, I couldn’t express myself. In my third day, I remember I was looking at a particularly long case. It was midnight, and I hadn’t even finished reading the case. I said: I can’t do it.”

It was a lonely time for Gadiesh. So many years later, it sounded quite familiar to me, and surely to many readers to. So what made Gadiesh survive and thrive in her international studies in the US? What are the lessons we can learn from her?

Pause, keep a can-do attitude, and keep the long term perspective

Never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep and your own resilience.

On the night she felt like giving up, “I decided to just go to sleep,” says Gadiesh. “I woke up the next morning, and I thought: ‘I never quit anything in my life. So I shouldn’t quit this. I should read the important cases, and do so until I master them.’” She made a plan, and stuck it out. “I went to talk to professors, and I joined a study group, which was encouraging. I decided that I wasn’t going to be shy about asking things if I didn’t understand them.”

Surround yourself with one or more people who will support you

In the difficult moments, motivation can come from simple human interactions and small encouragements.

“There was one guy, he thought it was hysterical,” says Gadiesh.” I was a woman, I was Israeli, and I didn’t speak English. So I asked him if he would be willing to help me. And he did. These kinds of interactions, perhaps more than an extra hour at the library, can really help in getting through the tough times. So seek out a few people to bond with, and dedicate enough energy and time to it. Don’t stay in your room all day and all week.

Go out and explore, even when you don’t always feel like it

When Gadiesh became aware of the profound cultural differences between Israel and the US, she decided to spend more time getting to know the subtle and not so subtle aspects of American life. “I started to go to the supermarket with a friend, we looked in the isles about what Americans were eating, and went to a friend’s apartment to watch television.” In other words, instead of sticking to your local food, music, and habits, it’s crucial to push yourself to blend in, too.

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These kinds of tips may seem trivial, but following them may be crucial to your integration. For Gadiesh, it certainly worked. Upon graduating, she was hired by Bain in Boston, quickly rose to the ranks, and eventually became chairman. That may not be the outlook for everyone, but it sure makes sense to get out of your room, and blend in to American life.