The tough transition: International students help each other adjust to ASU

portrait of ASU international student YiFan Liu


Editor's note: This feature is part of a series profiling different slices of ASU's diverse population. Find more stories here.

Like most newcomers to college, international students can struggle with college rites of passage like making friends or finding the balance between doing classwork and having fun.

But their homesickness can be heightened because their families are thousands of miles away and the food is strange and the language is new.

There are about 9,800 international students at Arizona State University, and they’ve taken a variety of paths to ASU.

Maria Jose Quezada of Mexico City methodically considered several universities before choosing ASU, which she liked for its hands-on approach for engineering majors and because it’s a quick four-hour plane trip home.

Yifan “Leo” Liupictured above, photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now came from China and spent a year with a host family in New Jersey before deciding to attend ASU as a finance major.

And while these students come from all over the world they face similar issues once they get here — from language barriers to the acclimation of a new culture.

Transitioning, and trying to fit in

Quezada said she didn’t feel too homesick when she first arrived, but did get a little surprised.

“Spanish is my first language but I was in a bilingual school my whole life, and I grew up learning both Spanish and English,” she said.

“When I came here, people said, ‘Your accent is so cute!’ At the beginning, it was a little hard to accept the fact that my English wasn’t perfect.

“Sometimes people have the stereotype that you’re not smart enough because you don’t express what you want to say and you don’t have the sophisticated language,” Quezada said.

Liu spent a year with a host family in New Jersey before coming to Tempe, but he still joined in the weekly conversation groups that help international students become more comfortable speaking English.

“We would talk about everything — culture, school life, local restaurants,” he said.

Adjusting to American culture is another hurdle.

“Everyone here wears shorts and if you wear shorts back home every one looks at you like ‘why are you wearing shorts?’ ” said Quezada.

Liu was puzzled by football.

“I did a lot of research from friends and Wikipedia,” said Liu, who’s now a senior. He also attended the “Football 101” explainer event sponsored by the Coalition of International Students.

“After the first game I didn’t want to miss one. It’s impressive. Everyone wears the same color shirt.”

Woman standing in food court

Maria Jose Quezada chose to come to ASU from Mexico City because she liked how the university has a hands-on approach for engineering majors and because it is a quick four-hour plane trip home.

Making connections

Sometimes, making friends with Americans isn’t easy.

“You think, ‘they don’t like me,’ said Quezada. “But it’s just a different culture. Americans are a little bit colder.”

Xin Zhou is the coordinator for international student engagement at ASU, and she also advises the Coalition of International Students.

“Our priority is to integrate the students into university life,” she said.

The coalition is made up of individual student groups including the Indian Students Association and the African Students Association. During the past year or so, the individual groups have become more collaborative with planning events together, Zhou said.

Of the 9,800 international undergraduate and graduate students, more than a third are from China with about 23 percent from India.

The coalition holds social activities throughout the year, including a cricket tournament and a trip to the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort in Flagstaff, as well as cultural events like a Lunar New Year celebration and practical events such as a career conference.

“A lot of international students have challenges finding internships or jobs in the U.S.,” Zhou said. “We have recruiters and immigration attorneys who can help,” Zhou said.

And the group helps the students connect to others like them.

“Usually international students will say that it’s easier to make friends with other international students,” Zhou said. “They tend to bond with each other.”

Quezada, a junior bioengineering major, is a student at Barrett, the Honors College, where she’s found a supportive community.

For one of her Barrett classes, she created a video project in which she interviewed several international students. Her video captured the disorientation they can feel and also the confidence they’ve developed in navigating a new world.

“That helped me realize why I’m here and all of the challenges international students face,” she said.

“And that we all go through the same stuff — food, clothing, the weather.”

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