ing through even better than your own
family members, who may not relate to
the grind of graduate school. Your peers
understand that you’re in a bad mood
because you ran experiments all weekend without success.
A lot of international students also
turn to various student associations on
campus relating to their nationalities.
Such groups host events when major
holidays take place in their home countries. Celebrating them can go a long
way in overcoming homesickness. Plus,
it can be refreshing to get your mind off
chemistry by hanging out with people
who study different subjects.
If you have never been an international
student, you might be thinking that the
biggest challenge you will encounter in
social settings is the language barrier.
The truth is, that problem is not as big
as some people might think. Most of the
time, the bigger challenge is not getting
cultural references in conversations.
People who did not grow up in the Unit-
ed States lack the common pop culture
thread that permeates all Americans. It
can feel very isolating when everyone
else is laughing at a joke you don’t un-
derstand. This might sound trivial, but
considering how socializing in depart-
mental or interdepartmental events can
lead to collaborations in the future, this
issue is more consequential than most
For example, when I came to the
United States in early 2014 for visiting weekends, people in one chemistry
department were talking extensively
about the Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate about evolution. I didn’t know
who either of them were, but I couldn’t
admit it at first, especially since people
kept referring to someone called Bill
Nye the Science Guy. I thought he was
someone I should have known. I only
found out that he was a TV personality
when I went back to my hotel room and
Googled him. Even though I could follow the conversation on a surface level, I
could not fully understand what people
were talking about without comprehending the reference.
In these scenarios, don’t overanalyze the situation. Try to relax and listen.
When you don’t understand something,
it’s okay to ask questions. It can feel
awkward at first, especially when you
feel like you’re disturbing the flow of the
group’s conversation and are the only
one who doesn’t get it. But most of the
time, people don’t mind filling you in.
Some of them might even like getting
questions, because it means they get to
talk more about something they enjoy.
You should also remember that
conversation is a two-way street. You
might not know much about 1990s
American pop culture, for instance,
but your counterpart probably doesn’t
know much when it comes to your
culture, either. So, don’t be intimidated.
Remember that your participation
could work as a chance to broaden the
conversation by offering a different
Give It Time
If you are a new international student
who just moved to the United States, it
might seem like you will never be able
to adjust to life in a foreign country.
Now that I am entering my fifth year of
my Ph.D. program, however, I can assure you that you will soon grow accustomed to your surroundings. Looking
back on my years since coming here, I
see that there is now clearer communication between my adviser and me, I
have new friends I can easily reach out
to when things are not going well, and
I can carry on conversations without
being intimidated by new cultural references. I have come a long way, and I
know you will too. n
Karen) Kwon is a
in the Department of Chemistry at Columbia University.
she earned her B.S. (’ 11) degree in Chemistry and M.S. (’ 13) degree in Physical
Chemistry from Korea University.