International Student Handbook


Those who travel about the world are sometimes referred to as "sojourners," or "those who live somewhere temporarily, as on a visit." If sojourners in an alien culture are to successfully accomplish their task, certain types of information must be readily available and must be understood.

Who we are as people and what we can do that is socially acceptable is largely determined by our families and the culture that surrounds us. Over the life span, we come to know and understand the structure of our society. Sojourners enter a new culture without this accumulated knowledge about the culture, and their ability to function adequately in the culture is impaired. To be effective in the completion of the task for which they entered the culture, these sojourners must assimilate a wide body of information that is intrinsic to the culture. One researcher of the sojourn experience has put it this way:

It is difficult for us to orientate ourselves in everyday life: how should we greet people or accept their suggestions, when should we take their remarks seriously; how should we interpret different lifestyles, gestures, expressions, and so on?

For you, the international student, the task at hand is obvious - the completion of an educational program. This handbook addresses those aspects of the American culture that are not normally taught, but which must be acquired through life experience. We hope it will help you to interpret the signs and signals of our environment, the signs and signals needed to guide social interaction.

Communicating with Wheaton College 

Writing your name

As you have occasion to correspond with us in the next several months, it is very important that you always write your name the same way. Whenever you write your name, write it exactly as it appears on your passport. Whenever you sign your name, sign it the same way and as legibly as possible.

F1 Visa/Legal Status

Once you are accepted, Wheaton College will send you a Form I-20 (immigration document). This verifies that you have been accepted into a specific degree program for the expected length of your program, and that you have documented a certain amount of funds available for your education and living expenses.

All international students will then need to apply for an F-1 Student Visa. In order to apply for this visa you will be required to present Form I-20 Certificate of Eligibility. You must have a passport valid for travel to the United States and with a validity date for at least six months after your proposed date of entry into the U.S.

Read about your immigration responsibilities and applying for your F-1 Student Visa in more detail as you read the information for new admitted students.

Academic Information

Wheaton College has organized the academic year on the semester system. This academic year has two periods of 18 weeks each the first beginning at the end of August and the second in January. Generally speaking, international students are admitted to begin classes only at the fall term, which begins at the end of August. This allows students new to the North American continent the time required to become adjusted before the cold winter weather begins. Exceptions are made occasionally for students already studying in the U.S. A third, shorter, semester is held immediately following the spring semester, usually beginning the week after graduation. The subjects studied in any semester are completed during that semester. New courses are begun at the beginning of the following semester.

The semesters at Wheaton are divided into "quads". Some classes are taught for only one quad--for one-half of the semester. Others are taught for the full semester. Credit hours refer to the number of credit hours given for each class. Quad courses receive 2 credit hours, while semester classes receive 4 credit hours. The number of credit hours needed for graduation varies from one program to another, but each semester all international students must carry a full class load, which is 12 credit hours. Undergraduate students usually carry an average load of 16 credit hours.

Most examinations at American colleges and universities are written, rather than oral, and they are administered more frequently than in many other national educational systems where only one examination is given at the end of the school year. In addition to a written exam, students may also be required to write research papers. Plagiarism (copying material without attributing the source) and cheating are strictly forbidden and may result in expulsion from the college.

You will have two advisors while at Wheaton: your academic advisor and the international student advisor. Your academic advisor will assist you in determining what classes you should take. The international student advisor will help you if you have difficulties of a personal nature or need advice about such matters as banking, housing, etc. Whenever you have a problem you cannot deal with alone, the first person to contact should be the international student advisor.

Americans are very interested in the weather. Most television news programs and all-news radio programs devote a segment to weather forecasts. Many banks even have electronic signs which flash the current temperature readings.

Weather in the State of Illinois

Since the U.S. is a large country extending over several latitudes, climate varies widely. Winters in the northern states are very cold, while southern California and Florida have mild winters. The winter season usually lasts from early November through mid-March. Some areas experience a rainy season, as in the states of Washington and Oregon, while others, like parts of Arizona and New Mexico, are dry most of the year.

