Being an International Student at NEIU: Expectations vs. Reality

Mariana Silva Lindner , writer

“What comes to mind when you think of America?” 

When you ask this question to various European university students, you will get in all likelihood similar answers: The American Dream, land of plenty, metropolises with never-ending possibilities and, last but not least, an admiration for American colleges which offer high quality education. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that the US has reigned supreme as the top receiving country for international students with a whopping 1 million students from abroad who were enrolled in U.S. institutions in the 2019/20 academic year.

With similar narratives and images of the US swirling around in my head, I enthusiastically applied to my home university in Germany for an exchange semester in the States. After three attempts, thanks to Covid, it eventually worked out and I was accepted! With everything being settled and the plane ticket booked, I underwent an emotional rollercoaster. Anticipation, anxiety, as well as excitement dominated my remaining days. The closer the departure date approached the more expectations of my semester at NEIU cemented in my brain.

However, reality often plays whack-a-mole with these expectations. To put it in the words of American writer Neil Strauss: “unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments.“ I would personally not put it so harshly, perhaps, but reality has certainly burst my bubble of my romanticized idea of living and studying in the United States.

As I got to know the other internationals in my first week around here, I wondered: What expectations did they have beforehand? Were these fulfilled or smashed by cold, harsh reality? I headed to the NEST, epicenter of the internationals’ life, to catch four of them and get answers to my questions. Time for a reality check!  

Expectation #1: Studying at an American university – Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy, right? Of Underestimated Workload and Positive Surprises.  

Reality check: As mentioned before, many students are flocking to study at American universities due to their excellent educational quality. However, what many students do not have in mind is that this earned reputation comes with a lot of work from the students’ side. Student culture in the US can be best described as “work hard, play hard!”

This reality has quickly caught up with Nina, 20, from France, and Tim, 22, from the Netherlands. “I didn’t expect that there would be so much homework and so many assignments during the week, you’re constantly busy,” admits Nina, “at first, I was a bit scared of it.”

For Tim, too, everyday university life has been an adjustment. “In the Netherlands, you have a big test at the end of the semester and during the semester you can choose when and how you want to prepare for the classes. I really did not think that the courses in the US would be so strict. I kind of miss the flexibility of being able to organize my courses on my own.”

However, what stands out in the conversations are the positive unexpected experiences. All internationals agree that they had not assumed how personal, supportive, and courteous the professors at NEIU would be. “I am really surprised! In France, the professors do not even know your name” Nina chuckles, “but here at NEIU, they don’t even have to look at the register, they know you and always ask how you are doing.”

Ruby from South Korea can only agree: “In South Korea, there is a strict hierarchy between professor and student. At NEIU, it is much more personal, and some professors go out of their way for you!”

Expectation #2: Quickly Mastering the English language: Unexpected Hurdles.

Reality check: Immersing yourself in the target language and quickly improving your language skills  – this is probably one of the main reasons why students choose to study abroad; at least for Ruby.

Even though she has to manage her everyday life in English from now on, she had thought that she would have more situations in which she would be actively exposed to the English language. “I need to actively find them, I mean except one class, there are very small opportunities to speak because my classes don’t include team works a lot”, she ponders, “I think I want to get more contact with domestic students, so I will try to join a club, get a tutoring etc.” Although she notices that she is getting gradually more comfortable with English, it is taking longer than expected.

Rafael, 22, from Germany is also surprised that speaking English is more difficult than previously assumed: “particularly writing academic texts for the classes turned out to be quite challenging.”

For Nina, however, reality has proven to be positive: “At first, I was a bit afraid of speaking English. I was scared that people here would not be able to cope with my French accent.” Fortunately, these worries were unfounded, as Nina receives a lot of support and understanding from domestic students.

Expectation #3: Getting to know Americans will be a Challenge.

Reality: For every positive stereotype we have overseas about the U.S., there seems to be twice as many negative clichés. For instance, some of the preconceptions are that Americans are superficial and hard to get in close contact with.

“I thought it would be very complicated to make friends among the American students and I was convinced that I would be only sticking to the other international students” Rafael makes clear that reality is much different. “Many of the American students are very open and seem to really want to get to know you. Particularly the various different university clubs and events made finding friends fairly easy for me.”

With a wide grin on Nina’s face: “I was so afraid to not make any friends! In France, people can be a bit close-minded and uninviting. But here at NEIU, I had a very warm and open welcome. I know that I have been here for only a few weeks, but it already feels like home.”


Expectation #4: Living in Chicago – Welcome to the Danger zone!

Reality: If you hear anything about Chicago on the news from overseas, it is usually reports about crime. This, unfortunately, shapes the opinion that many people have about this city.

When I told my grandma that I was going to spend a semester in Chicago, she almost had a heart attack, and she would constantly remind me of her worries. Nina also believed that “danger” would play a bigger role in her daily life over here. “People really put these thoughts in your head and eventually you believe it”, she says.

She has been living here for some weeks now, however, and now she can only laugh about it, saying, “For sure, there are neighborhoods where you have to be more careful. But I do not feel unsafe here at all, on the contrary. You realize that Chicago is a big city and it’s not like the media always portrays it.”  The good thing about a semester abroad is that you can get a better idea of what it is like on site than from afar.

So, in summary, most of the expectations of the internationals were largely not fulfilled, but the experiences in reality were different, in some cases even better.  After contemplating this, I realized that this is one of the greatest things about a semester abroad, because you never know what to expect. Subsequently, that is how you learn and grow as a person.  Additionally, you no longer have a dream version of your target country in your head but become more realistic about it.

Finally, all internationals firmly agree on the question whether they would recommend a semester abroad to American students. Nina remarks, “I think I’ve learned more in these few weeks than in the past few years.” 

Are you curious and ready for your own adventure abroad? NEIU has an international program which includes many partner universities from different countries and continents! For more information visit @neiu_studyabroad on Instagram or get directly in contact with the Office of International Programs at +1-773-442-4796 or [email protected].