Be it a sense of independence, the cultural exchange, the language, programs and opportunities, or for personal growth, it is undeniable that the United States is one of the top destinations for international students who want to explore beyond physical boundaries. But, if you are going to call this place your home for the next four years of your life, I don’t think the academics should be the only thing to pay attention to. To vaguely quote Hamlet...
To be, or not to be (surrounded by people from your home country):
That is the Question.
There are definitely benefits to choosing a university with a significant international student population, especially when a large percentage is people from your home country.
Few things are better than the feeling of instant connection with someone, being together in a different country. Chances are you will be the minority. You find it hard to get along with domestic students, for some reason, and then you find someone else from your country, and immediately there’s a connection. Sometimes it’s not even just people from your home country, but from your region in general—it seems so much easier to make friends with people with whom you can share beliefs and culture. You want to talk about your country’s political situation, or latest movies, and these friends already know about it. You don’t have to give context before explaining, so sometimes that makes it easier. But that can get a bit dangerous— it’s good to have friends from your home country, but try not to make them your only friends. Why would you come to a completely different country, if you were going to hang out with the exact same people and stay in your comfort zone?
Sense of Community
If there are more than five people from your country in your university, you could probably have (or start) a club with them. You can share your culture without having to just try to explain it by yourself. In some universities, you can even organize campus-wide events to celebrate some of your country’s festivities with the rest of the student body, which obviously is not a one-person job. When there are more people from your country, it becomes a support network. They don’t even have to be your close friends to have your back, because you’re in this together.
When You Get Homesick
Leaving home is rough- this is coming from someone that used to say I would rarely get homesick, but I think about my dog about three hundred times a day. Sometimes it hits you straight away; it’s hard to understand native English speakers, no one looks like you, or people treat you differently. Others, it hits you after a few weeks of not hearing the music, not eating the food, or not feeling the warmth of your own culture. In extreme cases, something big happens back home, but no one here knows about it. Or at least, it feels as if they don’t care. This is when you seek your people the most, because you want to be understood and you want to share your pain with someone who can see things from your perspective.
But that also raises the question; can you find these same feelings and relationships even if there are not as many people from your country?
Not to be.
You’re Learning English
One of the main reasons to study abroad is to become more fluent in a different language through complete immersion. Surrounding yourself with people from your home country and closing yourself off to only this group of people reduces the opportunities to practice the language you’re trying to learn. If you know that you tend to interact only with the people you feel most comfortable with, you may want to choose a university with less people from your country. Or, at least, expand your circle. Be it with domestic students or other international students, the common language will be English so you will be forced to practice in your everyday life.
Community Where You Don’t Expect It
Let’s be outright: While it is true it is easy to find a community with people from your home country while you are both abroad, the belief that you cannot find community in other people is simply a myth. Getting involved in your university’s clubs and events, talking to classmates, you will start to build your own community and support group. In my university, I am the only Ecuadorian student, so I will be the first to admit that it was hard to cope when a natural disaster struck Ecuador. However, in that experience I realized I actually had a community with my school’s International Student Center and friends I’d made through my years in Seattle University (SU). At first I envied my friends in other schools who had other Ecuadorian friends to talk to. But, there really is something special about other friends and your community’s unconditional support because even if they don’t come from the same physical place, they can still try to understand. Geographical location and origins don’t determine where you find community.
Learning from Different Cultures
If you limit yourself to people from your home country, you are also missing the chance to both show your culture to people who may not know anything about it, and learn from other students’ cultures and traditions. Being able to learn from different cultures will give you a more global perspective, even when it comes to making decisions about your future. You will be surprised to find how similar cultures from the other side of the world can be, so talk to different people. Expand your circle. Regardless of where they come from, students have similar questions and doubts, so you won’t be alone.
There are pros and cons to either decision. It’s quite subjective whether you want to study where there are more people from your home country or not. But, regardless, I think that before you study abroad it is useful to know the general international population in your prospective school. Ideally, your friend group will be a diverse and balanced one, since there is always something to learn from different perspectives. Such information should easily be found in your prospective school’s website, under International Student statistics or demographic.
I would also recommend asking your prospective school’s International Admissions Office if you could contact a current international student and ask them about their experience. That will most likely be the most direct and honest opinion you can get to inform your final decision.
In the end, it really is up to you. What are your priorities? What will make you grow, and what will make you happiest?