My name is Niveditha. Coming to Sterling College has been my first time stepping out of my country, India. I have just finished my second semester, a Global Field Studies program in the deserts of the Southwestern United States. It has been 9 intense months in the U.S. so far and to be honest, I have yet to fully comprehend that I am on the other side of the world!
In this post I would love to share with you some things that will help you make the best of your time at Sterling. It is a long post, but it is packed with relevant information! But before we get to the good stuff here’s a bit about how I came to be here (If uninterested skip the next two paragraphs).
Around 10th grade I started on a quest to figure out the best way that I could help move this world towards a more wholesome society. This journey took me through intentional communities, a dance school, a series of courses and workshops, life-changing inner discoveries and countless brainstorming sessions. By the time I was 21 I knew that what I wanted to do was this: Combine wilderness, voice, movement and story into a medium through which to facilitate cultural transformation towards regenerative communities. By the time I was 23 I felt that I had exhausted all possible avenues of training myself on my own.
At this point, in search of more solid help and in some desperation, I sat down with my laptop to try looking for online courses. I wanted something that I could tailor to my interests because what was already available did not fit my learning needs. Thus, I stumbled upon Sterling College! It was a crazy thought. I had not considered college as a conducive avenue for me for years. But suddenly… how about 4 years of college on the other side of the planet?! Sterling seemed flexible enough to allow me to design my own learning. Additionally it was small, environmentally focused, outdoor+experiential oriented. At the very least, I thought, I could survive it!
I have not only survived but I am starting to thrive now. Sterling has given me many gifts including an incredible semester in the Southwest deserts, teachers with whom I love working, the process of already designing my first independent studies, a receptive and constructive workplace in the Admissions Office, and an in-depth experience of the changing seasons of Vermont. I love that the woods are in our backyard and that I can run down there at any time.
I have not doubted my choice to come here, and yes, the spring sun outside is heavenly beautiful. However, Sterling College is far from perfect! Sterling is a young and small college still putting in place its support structures for international students. This means that on the ground it does not yet have all the awareness and support we need. It is good to come as prepared as you can be with your own research, support systems and strategies.
Here are some things I would want you to be prepared for as you pack your bags for a grand adventure:
When I first arrived in the United States, everything looked and felt foreign to me, from faces and expressions, body structures, to the neatly trimmed lawns and white block houses in straight lanes, to the trees, animals and landscape. Even the way people thought felt different and the air tasted foreign! I had trouble learning to make small talk and be friendly while at the same time respecting privacy and space. I experienced a crazy amount of stimuli, and my brain was overloaded with processing new information.
In addition, most people here did not understand the magnitude of my experience. Vermont is predominantly white and seemingly local, at least where we are located. Craftsbury is a small rural town tucked away from any hub of diversity. Sterling College is working on it. Although this provides its own set of cultural experiences and charms, it was, and is, hard to make sense of everything without familiar-looking faces who might share similar reference points.
I strongly recommend planning to come to the U.S. at least 10 days before school starts so that you don’t have to deal with the initial culture shock, plus jet lag, and attend classes at the same time!
Be prepared to feel dependent on others for a while. I needed help with everything from using a shower and a mop, to crossing the road and learning traffic rules, to currency and grocery shopping, to operating the ubiquitous automatic machines, to navigating myself to a place with no one on the roads to ask directions from. Be unashamed about asking for help again and again from anybody.
Leaving your friends and family and home behind, and learning to live in a drastically different place by yourself, is challenging. For many people homesickness can be an intense and even physical difficulty. It helps to have tokens of loved ones and home to remind you that you belong somewhere, even if it is not here just yet. Having spices and other tastes from home can be soothing and comforting – comparatively the food here might taste bland for some of us.
If you come from a home where culturally a certain practice of spirituality is everywhere and central to living, being here can feel very strange. Losing that support of spirituality, even if it is not something that you personally practiced, can be big. Keeping up basic and familial rituals or having representative objects with you can provide solace and strength. Sometimes this has been a lifeline for me.
Keep up familiar physical and creative practices such as writing, dancing, sketching, running, meditating. These tend to be tremendously fortifying, homing and stabilizing.
The winter here gets extremely cold. I come from a place where it never goes below 60 degree fahrenheit. If you are like me, winter like this is beyond imagination until you go through one! Here is a post by my fellow international student Nakasi Fortune that will help you prepare for winter: 10 Tips for Adjusting to Winter in Vermont.
Search out experiences, online or otherwise, of students from your country who specifically came to New England. It might provide perspective as to what you might expect, with particular differences in culture, beliefs and social etiquette. Here at Sterling, reach out to other international students, staff and faculty for support. Keep interacting with students even if it feels unfamiliar; relationships do shift with time.
Educate yourself about culture shock! Some possible reactions to it: Extreme homesickness, social isolation, social indulgence at the cost of neglecting schoolwork, unhealthy eating patterns, disorientation, frustration, helplessness. I recommend arriving prepared with ways that you might meet the challenges in a healthy and resilient manner.
Read up on your F-1 visa status in detail. Especially look into the laws around employment. There are not many opportunities for on campus work at Sterling. It is possible to legally work off-campus through avenues like Curricular or Optional Practical Training (CPT and OPT) but setting these up might take you a year, all things considered. So come financially prepared with realistic expectations. You may talk to Sterling for more clarity around this.
Keep all your documents safe with great care. These documents are your ticket to being here, losing a vital document might result in strenuous complications. Being a legal alien can be straining sometimes and makes me feel that my stay is vulnerable to legal mishaps. Knowing that my documents are safe helps me avoid needless anxiety.
