How International Students Can Stay Connected to Home

Though Serena Zheng from Canada has yet to step foot on the University of California–San Diego campus, the first-year international student, who has been learning online from home, has already planned how she will stay connected with family and friends once she does attend in person. While she will only be about a six-hour flight from Toronto, she knows that constantly staying in touch with home can also bring peace of mind to her parents.

“With the recent shootings and hate crimes that took place in the U.S., parents of international students have become increasingly worried about their children’s safety when they are off by themselves,” says Zheng, who is majoring in economics and mathematics.

For prospective international students, staying connected with friends and family is a top priority and concern, says Rohan Pasari, co-founder and CEO of Cialfo, a technology platform connecting students, universities and counselors around the world.

Cialfo recently surveyed more than 3,800 international high school students and found that 44% of students who chose not to study abroad for higher education cited remaining closer to family as their primary reason for not going.

Experts say planning to stay connected in advance can help ease some of those concerns.

“Whether it’s a recurring weekly catch-up, a spontaneous monthly video call or a Netflix party to watch your favorite show, there are a couple of things to consider early on that will make these connections much easier,” Pasari says.

For example, before leaving home to study at a U.S. college or graduate school, international students should first use a time zone tool to decide on a time frame that works for family and friends, he says, and should also find and set up the best and/or easiest platforms to use — particularly for older family members who are not tech savvy.

[Read: 3 Steps Incoming Fall 2021 International Students Should Take.]

Here are several ways international students can plan to stay connected to home:

— Schedule regular virtual conversations, phone calls.

— Post on social media, blogs, YouTube.

— Send letters and postcards, and plan a trip home.

Schedule Regular Virtual Conversations, Phone Calls

Setting a regular appointment to chat with family and friends can make the distance seem less far, whether it’s virtually, on the phone or through text messages.

“This is my first in-person semester and the first time away from my family,” says Eva Shen, a Canadian studying operations research and information engineering at Cornell University in New York.

Shen says she stays connected with family via FaceTime and describes the platform as easy to use and convenient.

“It is always nice to see each other’s faces while talking. It definitely makes you feel closer to them,” Shen says.

Now more than ever, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, Pasari says international students should leverage technology to its fullest to stay connected.

“Any video calling app where your friends and family are, be it Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger or many more, is a great choice for keeping in touch,” Pasari says.

[Read: Ways U.S. Colleges Support International Students During Coronavirus.]

But in a time where many people are already maxed out on Zoom for school and work, a traditional phone call can be a happy escape.

“There are benefits to talking on the telephone versus on video chat,” says Tiffani Hooper, co-director of college counseling at the United Nations International School in New York. “After spending all day looking at a screen, sometimes it is nice to have a conversation over the phone while going for a walk or doing laundry.”

Lauren Seo, senior international student advisor at Woodbury University in California, says students “are advised to contact their mobile service carrier to unlock their phones and purchase a local SIM card in their home country before their departure.” She says if phones cannot be unlocked, students can install one of the messaging apps that can be connected with Wi-Fi.

Post on Social Media, Blogs, YouTube

Many international students start travel blogs and YouTube channels to capture their experience of studying in the U.S. — and in the process, also make new friends and inspire prospective international students to study abroad.

“Another way to stay connected with family and friends overseas is by sharing their experiences on social media,” Seo says.

For example, Indian national Harnoor Singh started a YouTube channel, Singh in USA, with videos of his undergraduate and graduate school experience at Georgia State University, and also has an Instagram account.

“I created my YouTube channel just to share my journey as an international student in the U.S. to the world,” Singh says.

Pasari says creating a blog or private Instagram account makes it easier to send regular updates “without needing to schedule individual calls with everyone back home.”

Hooper notes, “Many students stay connected through social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Students also get their news from social media and so connecting on these platforms — spaces they already occupy — makes the most sense.”

Zheng says she’s active on social media, especially Instagram, “so I’m definitely looking forward to sharing pictures of the UC–San Diego campus and San Diego attractions with my friends and family once I arrive there.” She says she plans to share even more content with her family through a private group chat on the platform.

Send Letters and Postcards, and Plan a Trip Home

Carefully crafted handwritten letters sent through snail mail may seem old school but can mean far more to loved ones than a hastily sent email. Postcards allow family and friends to see an international student’s experiences and new places they’ve visited, such as cities, parks and museums.

“I do have the habit of sending a postcard home for every place I visit,” Zheng says. “It’s definitely a good way for students to keep their family updated on their life outside of studying.”

Even if letters and postcards can take weeks to be delivered, Hooper says written correspondence “provides a document of a particular time in your life — an opportunity to take a snapshot of your experiences and return to them later in life.”

Looking forward to reuniting with family and friends in the near future can also help close the distance. Students can book a trip home in advance or arrange to have family and friends plan a short visit to the U.S.

[Read: 4 Hidden Costs for International Students While Studying in the U.S.]

“Many students travel back home over the winter or summer breaks, but not all, due to travel restrictions in their countries,” Seo says.

Zheng says she plans to look out for updates on travel policies so she can decide whether to go home for breaks.

Once she’s a student in the U.S., she plans to FaceTime or message her parents daily. She also plans to keep them informed of her location whenever she leaves the school neighborhood or is out by herself.

“It might sound like a lot of work, but the last thing I ever want is for them to worry about my personal safety and my whereabouts,” Zheng says.

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