Illinois is a state that experiences the spectrum of climatic changes. In the spring the weather is wet and mild. Summer is often hot and humid with temperatures averaging 75-80 degrees, although it is not unusual to have weeks where the temperature reaches 90-95 degrees with the humidity of 60-70%. Autumn is cool and damp. Illinois winters are snowy and very cold. It is important to secure warm clothing for the winter weather.

Many styles in clothing are available. Some points to consider when looking are:

  • COATS: Is it washable? If it is, it will save money on dry cleaning bills. Many ski-type jackets made with nylon are washable. Look for labels inside the jacket that tell you how to keep it clean. The label will usually say - MW or machine wash (wash at the laundromat or in your own washing machine). If the label says "dry clean", then you will have to pay as much as $3.00 to have it cleaned each time. A nylon jacket with a dacron lining may be very light but will be warm. Some ski jackets are lined with goose down. This also is light and warm but is usually much more expensive that dacron lining or fill. A hooded jacket is convenient, but you will usually need a cap under the hood also.
  • SCARF or MUFFLER: Usually wool, acrylic or dacron. Helps to keep your face and neck protected from wind on cold days.
  • MITTENS or GLOVES: Mittens and gloves come in many styles, and prices vary. Knitted gloves are less expensive than lined leather gloves. Make sure they are heavy enough and warm. You might also consider a pair that is waterproof.
  • CAPS: Many styles are available but probably the warmest are knitted caps (for both men and women). Purchase something that can cover your ears on cold days.
  • SWEATERS: A sweater worn under a heavy coat increases the insulation and warmth. Many styles are available-both wools and acrylics are warm.
  • BOOTS: A good fit, warmth and waterproofing are important points to look for. Most American students choose boots that they can wear indoors and outdoors on campus.

If any of the above items are not available in your home country or if such items are inconvenient to bring with you, you may purchase the clothing in Wheaton. If you do have national dress, we encourage you to bring it, as it will always be of great interest to your new friends and acquaintances.

REMEMBER: IF YOU ARE BRINGING YOUR CHILDREN WITH YOU, THEIR CLOTHING NEEDS ARE THE SAME AS YOURS. Be sure you consider their clothing needs as you prepare to come to Wheaton.

Moving to a New Culture

Remember that it is a Learning Experience!

You are coming to the United States to further your education, to learn more in a particular academic field. Certainly you will be learning many other things, too, things relating to the way people of another culture live and the way they view the world and their own lives.

There is valuable learning in experiencing and understanding a way of life different from yours. It may surprise you to discover that you will learn things about your own culture that you may not have thought about before. It is a rare opportunity not only to broaden your viewpoint but also to mature personally and to realize and establish your values.

Many people in the U.S. are interested in seeing pictures, national dress and other items which depict the culture and life of your country. You may also wish to bring some small souvenirs, typical of your country, to give to U.S. friends and hosts. Enjoy your Wheaton experience--and learn from it.

Ask Questions

The best way to find out about something you need to know or want to understand is to ask questions. Do not hesitate to ask questions, even if the question may seem trivial or you think your English is not good enough. People here are generally helpful, but they can't always guess what it is you need to know. Ask questions.

"Culture Shock" - What Is It?

