9 things I Wish I Knew Coming in as an International Student


I’ve had multiple people asking when I go back to school, but I’ve actively made the choice not to check just yet because to do so would be to admit that this is, in fact, the start of my last and final year as an undergraduate student. And admitting this comes with a myriad of emotions that I’m really, really not ready to deal with. 

However, mirroring this is the fact that my younger brother is beginning his first year of college — also as an international student in the United States — and this, too, has evoked about a bunch of emotions within me: particularly a deep nostalgia for my own freshman year. While helping him settle in, I realised that there are so. many. things I’ve learned from my 3 years so far, be it from mistakes that put me in less-than-desirable situations, to good decisions that helped out a lot. Here goes!

Note: all the pictures in this article will have been taken from 2016-17, aka the year that I came into college…so this is about to be a fun throwback session. Enjoy. (: 

1.Everyone’s just as lost and confused as you are

One thing about being in a place that you aren’t familiar with is that you’re extremely aware of your “other” status from the very beginning. It can feel like everyone knows what’s going on (and a lot of people are good at pretending that they do except for you. Safe to say that there was a lot of panic and second-guessing, even when the task was as ‘simple’ as figuring out which room my class supposed to be in. But then there’s always this iconic conversation that takes place when you meet someone who seems equally confused as you do:

A typical day in New York City.

“Do you know where this event is? I’m kind of lost.”

“Dude, I have no idea. Let’s just follow those people – they seem to know where they’re going.”

Thing is, we’ll find out later on that the people we were following also don’t know where they’re going, and so we’re now a massive group of lost folks laughing at our distress and feeling grateful that we’re not struggling alone. Needless to say, this is how many of my friendships have begun. It can be scary to admit that you’re lost or confused, but asking for help gets easier as you go – there are always people down to help you out. It’ll soon become laughable to think that you thought you were the only confused one.

2. School events are not as lame as they were in high school

Maybe this one’s just a me thing, but one of the unspoken rules was that attending particular school-hosted events weren’t “cool”. I subconsciously brought some of this attitude with me to university in that I was quick to ignore most (if not all) initiatives put on by my residence halls and/or other student associations.

Now, as a senior, I’m on a waiting list to go on an excursion organised by the international students office and am paying more attention to the emails I receive from the African Student Union because I have to be ready for their next fashion show. Perhaps I’ll even go for the next French department’s social or something. These initiatives are usually subsidised by the organiser so that they are accessible to students who may not have as much of their own spending budget as other students, and they are a fun way to show you a lot about this (new) place that you live in.

(It also goes without saying that it a chill way to meet people who have similar interests).

3. but also, get involved in activities outside of school!

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🎺 #vsco #NYC 🎶

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I’ve been a part of a women’s football (soccer) team in Singapore for a sumer and have played pick-up field hockey atop Pier 40’s rooftop field in New York City (the view is insane). In both situations, it turned out that I was actually one of the youngest in the group, with everyone else being fully-grown adults with full-time jobs and post-grad degrees and even families. It’s definitely a strange juxtaposition to being in a student environment, but it’s also very fun and liberating. 

At first, though, I didn’t immediately think to look outside of my school to get involved in extracurricular activity. I think that when you’re an international student, it’s easy to live only within the bubble of your university and forget that you’re in a town or city where a whole population is not, in fact, a student. But it’s healthy to constantly challenge your perspective. Volunteer at an outside organisation, attend poetry readings at the small bookstore that students don’t know about, and go play some frisbee with random people you’ve never met.

4. don’t be afraid to do things alone

Another piece of baggage that I may have carried over from high school is the fear of doing things alone. Back then, to sit at the lunch table alone meant that you didn’t have friends or that no one wanted to be around you; to not sit on the grass with a group of friends made you an outsider. The fantastic thing about the world outside of high school is that NO ONE CARES – no one even notices. But even with this knowledge in mind, I still can get anxious having to do things alone. 

But learning to enjoy your own company is an important part of finding who you are and so it’s a good thing to prioritise. It can be done in baby steps. Sitting at the library alone – that’s easy, right? Then what about taking that reading to a small café? Then after, what about the park? 

It must also be noted that doing things alone doesn’t mean that you’re the only one there. Remember points #2 and #3 where I talked about going to school-organised excursions or playing footy with strangers? Even something like Airbnb has “Airbnb Experiences” where locals offer their services as tour guides and you can sail on their boat or do a walking tour of the street art scene in your city. Sure, ask your friends to go with you, but you’d want to be okay to still go even if/when they can’t make it. 

Moving to a new city can be overwhelming and there’s two basic things you have to set up: your phone line and your bank account. But you don’t know how phone plans work in this new country and – aren’t all banks the same? 


I ROYALLY messed up when it came to registering with a bank and with a phone service provider: I went for the first option given to me by NYU without doing much or any of my own research. With the phone line, the school had mailed over a SIM Card even before I set foot in the US (the SIM didn’t belong to any of the major networks, but rather a carrier that uses the infrastructure of the majors). Similarly with the bank account, the school had its own affiliate credit union, so this seemed like easy option to go with. My thought process was most likely that my status as a student here wasn’t permanent enough to actually sit down and treat these decisions with the amount of time they deserved. DO NOT THINK THIS WAY! 

