I first moved to the United States when I was 12. Unlike many other international students, I was lucky enough to be immigrating with my entire family. Nonetheless, between the initial language barrier, culture shock, and no understanding of the admissions process when it came time to apply to college, integration into American society was no easy task!
Overcoming Language Barriers
My first experience with the U.S. public education system started with an English as Second Language (ESL) test. After a pretty thorough evaluation of my reading comprehension and writing skills came the most dreaded part – having a conversation with the proctor. I spent several sleepless nights conjuring up the most complicated prompts I could think of, only to arrive to the examination room and be asked about the weather.
I passed the test with flying colors, so the administration felt no qualms about placing me in a regular 7th grade class with students who had never met a foreigner. I quickly discovered that, although I could conjugate common verbs and find synonyms for basic vocabulary words, I couldn’t actually have a conversation in English that didn’t adhere to a set of pre-prepared prompts.
The obvious solution to improving your language skills is hiring a tutor. However, not every family can afford this additional expense, and not every student has the extra time to commit to tutoring sessions. Fear not, there are many ways to boost your understanding of the new language and culture without leaving your house!
Television is Your Best Friend
At this stage of your assimilation process, the best advice I can give my fellow international students is to watch lots of TV and read every teenage romance novel you can get your hands on. Or, you know, pick your favorite genre.
There is no better way to learn to understand rapid-fire American English than to watch American sitcoms and action movies. Back in the days before Netflix, I would actually buy DVDs from a nearby Barnes&Noble and watch my favorite movies with subtitles over and over.
Watching popular movies and shows also helps you catch up on years of American pop culture you missed out on by, you know, being born elsewhere. Just because you understand English doesn’t mean you understand obscure movie references (my entire freshman homeroom was aghast that I hadn’t seen Sixteen Candles).
By ninth grade, I was receiving the highest grades among all my American peers in rhetoric class. In fact, after returning a practice PSAT test on which I received a nearly perfect score, far surpassing the next best grade, my teacher couldn’t believe that I wasn’t a native speaker. She had to pull up my student profile to verify, as my classmates and I laughed. If I can master English in a little over a year and go on to become a student journalist in college, then so can you!
Ask for Help
For the longest time, I was incredibly embarrassed by my accent and by how uninformed I was about local life. So, I would sit silently in the back of the classroom, write down things I didn’t understand, and frantically Google them at home.
These knowledge gaps ranged from looking up slang words to dragging my mom to a local ice cream shop where everyone got their milkshakes since pre-school. That was a terrible approach. Most people around you—your new friends, your teachers, the school administrators—do want to help you. You just need to reach out and ask!
In eighth grade, many of my peers were applying to a prestigious, highly selective high school that offered specialized programs and had a history of sending its graduates to Ivy League universities. Everyone in northern New Jersey knows about this high school, and many families go to great lengths to send their kids there.
I had no idea it even existed, until one day my English teacher approached me during recess to ask if I was considering applying. He knew that I was an international student, and he was worried that I would miss an opportunity for which he felt I was qualified because no one told me about this program.
I didn’t even end up applying, but I did realize that adults around me wanted to help. They wouldn’t judge me or think that my accent was stupid; they actually wanted me to succeed!
There Really Are No Stupid Questions
So, I started asking questions. That practice PSAT test that I aced as a freshman? I had no idea what it was actually for until I approached my teacher, who explained the basics to me after class and sent me to my guidance counselor for further assistance.
Sophomore year, I joined the school newspaper as a photographer. I also took art classes on the side, as I was really hoping to study graphic design in college. For that, you needed a portfolio. Most of my friends in high school were interested in music or sports, so I turned to teachers for help.
After some inquiries, my newspaper advisor told me about a regional competition where student journalists and photographers could submit their best works. I didn’t win, but I wouldn’t even have known to apply if I hadn’t asked!
Use Your Friends…and Your Friend’s Mom
Bugging my friends’ parents with a myriad of questions about academics and the college applications process was one of the better decisions I made in high school. My best friend’s parents both grew up in the U.S. and attended colleges in the area, so as junior year rolled around, they offered to bring me along on school visits.
Unfortunately for me, my friend was applying to engineering programs while I was terrible at math and wanted to study humanities. But I was able to familiarize myself with the college visits process, which is a uniquely American activity.
My Russian parents never went on visits, they just applied to universities located in their city and hoped to be accepted on a merit scholarship. Experiencing the process with an American family, and later having my friend’s mom help me to explain to my parents why school visits were important made a huge difference in where I ended up applying!
Coming from an international or immigrant family, you often have to fend for yourself as your parents have little familiarity with the American education system. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to struggle alone. Even in a large public school where each guidance counselor is overwhelmed with hundreds of students, you can still build a support network of friends, parents, and teachers. The key thing to remember is that there is no shame in asking for help!
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