"Culture Shock" is a name given to a feeling of disorientation or confusion that often occurs when a person leaves a familiar place and moves to an unfamiliar one. Coming to Wheaton from another country, you certainly will encounter many new things. The buildings will look different and so will the landscape. The food will not be what you are used to, and the people here look, speak and act differently from people in your country. Your English may not serve you as well as you expect. You may not be able to convey your full personality in English. Your family and friends will be far away. There may be academic anxieties: Will you do well in an educational system different than the one you are used to? Will you live up to the hopes and expectations of your family and sponsor? Will you be able to make friends? All these things can be a part of "culture shock." Culture shock can make you feel confused, unsure of yourself, doubtful of the wisdom of your decision to come here.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

People experience culture shock in varying degrees. Some people are more affected by it than others. Those who do experience it tend to become nervous and unusually tired. They sleep a lot. They write many letters home. They may feel frustrated and hostile toward their host country. They may become excessively angry over minor irritations. It is not unusual for them to become very dependent on fellow nationals who are also students here. All these feelings may make it difficult to deal with Americans and to feel comfortable about speaking English.

Coping with Culture Shock

Different people react differently to culture shock but almost all foreign students must cope with it to some degree. Here are some suggestions that may be helpful:

  1. Maintain your perspective. Try to remember that hundreds of students have come to Wheaton from other countries and have survived.
  2. Evaluate your expectations. Your reactions to the United States and to Wheaton and the college will be the products both of the way things are here and the way you expect them to be. If you find yourself being confused or disappointed about something, ask yourself "What did I expect?" "Why?" "Are my expectations reasonable?" If you determine that your expectations are unreasonable, you can do much to reduce the amount of dissatisfaction--and unhappiness--that you feel.
  3. Keep an open mind. People here might do or say things that people at home would not do or say. Try to understand that they are acting according to their own set of values, and these are born of a culture different than yours. Avoid evaluating their behavior by the standards of your own country.
  4. Learn from the experience. Moving to a new culture can be the most fascinating and educational experience of your life. It is an opportunity to explore an entire new way of living-and to compare it to your own. There is no better way to become aware of your own values and attitudes and to broaden your point of view!

Visit the International Student Office often! A discussion with the foreign student advisor may help you find a good perspective. It is also a good place to meet other foreign students and learn how they are handling problems and making adjustments.

A Second "Culture Shock" When You Return Home

Almost all students who study in foreign countries experience some degree of culture shock in reverse, when their studies are completed and they return home. Some students find these adjustments even more painful and difficult than the problems they faced when they first arrived at Wheaton, partly because they didn't expect them. Among re-entry problems are problems of identity and insecurity upon returning home, adjustments in life style and interpersonal relations, family and community pressures to conform, frustration as a result of conflicting attitudes.

Be aware that re-entry anxieties exist, and seek counseling--or at least an informal conversation about this at the International Student Office before you finally depart for home.

Successful Adjustment Strategies

Knowledge & Attitudes That Will Help You in a New Culture

Flight, light, and adaptation

When entering a new culture, a person may fight it, try to avoid it, or try to adapt to it. Everyone engages in all three to some extent, but adaptation is the most effective. It is helpful to evaluate your behaviors and overall adjustment experience in terms of these approaches.

If you are aware of the normal cycle of cultural adjustment that everyone goes through, it will help you understand yourself and not feel you are abnormal. Many people are very excited and happy at first, but shortly thereafter they may experience stress, confusion, anger, fear, or physical problems. Be assured that 99% of people experience some difficulty adjusting, but are able to cope quite well.


Don't expect that you should be able to function smoothly and get things accomplished easily in a new culture. The higher your self-expectation, the greater the possibility of frustration and disappointment when adjustment struggles do occur.

Knowledge of American culture: customs and history can help you to understand and get along better in your new environment. Read whatever you can, always be observant and ask questions.

Think about how you have managed transitions in the past (leaving one life situation and entering another), and apply the strategies that helped you.

Know and accept that you will make mistakes.

Be ready

Americans perceive you as a "representative" of your country.

Americans may be insensitive & ignorant about your country & adjustment struggles you face. Be ready to reevaluate and challenge your own assumptions, stereotypes and preconceptions. Have a sense of humor about yourself and adapting to this new culture!

Remember: your goal is to adapt to life in the U.S. in a way that is appropriate and effective for you--not to adopt the American way or become Americanized!