The SIM Card company randomly underwent a takeover by another company and the customer service was extremely poor. Luckily, by the time I returned from my semester abroad they had already given my number away. so I switched to a major.  And, the biggest nightmare was with the school’s credit union: hidden fees, lack of transparency, arbitrary card cancelations, and so on. I threatened to switch every time, but I never acted on it – until a dire situation finally prompted me to make the switch. This time I did a lot more research, asking friends what banks they used and their experiences as well as researching for myself stuff like student packages and whatnot. Now seeing all the things that I have access to with my new bank and new phone line quickly showed me how many inconveniences I really didn’t need to put up with.

Being financially responsible often only comes up in the context of saving and spending, but it certainly extends to being particular about the bank you use and generally the companies you choose to provide your services. Again, it might seem intimidating, but doing your research can save you a lot of time, tears and money.  

6. your student status is quite valuable 😉

How much you instinctually remember that being a student has a ton of benefits may categorically depend on where you grew up – Nairobi (as far as I’m aware) didn’t have it all too much, so it took a minute for me to remember that student rates are a thing. But alternately, there will be many cities – notably those in the developed world – from Melbourne to Nottingham to New York, that understand that students are not necessarily in the best financial place. Your school may sell discounted tickets, but also public institutions from museums to aquariums may also have treats in line for you.

It goes further than that. Software programs like Microsoft Office (Word, Excel – the whole pack) are free for students; music streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify (I’m actually on a student deal that pairs Spotify Premium with TV Streaming services Hulu and Showtime for less than $5 a month).  Many coffee shops, grocery stores and restaurants ALSO offer discounts if you show your student ID. Sometimes these rates are advertised explicitly and sometimes very discreetly, so it doesn’t hurt to ask. Once you’ve developed the reflex to always inquire about it, you’ll find that there’s a lot of money you can save.

7. make CONCRETE plans to visit the places you’ve always wanted to visit

In point #3, I spoke about being signing up for an excursion to somewhere. I wasn’t going to mention where, but if the point of this list is for you to learn from my mistakes, I suppose I’ll have to tell you what they are: no, I have never been to the Statue of Liberty. Yes, I’ve lived in New York since 2016. So in a haste, I’ve signed up to go with the school (hello there, discounted rates!)

Don’t be like me. Don’t listen to your brain when it tells you, “I’m here for four years. I have time. I have so much time to see it.”

Sure there’s a lot of time, but it goes by so. quickly. That list you’ve been sitting on of places you want to visit? Act on it now. And by concrete, I mean you should decide when: it’s better to say, “I’ll visit the Met in October” rather than “I’ll visit the Met this semester” so that you can actually follow up and hold yourself accountable. Because when you say October, you’ll check which weekend works best for you, and when it comes you’ll be ready to go.

Now that I’m in my last year, I wouldn’t say that I’m now scrambling to do tick off everything on my list, but I’m kind of scrambling to tick off everything on my list. 

8. Have a healthy mix of friends from different places

If you asked me who my closest friends in the United States are, in my list you’d find individuals from San Francisco, Nairobi, Seoul, Singapore, Buffalo, Toronto, Kiev…and so on. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What’s more NYC than the subway?

As much as I dislike to admit it, I was hesitant (or maybe uninterested) in making friends with other Kenyans or other Africans during my freshman year. (My thought process: what’s the point in going abroad only to hang out with the same crowd?) But over time, I quickly begun to understand: it’s not about rejecting one or the other, but rather about having a healthy mix of people – from home, and and from elsewhere. Because it’s important to have those around that you don’t have to explain your upbringing to, who’ll just get it; as well as those that you can show your country to and who can show theirs to you, too.

9. This is your time to be YOU!!

One of my most memorable college experiences: me and some friends stayed up the entire night to catch the sun rising over Brooklyn Bridge.

This article is for those of you who, like my brother, are about to find yourselves far away from home in a place where you’re about to spend a definite amount of time in (but can’t, for the life of you, fathom what that’s going to be like). If you’re anything like me, you may have watched tons of Youtube videos and read lists exactly like this about what to expect. Thing is, while these may offer some valuable advice, there will also be a lot of things that only you will be able to learn for yourself. One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is to take advantage of a space where you can fully let go of all the pressure and doubts that took you away from yourself and l i v e y o u r t r u t h. As previously said, no one cares who you are or what you’ve been through – so do all the things you’ve been afraid to do! Sure, you can look at this as “reinventing” yourself; but maybe it’s more that you finally have the space to be who you really are. Free yourself. 


While many of the stories on this travel blog have to do with my short-stay travels around the world, it’s easy to forget that moving to a whole new country, and living there under student status, is just as pertinent and diverse of a topic to discuss as well. If you’re a first-year student, what are you looking forward to most? And if you’ve already lived through your first year, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to give to your freshman year self?

Also, let me know what other topics you’d like me to discuss what with being an international student on this site!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. CK says:

    What invaluable advice! Yes really practical too. I formed some of my life long relationships in college.


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