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For the Soon-to-Be Graduates of 2009…

April, 2009
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 “College hit me like a slap in the face,” wrote May Wang, a 2008 Western Academy of Beijing graduate on her blog. “I came into college not fully prepared, with a limited vision of the future, kind of expecting this to be summer camp and then I’d go back to my former life….One month later college really started to settle in,” wrote May.

  Reading May’s blog brought back so many memories of my own leap into university. I remember the summer I had spent in Beijing after completing IB exams. It was so full of color, music and freedom – just being with my closest friends, listening to old tunes and cherishing favorite spots in San Li Tun. But in the midst of all this, I remember the bubbling excitement to move on to a new life, a new school and the opportunity to get to know a whole new group of people. I remember envisioning a glorious college experience where I would make instant life-long friends and explore the limitless possibilities that came with my newfound freedom. I would also be getting top marks and living an independent life. I had painted this vibrant picture of my future, and now all I had to do was follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City.

  Oh, if only it were true! Instead of prancing hand in hand towards majestic glittering emeralds, my first year at university made me feel more like Alice…tumbling down the rabbit-hole. Like Alice, I found myself surrounded by ticking clocks. Essays to hand in! Job applications due! Dinner to make; diminishing bank credit; tight phone minutes! In between paying bills and adjusting to new laws, I constantly found myself, much like the rabbit from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, chanting: “I’m late, I’m late – for a very important date!”

  Now, one year later, I look back and I realize just how unprepared I was for university life. But it’s curious as to why. Hadn’t I spent at least four years in high school mentally and academically preparing myself? Hadn’t I learned to stand on my own two feet, manage my money and the direction of my life? Why hadn’t all these hoops I jumped through during grade school prepared me for life “out there”? With all these questions, I decided to do some investigating. I interviewed and researched the lives of other alumni and have compiled some advice for the soon-to-be graduates of 2009. My hopes is that this will help prepare you for what is to come and try to explain why you might feel a certain way during your first year abroad.

  Before leaving you will be hearing countless speeches from those older than you that university will be the best time of your life. They are not  lying. This will happen. But their stories have holes in them. They leave out the part where the feeling of missing home is overwhelming and where you learn that independence is much more effort than you thought. But especially as international students, be prepared for that period of struggle – that period of adjustment where everything is going to feel topsy-turvy.

  Joe Bissell, a Chinese international school graduate now living in Colorado says, “…as far as dealing with the new lifestyle, take it as it comes….there are certain things you can be ready for, like money issues, food, laundry, classes, but actually I’ve found living on your own can be quite intimidating at first..”

  Be prepared to miss your friends, your family, China and yes, even your old school. Be prepared to experience a big culture shock during your first year. But do not be discouraged! This period is a transitory one, one that will come and pass. For each person, it will be different. It will be shorter for some and longer for others. It may hit you after five months of being abroad, or the minute you step off the plane.

  In her blog, May wrote, “…what has happened in this one month alone has been terrifying, horrible, terrific, amazing, everything rolled into one. I’ve had my down moments…. and then I’ve had the adrenaline rush and the excited squeals.”

  Before you leave Beijing, make sure to get contacts for all of your friends. I have never appreciated Skype, MSN, Facebook or E-mail as much as I did this year. When university starts, many suddenly find themselves scrambling for the chance to talk to someone from their past life.

  Make sure you have a solid way of contacting your parents, whether it’s for money or just to talk. Trust me, you will use it often. I had never thought of myself as dependent on my parents emotionally, but during my first year of university I found myself missing my family and wanting to talk to them. It is also great for late night exam cramming and term paper editing! Find a phone plan that will let you make international calls cheaply, buy phone cards or even set up a Skype account. It’s definitely worth it!

  Go to the area of your university a couple weeks before school starts just to settle yourself in. Learn the different locations on campus and study a map of the area. This will help you feel less lost and boost your confidence when traveling around the city or area where you will be spending your university years.

  Elisabeth Schuur, an international school graduate from China, says, “Going to university a month earlier was so beneficial to me! I bought myself a bike and memorized street names and even discovered short cuts. I had settled myself into my apartment and figured out the best route to school, where to buy groceries, and where the bank was. I definitely recommend it.”

  If you are living in the university’s residence or dormitories, make sure to pack as little as possible! One problem that many students struggled with at the end of their first year was moving all their belongings out of their room in only two suitcases. Students were forced to leave things behind or pay for storage space. For those China lovers, the first thing I recommend is to take some time out of your summer to explore the city. Go to the places that you have heard of and have always meant to go to, but just never had the chance. Take the time (and the courage!) to sit in a Chinese restaurant beside the road, eating local food and taking in the unique Chinese experience. Seize all opportunities to go out to your favorite places. Sit in parks, ride the local bus, and take shortcuts you’ve never taken before. For those of you who have lived many years growing up in China, take the time to say goodbye. For all you know, your favorite building or restaurant or park might not be there when you get back.

  “Even though you don’t think you will miss the smells and the heat, you will. There is a certain magic to China that you cannot find anywhere else. When I moved to university, I found myself wishing that I had spent more time touring China and really taking advantage of the culture. I regret taking it for granted while I lived there,” says Thomas Pearce, an international school graduate who went off to England for university.

  Although as an international student you might be used to moving around, when going to a different country for university you are stripped of your previous life and forced to stand naked and alone – scrambling impatiently to discover new bits of life that you can use to keep yourself “warm”. You are forced into a whole new level of independence.

  But through the midst of it all, you learn who you are and what you believe in. I emerged from my first year of university changed. Although the old me is still there, I have grown to incorporate a new version of myself. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the stress and sadness I went through during the first couple of months were necessary. I have created a new life for myself and am a few steps towards completing my summer fantasies.

   In May’s words, “I’ve gotten used to getting [slapped] by life everyday. And I have to say, I kind of like it.”


By Amelia Yan

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