Everyday-Life Skills to Apply in a New Culture


Watch very carefully how people behave in specific situations.


Reflect on your own behaviors in cross-cultural interaction; how do your cultural customs and values affect who, why and how you interact with others.

Basic transactions

Through practice & observation refine and adapt your behavior to be appropriate in daily transactions (using the bus or the bank; buying groceries; keeping appointments, etc.)

Idioms and common expressions

Pay attention to common expressions and seek their real meanings and implications (don't always take things literally).

Ask, ask, ask!

This may be the most important skill of all. When your contact with American people and culture makes you have strong reactions, or feel confused or when you simply don't understand something, ask Americans and others who understand the culture to help you understand. In America, asking questions is a well-respected behavior, so you should practice it! Also, don't hesitate to ask people to repeat what they said if you didn't hear or understand.

Discuss and validate

Even when things seem to go well, discuss your daily interactions with someone who knows the culture to see if your actions and perceptions are accurate and appropriate.

Saying no

It is culturally acceptable (as well as common practice) to say "no" in the U.S. in situations where it is not common or acceptable in some cultures. If you don't understand someone or don't want to do something, it is proper to say so: "No, I'm sorry, I don't understand" or "No, I really don't want to do that". Observe Americans & practice saying no in different situations. It's considered less rude to say "no" than to give the impression that you understand or agree when you really don't.

Dealing with ambiguity

You may find yourself in situations where American culture dictates that you behave in a way that is different or contrary to your own culture's values. These can be difficult moments. You need to choose which value & behavior is personally appropriate & effective for you.

Initiate conversations

You have to practice your communication/interaction skills to improve them, so you often will have to make the first step.

Take risks, experiment

Attempt to overcome your fear of trying new behaviors and experiences: go places & participate in activities so that you can observe & try out culturally appropriate behaviors.

Coping Strategies That Will Help You in a New Culture

Relax; enjoy yourself; see this as a life & growth experience (including the struggles & blunders). You may want to withdraw from the outside environment temporarily to avoid overload and fatigue. Get plenty of sleep, eat on a regular schedule, and read or take time in your room or in a natural setting.

It can be helpful to keep some kind of contact with your home and culture (letters, reading about home, reading in native language, contact with fellow nationals, etc.).

Suspend judgment: There are three ways to deal with the observations you make about Americans and American culture. Think in terms of "D", "I", "E":

  1. Description: describe the "facts" that you see or experience
  2. Interpretation: what you think or interpret about what you experience
  3. Evaluation: how you feel and what value you attach to your experience

You will naturally be inclined to judge (interpret or evaluate) what you see. However, it can be more helpful and effective to suspend judgment by focusing on descriptions and to separate your descriptions from your interpretations and evaluations. Ask Americans for their point of view and talk with friends before making strong interpretations or evaluations.

Work hard on your English (listening and speaking especially).

Developing friendships is important: precisely because you are away from family, friends and community, you need to build a new "social support system" (including persons with past or current cross-cultural experience).

Prepared by Mark Schneider, Office of Int'I Ed., University of Minnesota, 8/88 ("Everyday Life Skill" adapted from James A. McCaffrey's article in Int'I Journal of Intercultural Relations, 12(2), 1986).

What is an American?

There are so many aspects to any one culture that it is impossible to describe or to summarize in a few words what the culture is like. However, there are some characteristics of American culture that can be described, and perhaps these descriptions will help you understand better the behavior you see and observe in the United States. It does not mean, of course, that everyone in this country will display these characteristics, but it does mean that these characteristics tend to be evident in the country in general. The word American as used here means a person from the United States. Actually anyone in the Americas -- North, Central, and South America - can be called an American. However, there is no convenient word in English for a person from this country, and the word American has come to be used.

