The Quad: What it’s like adapting to UCLA’s culture as an international student
(Michelle Fu/Daily Bruin)
By Audrey Pham
Nov. 20, 2018 11:58 a.m.
Faces can quickly become blurs in the midst of UCLA’s hustle and bustle.
For the first-year international Bruin, this large setting can be especially daunting.
First-year international students, who made up approximately 10 percent of the students that enrolled as freshmen in the fall of 2017, begin a monumental social and cultural transition as soon as they settle into a completely different part of the world.
First-year statistics student Howell Su, who came to UCLA as an international student from China, can attest to the academic and social differences in a foreign environment. Su, who had never been to the United States prior to arriving at UCLA, said he finds there is both excitement and hardship in such a large, new campus. This has made his one of his classes, Political Science 40: “Introduction to American Politics,” particularly difficult, given that he was not fluent in the American government as an international student.
“What’s great about UCLA is that it has a very vibrant social life,” Su said. “But this also makes it really hard to adjust as an international student. I’m just trying to blend in.”
Unlike Su, Valentina Ocariz, a first-year neuroscience student from Brazil, had visited California before moving to UCLA. However, she said she had only seen a very niche, touristy side of the state, so when she arrived at UCLA she was surprised to see it wasn’t all beaches and glamour.
Indeed, the period of social adaptation for international students can become a culture shock – the simple cultural differences in everyday jargon across the world are magnified in such a large and diverse school setting.
In the case of international students who are more well-versed in languages other than English, the process of cultural acclimation may be particularly hard. Su, whose first language is Chinese, said speaking in English with his peers can feel particularly out of his comfort zone.
“Communication as simple as understanding a meme or talking about fashion is difficult,” Su said.
Social and physical boundaries in the United States also vary significantly for some first-year students coming from different parts of the world. Ocariz said she’s noticed that interactions at UCLA are more impersonal and that the idea of personal space is more strictly enforced.
“In Brazil, we hug,” Ocariz said. “It’s a very normal greeting. Here, if you hug someone, they’re going to cringe.”
The journey of adapting to a foreign college is one that Anu Chinzorig, a third-year economics student from Mongolia, knows well. Her first quarter consisted of a lot of adaptation to the foreign environment, social life and workload. However, Chinzorig said she found American film and television helped make the adjustment process feel a bit smoother.
“I found the culture at UCLA and the culture represented in American media to be quite similar,” Chinzorig said. “It gave me an idea of what to expect.”
Some students said entering an environment so far away from home may actually work in favor of international students. Chinzorig said that, without the safety net of meeting up with high school friends or coming home for the weekend, they are often more driven in taking social initiative at UCLA.
“By not having anyone here, I made more of an effort to branch out of my comfort zone,” Chinzorig said. “If you already have a bunch of friends, you won’t try as hard to explore different things.”
Su said he credits the ease of his transition to the Living Learning Communities on the Hill, which group students together based on similar interests. The packed and talkative lounges of his Design & Innovation community made approaching other students less nerve-wracking, Su said.
Just as residential communities can act as a hot spot for forming friendships, classes and extracurricular activities play an equally important role. For a large campus, shared professional and personal interests can act as a common denominator in establishing lifelong relationships. For instance, Chinzorig said she met her best friend on the second day of classes, both of whom had identical schedules and majors.
As for Ocariz, she found that joining the Brazilian Student Association of UCLA gave her a home away from home. The club hosted party-planning events and class-planning tutorials, which helped foster a community for people who shared her cultural background.
For international first-year students jaded by the unfamiliarity of a foreign environment, taking advantage of classroom and club meetings is key. In the long run, Su said capitalizing on everything that UCLA has to offer will make the campus a home away from home.
“Anything can happen when you’re open-minded and bold,” Su said. “Don’t stay in your comfort zone.”