Remember that you will need a place to stay during breaks, especially the summer break if you are not doing the summer semester (Sterling has Fall, Spring and Summer semesters). During most breaks you can stay on campus in exchange for work but when school is in session over the summer this may not be possible. Set up other possibilities for stay, such as with relatives, or talk to Sterling beforehand about other avenues. It is stressful when you don’t know how your food and shelter will be taken care of during these times, and when you have to figure it out after getting here.
Also, keep in mind that there is no public transport here and unless you have a car you will be dependent on others for getting groceries etc (and will be stuck on campus). The kitchen closes during breaks so plan for your finances to cover your break food.
Racism (is Real)
My experience of racism at Sterling so far has been mild. I have heard that Vermont farmers and other locals can be more conservative. Many of my experiences seem to be of people’s ignorance and/or bias rather than racism per se, though I am not sure if it is easier to deal with. Others here have been more acutely affected by racism than me. It is a valid concern. My advice is that you come mentally prepared to meet what you might meet, whether mild or something more triggering.
In the U.S., for both white people and people of color (which encompasses a wide range of backgrounds), racism is a charged and sensitive subject. The strong opinions and reactions that people have with regard to it was a shock for me. I had to figure out where I stood with it and how I wanted to respond to it in its various appearances. It was a struggle to resist taking on other people’s feelings, opinions, and coping mechanisms, as I strove to have my own inquiry and conclusions.
In addition, the present atmosphere around immigration was scary and unsettling for me. I was unsure where I was welcome and safe and where I was not (even though I am technically a resident alien and not an immigrant). For the first few months around town the uncertainty of not knowing if the person I was speaking with thought that I should not be in their country was constantly in my mind. However, I have so far not experienced much hostility and feel more comfortable now.
If you are like me, it is important to remember that racism is not part of the culture you grew up with. Take it easy with yourself. Take space to allow yourself to figure out how it fits into your world. Talk to different people from here and from home, question it, feel it out. Take your time with it. Racism is a complex and subtle phenomenon; there is no need to feel ignorant.
Especially if you are a student of color, being kind and forgiving (not necessarily passive) can help with skillfully addressing or evading situations. If not that, it will at least help protect your heart. This TED talk by this incredible woman Valarie Kaur has been most valuable for me in grappling with and responding to racism: 3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage. Do speak up when you can at Sterling to help create a better atmosphere!
Navigating Political Correctness
I’ve found that there is a strong expectation of political correctness at Sterling College, especially around LGBTQ issues and issues of racial and social justice. If like me this is not something that you grew up with, learning the jargon quickly so as to avoid messing up can be intimidating. The fear of inviting disapproval and judgements can hamper social interactions.
You are not alone in this, there are many non-international students who don’t know all the correct ways of speaking. Remember that this is new for you and remind others that you are learning by asking for help in how to speak about something the ‘right’ way. This can go a long way in not just helping you get more comfortable but also in opening avenues for more in-depth and educative conversations for all involved.
Take Advantage of Being Here!
Sure, you’ll experience a lot as an international student at Sterling College, and parts of your experience will be challenging. However remember to remember how you felt when you got your acceptance and scholarship letter, or when you got your visa, or when you stepped out of the plane and arrived in Vermont. Remember why you came here, and remember how far you have come!
This is a grand and blessed adventure and you are brave, strong and a courageous risk taker. Vermont is a beautiful place, and college is the time to grow into the person you want to become. So call up your best self and take full advantage of everything Sterling College has to offer!
Be sure to take advantage of the outdoor experiential education component of Sterling College. This is a place where you can be outdoors for over half of your college experience. No other college that I know of allows for this much outdoor time. If you are an outdoor junkie like me, choose your classes carefully and don’t miss out on this!
Oh, and make sure to go on at least one Global Field Studies program! Chances are you will get hooked, and participate in many more.
At Sterling you can design plenty of independent studies, do internships for credit, do a semester exchange with another college (AVIC) and even design a whole major for your specific interest. These are opportunities which provide massive flexibility unique to Sterling College. Plan ahead for what you want and work with your adviser so that you take full advantage of these opportunities.
Also, simply because Sterling is small students have much more power here than in other institutions. It is possible to influence and even change small and big policies if that is what you need for your education. Sterling is a work in progress, so don’t be afraid to challenge how something is set. Doing so will benefit not only you but future students as well.
Get the education that you are paying for!
At Sterling College, the key to getting what you want out of your academics is 1. Finding the right adviser and 2. Developing a faculty-network of support. Don’t be afraid to consider different instructors and switch advisers. Find the mentor who can support you best. Foster relationships with teachers that you work well with, and develop your own network of academic support.
At Sterling the instructors have the time and the willingness to work closely with you. However, it only happens if you are proactive and motivated enough to envision and garner what you need. Which, as an international student, I am going to take a guess that you are!
Open, Listen, Feel Wonder
Feel the wonder of attending college in a foreign country!
With all the challenges of being in a foreign land come also tremendous gifts of new vistas, exhilarating learning, and personal growth! It is possible to expand your horizons in ways that you never imagined. You might find yourself capable of more than you knew you were.
So keep yourself open, keep interacting with people from different backgrounds, continue to explore, participate and sign up for new experiences. When things push you down, don’t give up. Feel it out, ask questions, sit still, listen, go back. Keep going back. People are people everywhere and you might surprise yourself with whom you create connections. You might surprise yourself with the places you discover. Or you might be surprised by an unexpected hidden spot under a tree that reminds you of your sense of wonder.