Scientific Orientation

The United States and the western world in general have accepted scientific methods and scientific reasoning as the way to understand the physical world. They believe that everything in the physical world should have a logical, understandable basis. Many other countries do not necessarily accept scientific explanations and are likely to be guided in their behavior and understanding of behavior by mysticism, tradition, or other non-analytical bases.

Control of Nature and the Environment

Americans usually think of nature as something that can be altered, conquered, and controlled for people's comfort and use and in order to minimize the effects of fierce weather conditions. In contrast, many cultures accept nature as a force greater than people and something to which people must adapt rather than something they can change or control.

Progress and Change

Most people accept change as an inevitable part of life. Non-Western people tend to look to their traditions as a guide to the future. Americans are more inclined to make decisions based on the anticipated or desired future, and they tend to view change and material progress as good and desirable. Achievement, positive change, and progress are all seen as the result of effort, hard work, and the control of self and nature.


Americans usually look for measurable results of their efforts so that they can decide whether they are making progress. They often stress material comfort and convenience, while many non-western people strive for spiritual and aesthetic values that stress the inner experience of a person rather than any tangible result. Americans will often judge another culture by its material progress - how many telephones, how many calories - and neglect other possible aspects.


In American culture there is great emphasis on the individual, who for the most part is responsible for making the decisions, which affect his/her own life. In non-Western cultures decisions are often made by a family, clan, group, or someone in authority. Americans think that individuals should take control of their own lives, develop their own potentialities, and use their own initiative to move ahead. There is less emphasis on consultation within the family or clan, where an individual's actions may not reflect his/her own desires. Members of a traditional society are likely to regard their role in life as fixed and not to be questioned or changed. Americans have a desire for personal success, for social and economic progress, and they are not likely to consider social and cultural factors as barriers to their ability to get ahead. A result of this is the competitiveness of American life. Achievement is a dominant motivation in life.

Moralistic Orientation

Americans tend to have a missionary spirit to win other people over to their way of thinking and are likely to judge other societies in terms of the United States. Because there has been great economic and technological progress in the United States, Americans often think that other countries should use their example and adopt their ways of doing things.

Time Orientation

Americans generally are very time-conscious, treating time as a material thing that should be used, manipulated to best advantage. People who waste time or do not make good use of their time are considered lazy and unmotivated. A by-product of time-consciousness is punctuality. Americans set a specific time for meetings, conferences, parties, dates, etc., and others are expected to arrive at that time. Anyone who arrives after that time is considered late, both in business and social situations. Americans often have difficulty with people from cultures where time is less important and people are not expected to arrive at the set hour.

Doing Rather than Being

Americans consider activity as a good thing, and they use expressions like "keeping busy," "getting things done," "keeping on the move." Rather than simply getting together with friends to spend time together, Americans frequently will plan an activity -- any activity - and will tend not to get together without some focus to the time spent with friends. People in other cultures often comment on this emphasis on "doing" rather than "being."

Separation of Work and Play

Because Americans are motivated by a desire to achieve and to get ahead, they tend to make a sharp distinction between work and play. They are serious at work, very businesslike, and want to "get down to business," rather than spending time chatting on unrelated matters. As a result Americans have difficulties functioning in other cultures where you must cultivate a social relationship with someone before you can transact business. When Americans play, they are more relaxed, time is less important, and there is more emphasis on social relationships. Even at play, however, Americans may strive to improve their athletic ability, take courses or classes to develop their skills and interests, or otherwise "make good use" of their time.


Although there are many differences in social, economic, and educational levels in the United States, there is a theme of equality that runs through social relationships. In part because Americans do not accept a fixed position in society and believe that they can achieve and succeed in life, they tend not to recognize social differences in dealing with other people. A result is that they do not often show deference to people of greater wealth, greater age, or higher social status. Visitors from other cultures who hold high positions sometimes feel that Americans do not treat them with proper respect and deference, and Americans find it very confusing, when visiting other countries, to shift from high to low status as the situation requires. There is always an attempt to equalize the relationship and to avoid calling attention to rank and authority as a way of exercising power over someone. Americans call each other by their first names much sooner and more often than people in most other countries. People in American society are seen as having equal rights, equal social obligations, and equal opportunities to develop their own potential.


