How to Survive a New Country: A Story From an International Student

By Nguyen Khanh Ha Doan

One of the major steps in a person’s lifetime is making it into university. It’s already hard enough moving into the city all by yourself, but imagine moving into a different country far far away from your home, with the knowledge that you won’t be able to return on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but rather wait until you have one long vacation. Being an experienced international student from a country halfway around the world, I have some advice to share with students who might be thinking of leaving home for school.

Do your research to prevent culture shock

It’s best to know about the place you’re going to spend your next several years in, especially if you ever plan to get a job and settle down there as well. Moving into another country is not as easy as ABC. Culture shock is inevitable, and the consequences of culture shock are quite serious. Most international students either quickly adapt to the new environment, or their mental health is affected because they can’t keep up. I’ve heard stories about students who can’t handle culture shock and they become closed off, unable to communicate or make friends. It can have an impact on not just your education, but your mental health. Do not ever think that you’re going to fit right in just because you “studied at various schools in your home country.” It’s not the same, and it’s always better to come to any place prepared.

Open up and make friends

There is no better way to adapt to a different place than to be surrounded by the people from that culture. A lot of international students start off by finding friends who are also international students, and that’s not bad. I’m not saying you should ditch your friends from home, however you should have friends from Canada, too. They’re the one with the best advice on how to live in the country. They know how cold the country can be in the winter, so they could take you shopping, and believe me, they know which coat you should get. You can also take advantage of Canada’s diversity and make friends from other countries too; there’s no harm in learning about other cultures. You are here in Canada to study and exchange knowledge, so open up beyond your horizon.

Read more: How To Make Friends In University

The language barrier is just insecurity

I would be a lying if I said I’ve never felt lost, even with my friends surrounding me. It’s okay to feel lost and feel like you’re missing a piece of your life’s puzzle. You’ve been with your parents for your whole life. You grew up with people sharing your language and culture and now you’re here, alone in a place where whenever you want to communicate you have to think of the words to make sense of your ideas. Your first essay may not be at the grade you expect it to be because the language barrier is preventing you from making strong arguments or from understanding the requirements thoroughly. Whenever you want to ask for help from your TA or professor, you hesitate to do so because you’re afraid that your accent may sound weird and they may look at you with confusion.

I’ve been through it and I understand. If you find yourself at odds with the language barrier, I want you to take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and tell yourself that you’re here because you fought your way here. You are not perfect, but you are completing yourself day by day and the big city is not that scary. It means opportunity is at every corner and you have nothing to be afraid of. If your first essay was bad, make sure the second one isn’t. Talk to your TA or professor. They will listen to you because your accent is not a problem and it’s their job to answer your questions and help with your study. And remember that you are capable of being successful. 

Loneliness isn't invincible

Every one feels lonely sometimes, not to mention you, who is fighting to adjust to a completely different lifestyle. That’s why I want to take us back to number two: the more friends you have, the less severe the feeling of loneliness. You’re afraid they’re not going to understand what you’re going through? They do, because at some point in their lives they’d felt this way or maybe they’re feeling lonely as well. Open up and talk! Talking is a way to relieve the weight on your shoulders. The best way to defeat a negative feeling is to face it completely; and talking about it is a way of facing it. Once everything is off your chest, you’ll feel so much better.

Take advantage of student discounts

Many places around campus offer deals for students, from Basil Box, to Metro and many stores in the CF Toronto Eaton Centre. State that you’re a student every time  you buy something and keep your One Card handy in hopes that the cashier will give you a student discount.

Buy the SPC card because it’ll save you more than you can imagine. Presto and TTC cards offer student prices. However, I’ve had friends come to me telling me they’d feel bad for using the coupons or promotions because they don’t contribute to the country as much as Canadian citizens. You don’t have to feel bad for taking advantage of them because you coming to Canada is already a contribution you make to the country, both financial and resource wise. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to save a little for yourself because in the end, you’re buying from businesses that are contributing to Canada’s economy. It’s a win-win situation here.

There will come a time when you realize that there is more benefit to going outside of your comfort zone because it helps you grow in a better and more positive way. You are strong enough to make it through the worst time of your life and you are here because you earned your place. Don’t ever think you’re less than anyone, because you were accepted into your university on the same scale or maybe even a harsher scale than them. You are where you are because you fought for it.