Culture is sometimes compared to an iceberg—partially visible at the surface but mostly invisible deep below the surface. When international students come to the United States, they may notice some obvious differences between their home culture and American culture such as language, customs, and traditions. However, it might take some time to see the deeper differences such as beliefs, values, and assumptions that sometimes lead to misunderstandings and conflict. Some values and tensions that international students might notice include: freedom of expression and religion; individualism and independence, and equality and diversity. They might also observe and experience Americans’ directness in communication, importance they place on being on time, and organization of volunteer and donation opportunities.
Freedom of expression and religion are included in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and highly valued. There is a wide range of diversity in how people exercise these freedoms across the country, including on university campuses. Students are permitted to gather in groups to demonstrate and share their views, as long as they comply with university policies and respect the rights of those whose views differ from theirs. Each university’s student handbook typically provides more specific rules on student demonstrations, exhibits, and protests on campus. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also provides information on students’ right to assemble and protest in the United States and what is and is not permitted by law.
For students interested in practicing their religion and exploring religion while at university, there are student-led groups that meet on campus, as well as local congregations off-campus that welcome students to join them. Students can check with the International Students Office for more information on how to connect with specific groups and also look through the university’s registered student organizations. Some campuses also have dedicated spaces, such as prayer rooms or chapels where students can go and pray freely during the week. A landscape survey by Pew Research provides additional information about religious practice in different areas of the United States.
Individualism and independence have been valued from the founding of the United States. People tend to believe that they are responsible for determining their own future and self-reliance is valued more than dependence on family and friends, especially for those above 18 years old. This mindset and behavior could be an adjustment for international students coming from cultures that value collectivism and tend to think of the needs of the group over the desires of individuals.
At university there is both individualism and collectivism. For example, students choose their own courses and are graded based on assignments they complete themselves. However, many courses also have small group projects which are graded based on the performance of the group as a whole, rather than by individual. Also, in university sports, students could take ownership of their university teams’ wins and losses. They might use the pronoun “we” to describe how “our” team won or lost against another university team. Sororities and fraternities, also exhibit some collectivist behaviors. Individual students are inducted into these organizations with shared values and traditions that have been passed down over the years to new cohorts of students.
Equality and Diversity
Equality and diversity are values that many Americans agree are important. However, the reality is that some people, including international students, may be treated differently in certain situations based on their race, skin color, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, or sexual orientation. It is also possible that some Americans will have negative stereotypes about international students from particular countries or cultures. If international students experience discrimination, they are encouraged to speak to an advisor in the international student office or other international students to discuss how to respond to any situations of discrimination they experience. It may also be useful in this process for international students to evaluate the stereotypes they have of American students and how that causes them to react in certain ways.
International students may notice on campus that Americans use different terms to describe their race or ethnicity. For example, some Americans of Spanish or Latin-American descent refer to themselves as Hispanic while others prefer the terms Latino, Latina, and more recently LatinX. Likewise, Americans with origins from Africa may refer to themselves as African American and those from Asia may refer to themselves as Korean or Chinese American. Knowing a person’s preferred terms to describe themselves shows respect and value for different cultures and heritages.
Another dynamic international student may observe at their universities is around gender and identity. The majority of university campuses are co-educational. Both male and female students have equal access to learning and recreational activities and opportunities sponsored by the university. Within a classroom, male and female students are usually treated and interact as peers and equals. Males and females may even consider themselves as close friends without any romantic feelings.
More recently, there is growing attention on discrimination against people who have non-traditional sexual identities—for example, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. On university campuses, students are more open talking about their sexual orientation than in the past. It is common for students to know others, including professors, classmates, and roommates, who have different sexual identities. As university policies and laws in the United States are being adjusted, in day-to-day life, it is expected that students will treat others in their community with politeness and respect regardless of their gender or sexual identity.
In general, Americans value time and expect others to arrive to formal and informal meetings at the scheduled time or even 5-10 minutes early. This applies not only to class start times, but medical appointments, group meetings, sports practices, dates, and meal invitations. While many cultures see time as more flexible, Americans may become offended if someone arrives late to a scheduled event. In social contexts, if a person running more than 5-10 minutes late, it is considered a courtesy to call or send a message to let the others know they are going to be late as soon as possible and to apologize for any inconvenience caused. If someone has agreed to an invitation, it is very important for them to follow through. Not showing up is considered impolite and damages relationships.
Americans can seem very direct in how they communicate with one another. In part, this is due to the value on freedom of speech. It is also connected to the belief that being honest about one’s opinions is more effective. Unlike some other cultures, American culture does not emphasize saving face. It normal for people to give candid “yes” or “no” answers to questions. Open disagreement with other people is also considered normal. It may take international students some time to adapt to this style of communication if they come from a culture that tries not to hurt other people’s feelings and is less direct in how they speak to one another.
Volunteerism is an integral part of American society. Many university campuses have an office that coordinates volunteer activities for students in the local community like helping with food or clothing drives for the needy or coordinating alternative spring break trips where students spend their week off helping on a service project. Religious organizations on campus and sororities and fraternities also organize volunteer activities during the academic year.
A sample of the many organizations with opportunities for university student volunteers include: