Standing before a packed conference room of about 250 international students, Diane Gu knew exactly how they felt at this moment as strangers in a new country.
Just two years ago, Gu, 25, a native of Beijing, was a new arrival at UCLA herself. But today, to help an increasing number of new international students and scholars adjust to campus life, she speaks from her own experience to ease the culture shock for them.
“One of the things you need to know is what they are saying when they use slang,” Gu told a crowd of newcomers attending her talk, “That’s So American: Culture Shock,” part of UCLA’s orientation program for international newcomers at Bradley International Hall.
Zhao Chen, 18, left, and Yijun "Wil" Dong, 19, new students from China, catch a quick lunch inbetween sessions at the Dashew Center's orientation for international students and scholars.
For example, when an American asks “How are you?” they don’t really want to know that, she explained. Students shouldn’t launch into a detailed discussion of how he or she is doing or how the day is going, she advised. “It really just means ‘Hello.’”
A record number of international students — nearly 1,000 — heard Gu’s talk, which she gave at various sessions during the New International Students & Scholars Orientation (NISSO) hosted by the Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars.
At the daylong program, students received vital information on visa regulations, how American academia might differ from their own and how to balance their academic and personal life.
The orientation, held at Bradley International Hall, helps students from other countries make the transition to academic life here. The number of such students is on the rise.
The orientation is particularly important this year since more and more international students from approximately 100 countries are attending UCLA. About 835 new international freshmen and transfer students enrolled here this academic year compared to 570 last year. Nearly 1,000 new international graduate students also will be attending the university this year.
“Our goal is for our students to leave NISSO better aware of all the opportunities UCLA has to offer,” said Robert Ericksen, the Dashew Center’s director. “The very last thing we’re trying to do is to create an isolated community.
“We want our students out and about and fully engaged in the amazing programs and activities UCLA has,” he added.
The center’s own research shows that international students who are the most satisfied with their personal and academic lives are those who have a multilingual circle of friends and colleagues from multiple nations.
To integrate international students into campus life, the Dashew Center, which serves 4,000 exchange and non-degree students, hosts several programs. The Global Siblings Program, for one, pairs domestic and international students. Often, the domestic student will introduce their “sibling” to friends and invite him or her home for American holidays.
UCLA student volunteers, including many graduate students from applied linguistics, also run the center’s English Conversation Program. Once a week, non-native English speakers meet up with these volunteers to converse casually in English and brush up on their language skills.
Each quarter, the Dashew Center also hosts a trip for domestic and international students to a destination outside Los Angeles such as San Francisco, Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon.
“It’s a great escape from the rigors of academic life, and our students have a chance to meet new people,” Ericksen said.
All those programs do help international students acclimate to a new life, said German transfer student Veronika Meier. But what’s also crucial, she said, is letting students know that they will experience culture shock and where they can turn to for help.
Henrik Arnstorp, 23, of Norway, left, meets up with Laurier Fourniau, 21, of France at orientation.
Meier said she was in a “honeymoon” phase the first few weeks she was in the United States studying at Santa Monica College.
But after a few weeks, she started feeling lonely; it was difficult for her to make friends.
She talked to a therapist at Santa Monica College, who told her that she was experiencing culture shock and that it, in time, it would pass.
Gu, the student who made the Dashew Center presentation, encourages students to work out, become involved in student groups and talk to a counselor if they’re feeling overwhelmed.
“Be aware that culture shock might happen, and it might last for the first quarter,” Gu added. “Give yourself some time to adjust to the social life.”