Written by S.M. Audsley

You did it! You have been accepted into the college or university programs of your dreams, but now you have to decide which one to attend. This is one of the most important decisions of your adult life -- it will have long-range impacts on your future and it is one of the biggest commitments you will make, both financially and personally. As an international student, there are special considerations to give thought to as you try to make your decision between equally well-regarded higher education institutions. Weighing the pros and cons can be daunting.

An international student (sometimes referred to as a 'foreign' or 'overseas' student) is someone enrolled in a higher education program in another country that is not their country of origin or residence. International students uproot their lives and move to advance their careers by enrolling in degree programs in other countries. This can be exciting and challenging all at the same time! If you are able to afford an on-campus visit to the colleges and universities who have accepted you, then you will want to make sure you have a list in hand of things to look out for before you enroll. To make the most of your short time on campus, we have compiled a checklist to help guide you through this process.

1. International student services and advisors

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by” poet Robert Frost famously wrote poet. So you've decided to take the 'road less traveled'. Great! Arriving and settling into a whole new country and beginning your studies as a new student present unique challenges for international students. You will likely come up against language barriers or cultural differences. It will be helpful to know where the international student services are and if you will be assigned an advisor.

The U.S. News & World Report on Colleges and Universities interviewed Krista Tracey, a university director of international services, who points out how important the international student office is. She says, “We’re usually the only people on campus [international students] know they can come to right when they get here. Since they’re coming from thousands of miles away, our office ends up being the role of the parent to help students out.” The international student services office may also support students in filling out forms for visas and immigration issues.

You will also want to ask if the college or university has an academic advisor program for international students. Most likely, you will be assigned an advisor in your specific academic discipline, but there are trained advisors who can help you navigate course selection and major declaration as an international student. For example, at some international offices, like the Berkeley International Office, advisors are encouraged to use these five tips for advising international students:

1) build relationships

2) foster a sense of belonging

3) connect students to learning opportunities

4) recognize and support

5) normalize students’ experiences.

You will want a caring and attentive advisor who can also advocate for you and offer sound advice. So, make sure you grab a campus map and ask your tour guide to point out where the international student office is.

2. Housing and dormitories

Where you’ll rest your head, and de-stress, at the end of a busy day of classes and studying is really important. On your campus tour, you will want to get a good sense of where the first-year student housing is. Are the dorms far away from amenities such as the cafeteria, gym, library, and lecture halls? Will you need a bike, access to on-campus buses, or is everything within walking distance? These are all important questions to consider while on your campus tour. You can compare reality to the rankings of best college dorms. Ask to see a real student’s room! Melissa Stanger stresses the importance of checking out the housing options on campus, writing, “For students going off to college, their dorms become their home away from home -- sometimes for four or more years. So it's important to many students to make sure that their college dorms are pleasant places to live.”

3. Campus culture and your values

"Not all classrooms have four walls"; much learning goes on outside the classroom. All college and university campuses have a particular vibe going on, or culture. Whether or not that matches your core values as an international student might be an important consideration as you tour the campuses of your top school choices. Slate's Daniel Graham offers some advice on checking out a campus’ library where you may be spending a lot of your time. He writes, “Campus libraries are safe havens. They attract a wide array of students, especially late at night and on weekends. In addition to night owls and procrastinators, there are those with day jobs and those whose living quarters are not conducive to studying. Ask if there are 24-hour libraries or other after-hours study spaces, and whether staff monitor these areas. Schools that accommodate diverse study needs likely value other forms of diversity as well.”

Culture shock can be challenging for international students. While touring the campus of the college or university you are interested in enrolling in, ask around. Talk to students who are walking across the quad, or even make an appointment with a current student who comes from the same country or region as you. You will be able to get a better sense of whether or not the campus culture matches with your values, and if you will be able to integrate yourself and fully take advantage of your college experience.

4. Financial Aid Office & Services

“Travel is never a matter of money, but of courage,” wrote best-selling author, Paolo Coelho. You are already an exceptional courageous student because you want to take the leap of faith and begin your studies abroad, but we all know that money matters.

Jamie Young, from Credible, offers some advice on what to ask about financing your studies on your campus tour: “It’s a good idea to ask the financial aid office what the average total cost of your first year will be. This isn’t just the sticker price of tuition, but the true cost. This includes expenses like room and board, books and supplies, fees, and more. So, ask an advisor what the average cost of each will be to help you figure out about how much your first year will cost.” As an international student there will be special financial aid forms to fill out. As well, be sure to ask about specific funding and grants available as an international student. If you don’t ask, you won’t know the funding you could get!

5. Language services and writing center support

You have made your decision and now you are touring the campus of your dream college or university. Take a look around and don’t forget to ask your tour guide for directions to the writing center. You may want to know if there are special programs for language learning or assistance with translation specifically for the needs of international students. One student, as interviewed for Maclean’s, says, “In first year, I had to put in maybe two or three times as much work as I’m doing now. I’m sure every international student goes through that phase.” But he says that the office was very supportive and pointed him to the campus writing center where tutors help students like him. Tutoring services, assistance in the writing center, and help with English as a second language are generally all provided for free as part of the full services available to you as an international student. If your campus tour guide doesn’t know where these services are, then that could be a big red flag.

There is no doubt that a campus visit can help you decide on whether or not a college or university is the best fit for you and your academic needs, especially as an international student. However, if you cannot afford a campus tour or don’t have time to visit all the campuses you are considering, then look for virtual tour options and keep in mind the same checklist we’ve outlined above. If you are on the waitlist for a college or university, a virtual visit is likely your best option.

Regardless, whether or not you tour in-person or virtually, we recommend you do your homework ahead of time, make a list of questions, and keep in mind your unique needs as an international student. Take good notes on your campus tour. When you get home you will be able to weigh the pros and cons and, ultimately, be more poised to make an informed decision. Good luck!

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