In many countries, universities must meet national educational requirements established by the government. U.S. colleges and universities have their own ideas about the classes they provide and the students they will enroll. Some colleges are affiliated with a religious organization and follow the guidelines of the religion.

The classes students take in the United States may be different than they would take in their home country. Some classes might not seem to be related to the student’s future career. For example, an accounting student might be taking a music class, or an engineering student may be studying American history.

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In the United States, most colleges and universities provide a “liberal education,” which requires classes in science, culture, and society. Americans believe that almost any job needs people who are good communicators and who can solve problems. The goal for American universities is to prepare students for jobs that may change over a lifetime. They want students to be able to go from a first job to more responsible positions.

During the first two years of college, students typically take several of these non-major courses. When they enter their third and fourth years, most of their classes will be in their major field of study.

Changing Majors

At some colleges and universities, students will arrive at school with a field of study, or major, already decided. Other schools ask students to wait a year or two before declaring a major.

Even if students have decided on a major, some will want to change their major when they learn about different careers or find a new area of interest. Families may not want their student to change majors. But at U.S. colleges and universities, students are encouraged to think carefully about a major that will interest them and that will prepare them for a career where they will do well. Students are allowed to change their major, but they may have to apply to be accepted into a new field of study.

Students who are thinking about changing majors can talk to their academic adviser to find out how to make the change. Students also should talk with an adviser in the school’s career center to understand what jobs are available in their new major.

Career Preparation

By the time international students arrive in the U.S., they usually have selected the career they want after college. Often, though, a university major can lead to many different jobs. For example, studying architecture can lead to a job in landscape design; renovating historic buildings; designing homes, office buildings, or airports, or teaching architecture at a university.

The university’s career center will help students understand job options for their major. Career advisers can find mentors who work in the jobs the student is considering. These advisers can guide students who want an internship or work experience. Work experience through internships, jobs and volunteering are all helpful when students apply for a job after graduation. Career centers also provide coaching for students on writing a resume and on interviewing for a job.

Some international students hope to find jobs in the U.S. after graduation, while others plan to return home to work. Staff in the international student office and in a career office help students understand restrictions on staying in the U.S. after graduating. They also can help students find jobs in their home country or in another country.

University Expectations in the U.S.

Students might find that university classes in the U.S. are very different from what they have experienced at home. Most Americans expect young adults to solve problems and make decisions for themselves. If students need help, professors expect that they will ask for it.

In American classrooms, student participation is an important part of the learning process. Professors in the U.S. don’t just tell students what they need to know about a topic; they ask students to think about a topic from different points of view. They might ask questions during class to find out what the students think about a topic. They may ask students to form small groups and talk with each other during class. This is part of the educational process in the U.S.

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Grading may be different from what international students have experienced at home. Participating in class discussions may be part of the grade. Instead of a single final exam, students might be given weekly quizzes or several tests and reports during the semester that count toward the grade.

The way students behave in class can seem disrespectful to international students. Americans tend to speak directly and openly. They often dress informally, and ask questions during the professor’s lecture, They might call the instructor by his or her first name. American teachers believe their students are showing respect in different ways:

  • by completing assignments well and on time,
  • by asking thoughtful questions to be sure they understand the information,
  • and by establishing a respectful friendship with the teacher.

Faculty members often invite students to visit them in their office before or after class. The student may believe that he or she has done something wrong or is doing poorly in the class. Instead, it may be that the instructor meets with all students individually. Some professors simply want to know their students better. During an office appointment, the professor will encourage students to ask questions about homework or lecture information.

Students will also be expected to meet with their academic adviser. For any meeting with a faculty member or adviser, it is important to be on time. The instructor or adviser will probably ask general questions, such as “How are your classes going?” or “Why did you decide to take my class?” They do this to find out what assistance or information the student might need.

The student will be encouraged to talk freely and openly. International students often answer an instructor’s or adviser’s questions with one-word responses, like “yes” or “no.” They might give polite responses such as “I’m sorry, I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.”

When that happens, the faculty member or adviser wonders if the student understands the question. They may believe the student doesn’t have sufficient language skills.

At the same time, the student is wondering what the instructor expects. It may be hard to think of the right words in English to answer the questions. Or it might be difficult for the student to talk about academic problems if they have never done that in the past.

Students benefit most at these meetings if they write down any questions or concerns they could talk about ahead of time. They can bring their list to the meeting. Any concerns related to classes or professors or homework can be discussed. Professors also appreciate hearing how classes in the U.S. are different than courses in the student’s home country.

It will help both the student and the instructor if the student can explain to the instructor that he or she is still learning about American culture and how American classes are conducted.