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Graduate Matters

An international student’s guide to flourish overseas

In a new environment, you will face numerous moments of ‘disconfirmation.’


Do you remember your first day as an international student? I do, quite vividly.

Stepping onto any bustling university campus as an international student, I felt a mix of excitement and a slight pinch of anxious anticipation. I had come to study overseas to experience something different, and on my first day at the university, that’s exactly what I felt. I saw people who looked different from me; and as I walked through the corridors I heard a multitude of languages. This was precisely what I wanted: something new, something I had never experienced before.

However, as the semester began, my initial enthusiasm quickly transformed into silent panic. The rapid pace of speech, the unfamiliar jargon and the subtle nuances of local humour in my classes seemed like a code I couldn’t crack. I felt like an outsider trying to peer through fogged glass into a world I couldn’t fully grasp.

This sense of disconnection left me feeling deflated. How was I to navigate this new academic landscape, so different from what I had known back home? I soon felt like I was unable to express myself properly or understand others.

Growing up in South Korea, I was familiar with the individual grading system, where your effort is measured individually by how much you score on a test. My academic picture of success was all about achieving  the highest rank and competing against other students. My fellow students were friends, but they were also my competitors. I did not have the capacity to understand why and how to collaborate with people in a project setting.

Not surprisingly, as I was unfamiliar with this kind of collaboration,  my attempt to contribute felt clumsy and out of sync. While working on a group project, one classmate bluntly said to me: “You don’t know what you’re doing here.” I was shocked, embarrassed and confused. I became speechless.

It was a painful moment as an international student, yet it made me think deeper.

“What’s missing?”

“What am I not getting?”

While our experiences as an international student may differ, we all question whether what we have believed or learned makes sense. Sometimes, it feels as though our entire selves are being denied, and we feel deep confusion and frustration. In my experience, I felt as though my  identity was crushed and being reconstructed.

According to Marlilyn Taylor, this experience is described as “Disconfirmation,” a state of being challenged against what you have already known and feeling confused about it. Her theory articulates that learning starts from disconfirmation. In a new environment such as pursuing  education abroad, you will face numerous moments of disconfirmation. As international students, these layers of disconfirmation come at you all at once, making you feel overwhelmed and stressed.

Knowing that it is challenging to integrate into a new academic environment as an international student, what can you do to navigate these phases effectively?

The answer is simple.

Observe and ask yourself questions. Make time to reflect so that you learn from your experience.

When a moment of disconfirmation happens, observe:

What thoughts are coming to your mind?

What do you feel?

Once you notice your thoughts and feelings, you will start feeling less attached to them.

The next step is to ask yourself:

In what way did this situation affect me?

What is this situation teaching me about this new environment or myself?

A few simple questions like these can help you get in to a rhythm of reflection. This builds your reflective thinking muscle , which will strengthen your learning and growth in a new environment.

Getting back to my group project story, I was not sure how I would be able to work with the other students.

So, I started to observe. I tried to see how they interacted, what they talked about and how they accomplished things.

I asked my friends and other students but ultimately, I asked myself, “What did I observe today, and what did I learn from this new situation?”

These simple rituals eventually made me feel more at ease with  group projects and helped me become better at participating in classroom discussions. My collaborative capacity grew over time and helped me integrate more effectively into my work environment after graduation. Looking back on where I started, it is a transformation and celebration that I have now been recognized as a top talent who excels in collaboration.

Are you struggling or facing many moments of disconfirmation?

You are not alone. It is natural, yet the silver lining is that we can all grow from these experiences and strengthen our resilience and capacity to learn in a much more robust way.

So today, I invite you to take five minutes to sit down and jot down your thoughts and emotions and reflect on what you are learning.

There, you will start building a beautiful repository of growth.

Gloria Song
Gloria Song is a certified career coach who helps individuals design and build their career aspirations into reality.
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