Once the initial acceptance excitement wears off and an undergraduate or graduate student confirms their place at a U.S. university, there are a few important steps to take to officially begin the academic journey.
“For many students this is the first time they are away from home, let alone out of their country. The more touch points and time you have to acclimate to your new surroundings, the easier the transition will be,” says Mauro Diaz, dean of international affairs at Woodbury University in California.
International students should mark their calendars for the first day of classes, and then get to work on the following tasks.
Once an international student is accepted into a U.S. university, the school will send a Form I-20, which certifies the student is eligible to apply for an F-1 academic student visa or M-1 vocational student visa.
“Once a student receives an I-20, it is important to know that they’re responsible for paying the SEVIS fee to the Department of Homeland Security,” says Olivier Nizeyimana, an independent education consultant and executive director of IGN Educational Consultants in Texas. SEVIS refers to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a U.S. government database that houses information on international students while they study in the U.S.
Last summer, the SEVIS fee increased from $200 to $350. Students from certain African countries should be aware that they must pay by money order, Western Union Quick Pay or certified check from a U.S. bank, according to DHS. All other prospective students also have the option to pay by credit card.
International students will have to pay the SEVIS fee before they report to the U.S. embassy for their visa interview appointment, Nizeyimana notes, and will need the SEVIS fee payment receipt at their interview. Experts say that students should be aware that the SEVIS fee is separate from visa fees.
Colleen Flynn Thapalia, senior director of graduate recruitment and enrollment marketing at Clarkson University in New York, says students should plan to apply for their visa five months before classes start and connect with the school’s international student services office for guidance.
“Listen to the international office at the university where you’ve been admitted. These are the people who know the process, and they want you to come to study in the U.S.,” Thapalia says. A designated school official, or DSO, can prepare and sign visa documents for incoming and current students, she says. Each U.S. school certified by the U.S. government to enroll international students has at least one DSO who helps them maintain their legal status to study in the U.S.
Experts recommend newly accepted international students attend predeparture orientations in their home country and on-campus orientations at U.S. universities.
Nizeyimana says U.S. embassies or organizations like IGN typically offer predeparture information sessions. He says the sessions are not always a full orientation but offer guidance on what to do once students arrive in the U.S., where to buy or rent textbooks, weather expectations, dress codes, potential cultural shocks to expect “and a strong recommendation to attend on-campus orientation before school starts.”
Predeparture orientations are optional but encouraged for accepted international undergraduate and graduate students, experts say. Parents and family members can attend.
“Students should definitely attend predeparture orientations and webinars, especially those offered by their university and by EducationUSA,” says Thapalia, referring to the U.S. Department of State-supported network of advising centers that assist students interested in studying in the U.S. The EducationUSA website lists upcoming events including orientations around the world.
Experts say most schools usually require international students to attend on-campus orientation. Nizeyimana says on-campus orientations provide information about the university, student expectations and available academic and social opportunities and services such as campus jobs, volunteering, clubs and free tutoring. These orientations allow students to “become familiar with their campus, schedule classes and learn about freshmen seminars or other classes designed to help students succeed in their new academic setting,” he says.
“The international service staff usually have good advice on navigating the first few days in the U.S. and dealing with things like culture shock and homesickness. I also think it’s a great way to meet other international students and make friends since they might feel the same way,” she says.
“Many universities have policies requiring undergraduate students to live on campus, especially during the first year,” Thapalia says. “The availability of residence advisers as information resources is another big plus for living on campus.”
“You have to start fresh when moving to a new country, and the easiest way to make friends is living in a dormitory,” he says.
On-campus housing is sometimes limited for graduate students, Thapalia says, adding, “For them, I would recommend using off-campus housing websites.”
New students entering the U.S. on an F-1 or M-1 visa can arrive no sooner than 30 days before the start of classes and should carry official documents including their passport, visa and Form I-20.
“We suggest starting as soon as possible. Remember to allow yourself plenty of time when selecting airline flights to avoid undue stress from an international flight delay that could add hours, even days to your schedule,” Diaz says.
Apart from air travel, experts suggest international students plan transportation early, including options to get from the airport to campus.
Thapalia says new students should pay attention to what the university advises. For example, she says if an international student is coming to the Capital Region Campus of Clarkson University, which is in Schenectady, New York, she would recommend flying to a hub airport, like Chicago or Washington, D.C, that has direct flights to the local airport near the school.
“But a travel agent will see New York and book a ticket to JFK. Then the student has to drag his or her stuff by bus or train to us,” she says.
Experts say handling such details in advance can help international students ensure a seamless move to the U.S.
“An early start guarantees a successful outcome,” Diaz says.
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