Four Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming an International Student

Making your first step onto campus during your freshman year in a different country can bring a mixed big of emotions.

One moment you could be feeling the rush of adrenaline as you meet new people at the dorms, feeling the warmth of a firm handshake or a welcoming smile from professors and peers. Next moment, you could be feeling a gush of loneliness filling your stomach in despair, unsure of how to cope in an environment so alien to each of your senses — thousands of miles away from familiarity.

It’s not easy.

“I learned that dreaming big dreams really isn’t a cheesy cliche.”

Though any one who has traveled and moved away from home can relate to the feelings of loneliness that coincides with the exuberant thoughts of paving a new road to a professional career, international students have the actual task of flying over roads and bridges. Often, into territory that feels a world apart.

My first time in Mission Beach, in 2016


As I enter my senior year at SDSU, I thought it would be appropriate to share a few tips for incoming international students. My college experience has brought me academic and professional experiences that have taken me through the bustling streets of downtown San Diego, the uneven gravel steps carrying America’s financial industry in Wall Street and even the giant steps of the Great Wall in China’s capital.

Though I had dreamed big dreams when I first stepped foot in the United States three years ago, SDSU has offered me an abundance of opportunities that I have gratefully taken advantage of.

Here is a list of four things I wish I knew, before I had hopped onto a plane on a quest for meaning and growth in the warmth of San Diego:

1. Get involved on campus.
It is so cliche. I know.

It may be terrifying at first, but I often talk to post-graduates and hear the phrases, “I should have gotten more involved in college,” or “I could have put more effort in meeting new people.”

During my third week in the United States, I decided to walk around Love Library during the student organization fair. As I collected what seemed to be my hundredth student pamphlet, a table that lined up with flags from all over the world caught my eye. It was for an organization called AIESEC, a global leadership organization that specialized in cross-cultural exchange. Long story short, it allowed me to experience Atlanta’s best soul food, New York’s frosty winters and a group of friends that made me feel at home within the cultural pot of my identity.

My AIESEC chapter receiving an award in DC

I learned how to be a leader in a non-profit setting, and I gained mentors who have held leadership positions Wall Street’s finest financial institution, UCSD’s Graduate Business School and one who has become a best-selling business author.

All because I decided to take walk past Hepner Hall on a scorching hot August day.

2. Time with family becomes increasingly rare.
Prior to boarding the final plane to LAX for my freshman year on Aug. 8, 2015, my previous flight had been cancelled on the day of my scheduled departure. My best friends had even woken up early to accompany me and my family to the airport. I learned of the cancellation shortly after arriving at the airport and pleaded with my parents to find a way to reschedule my flight so that I could catch another flight that same day.

My mind was fixated on leaving that day.

I had grown increasingly anxious during that summer in Taiwan and was ready for a grand adventure in my life. My family somehow was able to get me on a flight to LAX that same day, though I had to take train to Taipei. Soon enough, I scanned my ticket and entered the train station, turning one last time to watch my parents and brother wave good bye as I boarded a train to uncertainty.

The following three summers, I spent two months, one month, and then one week in Taiwan with my family, in that order.

I wish I knew that as we continue to grow and tackle more responsibilities, quality time with family becomes a rarity. This holds true for many international students, who are torn between the choice of seeing family back home or taking advantage of career opportunities through work or summer internships — well-aware that our time in the U.S. is limited by a sticker on our passport.

There was never a time I had regretted, when it was spent with family.

My family in LA last winter


3. The United States truly is a welcoming country.
The United States is dubbed a nation of nations for a reason. Its very unique history, culture and story has opened the doors to people of all colors, religions and social classes from around the world. In modern society, it increasingly includes international students.

With the current political climate, it is understandable why some incoming international students are fearful of backlash or discrimination.

What I learned during my three years at SDSU, is that people are welcoming and many times are impressed with the fact that we risk traveling across the world, often without family, in pursuit of an advanced education in the United States.

For example, during one of my job interviews, I had briefly talked about how my background had allowed me to intern at the Philippine Consulate in my hometown in Taiwan. After I had been rejected after two job interviews months prior, I had learned to fine-tune my personal story — emphasizing the difficulties I had faced and how I had overcome them. I was confident in the qualities that made me unique not only as a professional, but as a person.

When I got to meet the District Attorney and Sheriff for work

“We really liked your global perspective. And we thought you would add a lot of value to our team, helping balance us out with your diverse background,” my supervisor would tell me months later after I was hired.

I had always been worried that my foreign background would be a hindrance to my pursuit of professional working opportunities. What I learned is that it is just a matter of perspective, hard work and confidence in conveying and shaping your story.

4. Be fearless in pursuit of your dreams, while keeping an open mind.
When I first landed in the United States, I witnessed the beautiful sights of southern California’s palm trees and its earthly pallet sunsets. I came into college as a business major, thinking that money was going to be an asset that would bring me satisfaction in life. I dreamed of being President of an organization on campus, being featured in an SDSU article, graduating with honors, working for a prestigious company, and most importantly, making my parents proud. I wrote these goals down in a word document and stored it away, hoping that writing them would ease the doubtful thoughts I had also harbored.

They all came true, in some shape or form.

I soon found out that business was not my calling. Instead, government, politics and social justice became my passion. After two straight failed interviews and an internship in City Hall, I got a breakthrough to work at the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. I was able to lead a student organization that created leadership volunteer opportunities in which students from San Diego taught English and empowered orphans in the outskirts of Thailand. I also got to write an essay of my personal story that was published on an SDSU website. Now, I get to help my own people at the Philippine Consulate in downtown San Diego.

I learned that dreaming big dreams really isn’t a cheesy cliche. It has progressively grown into a reality through failure, setbacks, and constant belief in the life I had envisioned on my first flight to the United States.

My first week at SDSU

So go ahead and dream up of a life you envision having here before your first day of college. Do something extraordinary. Empower yourself. Keep in touch with family. Understand culture and society. Write down goals. Chances are, many of them will come true if you try hard enough.

If you flew past the world’s roads and bridges to get here, you might as well begin to build your own.

Marjon Saulon is an international student from the Philippines and fourth-year comparative international studies major. He spent 12 years in Taiwan prior to his arrival at SDSU.

2 thoughts on “Four Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming an International Student

Add yours

  1. I deeply enjoyed reading your post. I recently returned from Israel and did blogging as well and felt exactly like you on multiple occasions. You did great and I hope you take away all the positive things you have experienced here in the States as well as the negative because all of it together makes a great and powerful learning tool that can be used in your future.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the kind words! It is a personal topic I have enjoyed writing about. I hope any returning exchange student or incoming international student can take something away from the post!


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