Recently we caught up with James Madison University International Study Center director, Jennifer Little. She gave us answers to some of the most frequent questions asked by international students arriving to JMU for their first semester studying abroad. Want to know the answers? Read on!
Question: What can I expect in my first week at the International Study Center (ISC)?
Answer: The first week is an extremely busy time as we work to get you set up in the university system, moved into housing, placed in the proper courses, and comfortable with the university and your classmates. There are sessions and activities from morning to night every day. You may feel a little overwhelmed and tired, but hopefully also excited by everything you are learning about your new home and all the amazing people you are meeting. Our staff is here to support you throughout the process, so you should always feel comfortable asking questions or for help with anything.
Q: What kind of orientation activities will I take part in?
A: A lot happens during orientation. The first day you will get set up on campus by activating your JMU accounts and moving into your housing. We also help you get your local bank account set up and take you shopping for anything you may need. After that there will be some informational sessions about life on campus, some testing to make sure you are placed in the right courses, and lots of fun activities with your new classmates and roommates. About a week before the start date, you will receive the full orientation schedule so you will know what to expect.
At orientation you will spend much of your time with LINKers, who are other international students that have been highly involved on campus for at least two years. They will help you through the whole process and understand exactly what you will be feeling.
Q: What is it like to live in Harrisonburg?
A: Harrisonburg is a small and safe city. If you are coming from a major city in another country like Baku or Shanghai, it may be an adjustment at first. But our size makes us a very close and integrated community, where neighbors genuinely care about each other. Harrisonburg is known as “The Friendly City” and I think it lives up to the name. It was recently rated the #7 Most Caring Small City in America. In March of 2018, we were rated the #1 mid-size city in the US to relocate to and the #6 town in America in 2016!
It is also an extremely diverse community, and our local schools are in the top ten for most diverse in the entire state, with over 55 languages spoken. Even though we are not large, we still have a wide variety of shops and restaurants, and our downtown is Virginia’s first official Culinary District. Our students do not have any difficulty finding things they want and need. Getting around town is easy as well. The Harrisonburg bus system is clean and efficient and JMU students ride for free!
Sometimes it’s nice to get out of town as well. Harrisonburg is situated in the famous and beautiful Shenandoah Valley. It has many hiking trails, bike trails, and river adventures nearby. We are located only an hour away from the city of Charlottesville and two hours from Washington D.C. Regular transportation from campus on the Virginia Breeze bus helps students easily escape to the U.S. capital.
Q: Is there anything I should know about cultural differences in the U.S.?
A: You will encounter many cultural differences, and it is hard to summarize them as each country is different. Students in the past have pointed out that the food is different and people do not usually share it. They have also noticed that they are expected to speak up in class and ask questions and that every assignment/day of class matters in the grading (not just a big test at the end). They also note that people are very friendly and expect you to respond to them.
At the ISC we help you to navigate all of the cultural differences you encounter and encourage you to embrace them. As a diverse community, most people in the area are very understanding and accepting of cultural differences and will be curious to learn more about you and your culture. Don’t be afraid to share, but make sure you reciprocate by learning about their culture too.
Q: Will it be easy to meet people and make new friends?
A: Absolutely! JMU is known as one of the friendliest schools around and there are lots of opportunities to make friends. The most important thing is to get out of your dorm room or apartment and meet people/ get involved. JMU has over 300 clubs and organizations, so you will be able to find people like you no matter what you are interested in. There are events every day on campus to take part in. If you prefer one-on-one interaction, the Conversation Partner Program is a great place to meet friends on campus, and if you want to learn more about local American families, we encourage you to look into the LIFE program. In both CPP and LIFE, our students find lifelong friendships that continue even after they return home.
Q: What if I can’t speak English very well?
A: Harrisonburg is a very diverse community and we are used to people who do not speak English well. Most Americans are very patient and will try to help you and make you feel comfortable. Hand signs and finding other ways to describe what you want to say are always helpful. But, you will improve in your language very quickly once you are here and surrounded by it all the time, especially if you make the effort to use English as much as possible, even when you are with friends who speak your native language.
Here is a little-known fact: if Americans seem uncomfortable trying to understand you, it is not usually because they are frustrated with your language abilities, it is because they are embarrassed that they are having trouble understanding you!
Q: Who can I talk to if I have problems?
A: There are plenty of people you can talk to, depending on the type of problem you have. A great place to start is with the Student Success Manager in the ISC. If she is unable to help you, she will get you connected to a person who can. All of the ISC staff is focused on helping you become a successful student, both academically and socially, and you should always feel comfortable coming to any of us with any problems or concerns. Your professors want to help you in your classes and the different learning centers are also there to help in your success. If you encounter any health problems or problems related to the adjustment to a new country and culture, the Health Center and Counseling Center are both great places to speak with people who can help you. In general, you will find no shortage of people to help you through whatever you need at JMU.
Q: Will I be able to find food from my home country?
A: In most cases, yes. The large super markets will have standard food that can be found anywhere (meat, fruit, vegetables, etc…). For specialty foods from your home country, we have a large international supermarket that covers the majority of cultures. We also have an Asian grocery store, an Eastern European grocery store/bakery, a Halal restaurant/grocery store with Middle Eastern products, and lots of Latin American grocers. Our students do not seem to have any problems finding many of their comfort foods from home.
Q: Will there be other people from my home country?
A: We cannot always guarantee that there will be, but every new semester brings more students from around the world. Many factors concerning who comes to campus are out of our control, but we did have 66 countries represented on campus last academic year. The likelihood of finding at least one other person, if not many, from your home country is pretty good. And with the diversity of the surrounding city, your chances are even greater of finding someone with a common cultural background.
Q: What if I need extra help with my studies?
A: Great question! There are so many ways that we work to support our students and lots of services to help any student who needs just a bit extra. English Language Learner Services is a great place to start when you are having difficulty. There is also the Writing Center, the Math Center, and the Communications Center that all offer tutoring to students. In the ISC, we have a dedicated tutor to help as well. For students who can do some of their work, but are having trouble getting assignments done, Learning Strategies Initiatives provides help with Time Management, Study Skills, and Test Taking. The ISC Student Success Manager helps students identify where they need help and will get them connected to the right people. All support services at JMU are confidential and free of charge, so there is no reason not to use them!
We hope you found this Q&A useful. If you have any additional questions, do not hesitate to visit the pre-arrival page on our website or contact us using an inquiry form!