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Nothing can ever fully prepare you for university, and your transition from high school to university will be marked by a number of challenges and new responsibilities. Being an international student does not set you apart from Canadian students when it comes to adjusting to a less structured school environment or being on your own for the first time, but there is one challenge in particular which most Canadian students will find hard to empathise with.

Whether you’re a third culture kid or you’ve been raised in one place your whole life until university, this is the one obstacle you will find out trumps all others. 

What has the huge potential to make your first year at university difficult in a way that you had not anticipated is experiencing culture shock and having to adjust to a new culture, without even realising that you are. And even if—as a third culture kid—you’ve managed to overcome this at least once before, then the real challenge is having to adjust to an environment that is not as international or as global as your last.

As an international student from Jakarta, Indonesia, I had imagined that coming to university would be an extension of my high school experience, having attended an international school where I had not only Indonesian friends, but also those from a number of other countries on different continents. But at U of T, international students are so scattered among different programmes and courses that I don’t meet them as often as I’d like to or thought I would. I have met many more Canadians simply because it is more statistically likely, but as a result I felt a great sense of cultural dislocation in my first year of university.

What some people don’t realise is that as an international student you inevitably have to attune yourself to different habits, and moving to a different country signifies having to make some big adjustments to lifestyle. Adjusting, however, is not the challenge—the challenge is accepting that you are in a completely different place and accepting that you cannot equate your life in Canada to your life in your home country, even if you turn out to enjoy living in both countries equally. Every Canadian and international student you meet can be open-minded and accepting of the cultures you identify with and how they shape your personality, but unfortunately—and with neither of you at fault—it is still something that they will never be able to fully relate to.

You end up having to learn how to conduct yourself when people discuss their preconceived notions of what your culture is like. You learn how to correct them, and you learn how to answer the follow-up questions that are motivated by curiosity but are easily mistaken for ignorant behaviour. 

The all-time most common grievance I’ve known many international students to have had in North American universities is being presented the backhanded compliment, “(but) your English is so good!” This happens upon telling someone where they are from or where they were raised, and is followed by having to deliberate an appropriate response that highlights that there is nothing about being raised in a developing country that makes it a huge surprise for one to be completely fluent in English.  But even as you learn, it becomes an odd social chore to constantly have to explain yourself whenever the topic of your cultural or ethnic background arises.

Even as you may grow to call Toronto “home,” your social interactions with your friends, or with waiters, professors, or strangers, will always be different because you conduct them in a different cultural context; and implicitly compromising on cultural differences is something you eventually learn to do with international and Canadian students alike. Upon arriving at university, it’s always the tangible challenges that we imagine first. 

However, feeling cultural disorientation and having to occasionally divert from your cultural identity in order to build relationships with people at university are intangible challenges that are significantly more difficult to take hold of because they are not as easy to recognise and acknowledge. How you choose to cope with them determines the dynamics of your social groups and your social life at U of T as a whole—it will define your entire university experience outside of academics, and is thus a challenge that can take as long as the full four years of university to overcome.

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