There exist in all societies many people with rigid, preconceived notions about ideas, people, food and customs different from their own. The United States is no exception. Just as you may discover you harbor a prejudice about a certain kind of food, custom, or person you encounter, so do Americans have unenlightened attitudes toward things which are foreign to them. One of the most serious of these attitudes is racial prejudice or racism. At W Wheaton College with its Christian philosophy this factor is minimized, but for international students of African, Latin or Asian origin, especially, it is wise to remain conscious of its existence.

Role of Women

There is a strong feminist movement, or women's liberation movement, in the U.S. which aims to insure that women have equal responsibilities and opportunities to those of men. Although there are still many aspects of society in which women have not achieved this equality, women play a much more public and visible role in this country and have much more responsibility and authority than in many other countries. You may also find that the dress and behavior of women in social situations here are quite different from those in your country. Some male international students have difficulty adjusting to situations in which a woman is in a position of authority because their experiences have not prepared them for them. They need to be sensitive to this difference in the woman's role. What some people consider the "proper' role for women is considered by others to reflect sexism or male chauvinism.


Because Americans feel that they can control their own environment, they also feel that problems are to be analyzed, discussed, and solved. In some societies people can think of a national problem in terms of a hundred or more years. Americans do not think in such long-range fashion. They want to solve problems as quickly and efficiently as possible, and they have difficulty accepting the idea that some problems may not have solutions. This direct approach to problems sometimes leads to confrontations that are shocking to people from other cultures. When faced with a problem, Americans like to get the facts, talk to the necessary people, and make some plan of action. If the problem is interpersonal, Americans are likely to talk directly to the other person to discuss the issue, to confront the situation as directly as possible as a way to reach a solution. If the two people involved cannot solve the problem, they may turn to a third person such as a counselor or advisor or mutual friend, but the idea is still to confront the situation directly and try to solve the interpersonal problem. This direct approach to people sometimes leads to difficulties for Americans who travel to other countries where this direct manner is likely to insult or offend others who have a more indirect approach to interpersonal relationships.

Friendliness and Openness

To Americans a friend can be anyone from a mere acquaintance to a life-long intimate, and the friend's company may depend on a particular activity. Americans have friendships that revolve around work, political activity, volunteer activities, special interests, etc., and Americans may have friends for each kind of activity who are rarely all together and may never meet each other. An American may have many friendships on a casual, occasional basis but only a very few deep, meaningful friendships that would last throughout life. People from abroad sometimes see these casual relationships as a reluctance of Americans to become deeply involved with others. In some circumstances when a person in another culture would turn to a friend for help or support, an American may turn to a professional, like a counselor, rather than burdening friends with his/her problems. When people visit the United States, they usually notice immediately the friendliness and openness of Americans and the extreme ease of social relationships. This casual friendliness should not be mistaken for intimate relationships, which are developed over a period of time. Americans live in a mobile society and tend to move frequently in their lifetime. They, therefore, can form friendships and give up friendships much more easily and with less stress than people in many other cultures. Casual social life is especially evident in college and universities.


Americans are generally obsessed with personal hygiene, and it is not unusual for them to bathe every day, change their clothes every day, and wash their hair several times a week. Americans tend to find natural body odors very unpleasant, and, in addition to frequent bathing, they use perfume, cologne, and underarm deodorant on a regular basis. Occasionally a person has found himself shunned by other Americans and not understood why he/she could not make American friends, yet they were embarrassed to tell him that they found his body odor offensive. Frequent bathing and the use of chemical deodorants, perfumes, and soaps are not necessarily healthy, but they may have an effect on a person's social relationships.

Reprinted from Howard University's International Student Handbook.

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