Event Recap: Adjusting to Life As an International U.S. Undergraduate

Current UC Berkeley students discuss study tips for online learning, getting involved in campus activities

Curious about what life is really like for international students at universities in the United States?

We recently hosted a virtual discussion with current UC Berkeley students, who discussed topics ranging from academics and study tips to getting involved on campus virtually and navigating college in the context of COVID-19.

Event Hosts

  • Mia Lang, UC Berkeley Class of 2020
  • Casey Marshall, Global Program for Freshmen adviser


  • Mia Lang, UC Berkeley Class of 2020, majoring in economics with a minor in data science
  • Marshall Li, UC Berkeley rising sophomore, intending to major in political economy and minor in public policy; member of California lightweight rowing team; research assistant at Stanford University
  • Ann Xue, UC Berkeley junior, majoring in comparative literature and East Asian studies; member of the Chinese orchestra at Berkeley; work in the Dean's Office in Humanities and Arts
  • Jennifer Yang, UC Berkeley rising sophomore, intending to major in statistics and economics, possibly minor in data science and French; member of the Berkeley debate society
  • Carol Xie, UC Berkeley rising junior, majoring in computer science and intending to double major in statistics and minor in linguistics; member of UCBMUN (Model United Nations)

What are the main differences between your high school experience and the UC Berkeley classroom?

Jennifer: The major difference is that in college, we have total control of when to take breaks, when to have classes, and which subjects and which professors to take. But in high school, we have a limited and fixed schedule. In college, it's very important to have self-discipline: control of your grade point average and time management. Also, there's more stress in terms of academics at college. During finals week, we have de-stress activities such as taking photos with llamas and cute dogs. There's a whole culture around the stressfulness of academics at Berkeley.

In terms of homework assignment and exams, do you find those a little bit different from those in high school?

Carol: It's one of the things that you won't expect: the amount of homework and tests actually shrinks quite a lot. However, it raises the difficulty to a different level. So in high school, you have problem sets every single day. And then you have tests every week or at least several times per month. But everything will be covered within the textbook. Here, however, what you learn in class versus what you do in homework might not be consistent because the professors expect you to learn outside of the classroom to remove bugs or learn more theories or prove things yourself. It's really a process of learning the material.

Jennifer, you mentioned that being more disciplined is really important at university compared to in high school. What advice would you give to a student who kind of lacks that discipline?

I think a study group is really important. Find someone who is really disciplined and is really motivated, and study with them. Make study plans for every day, every week and every month. And then give yourself some reward if you finish that plan and you reach that goal. I think that is also really beneficial.

So what was the transition like to online education and online learning?

Carol: So for online, I don't think you get less of an experience with your academics, but instead, you get more if you try more. For example, before going online, I might only be able to go to my math professor's office hours once per week, but since online learning started, I literally bother him three to four times per week to just delve into abstract algebra. As another example, in a computer science class, you have 10 to 20 discussion sections that you can pick from. And normally you would stick to one because it's hard to change to a different classroom. But being online, you can just jump into a discussion section and decide if the graduate student is really good. If you don't like it as much, you can directly jump into another room with no issue.

Other than that, you need to be on top of your assignments and reach out to people when you want to study-group or solve things.

A lot of classes require midterm projects that three or four people need to work on. And Berkeley students come from all around the world. And right now, they're in different time zones. How do you navigate this kind of challenge when you are not in the same time zone and need to cooperate?

Marshall: This is so true, so relevant to our life. I took a class that is really popular at Berkeley called Data 8 that had a group project. So my class partner and I discussed all sorts of things online, other than just coding side-by-side. So that's a big switch. But it turns out that it ends up pretty okay. We can build on our project through Piazza and Azure Online education applications.

Carol, you mentioned that academically you're adjusting pretty well, but socially maybe not so much.

Personally, I found it very hard to find new friends because you're not face-to-face. When my linguistics class last semester went online, there were more people answering questions or asking questions in the chat box because you didn’t need to raise your hand. So I saw more new faces than I normally would have in class. However, normally in class, whenever there was someone who was active, I would greet them, and then we would become friends. But online, I would say hi to those through the chat box, and that's it, which is kind of sad. For my other linguistics friends who I already have in class, we still chat after class. But you need to arrange time because one of them went back to Australia and we're in a different time zone.

What steps do you take to kind of maintain your sanity with the social aspect?

Jennifer: Try to find a classroom-like setting to study in. I study in the lounge. Also, wear a more formal outfit, so it makes you feel that you’re doing something really serious. That's one of my methods.

Carol: I went back home to Ohio with another friend from Model UN. So I have two other friends in a house. If I got bored from studying or doing other things, then we'd chat about school stuff, talk about our classes, talk about our professors.

Marshall: The social aspect is really kind of stressful, especially because we cannot meet friends in person. But we use technology. Our rowing team, we would normally have an annual banquet. This year, obviously, there cannot be an in-person banquet, so we moved it to Zoom. And with this opportunity, we can invite people who are far away from campus and invite alumni.

Ann: Some friends and I formed a Berkeley wellness group where we meet through Zoom each week and update each other about how we feel, share what we cooked each day, what activity we did, what exercise we did. So we take care of each other through this online forum.

How do you think joining organizations has impacted your experience at UC Berkeley?

Marshall: Finding a club is important because it gives you a sense of community. I joined the rowing team, and this community is small, but we welcome everybody to participate. There are so many sports clubs and other interesting clubs that are great opportunities to find a sense of community or a sense of belonging.

Jennifer: I joined the debate team in my freshman year. Joining debate is not just about practicing my English skills and expanding my world view, but I also got to meet a lot of friends.

All of you came to the U.S. to start university. What surprised you the most when you started university here?

Jennifer: One really great thing is that we can get so close to nature. That is something that I really like about Berkeley. I see students just relaxing on the grass after a hard day's work and talking with friends. And there are so many flowers and trees that are so new and unique.

Marshall: When I came to Berkeley, the first thing I felt was that it is not as urban as I had thought because I am from Beijing, and many other friends of mine are from those harbor cities or big cities in China. The other thing that surprised me is the inclusiveness of Berkeley. No matter what you stand for, you can always find a community here. There are so many resources and groups you can join.

Mia: What surprised me the most when I started here is the political environment. It's really interesting and very liberal. Freedom of thought is well presented here. Your ideas will be respected regardless of who your listeners are or whether they disagree with your opinions or not. I think that's a really great thing. So you can be really brave to express what you think at Berkeley.

Carol: Coming to Berkeley was the first time I realized we're making a real-world impact. In my first year, I was also in the Associated Students of the University of California’s External Affairs Vice President’s office, which deals with external affairs. We actually went to the city town hall and lobbied to get 50 street lights for the city of Berkeley. All of these moments make you realize you're no longer just a high school student studying for an exam. Instead, you are making real-world impacts and you're really contributing.

What advice do you have for students who want to study at Berkeley?

Jennifer: Be calm; be able to adapt. Especially given this situation, there are so many chaotic events going on. It helps us to adapt, to be able to handle those difficult situations and to be mature enough to deal with them.

Carol: Normally during every semester, there would be a pretty standard routine of you're going to register for class, you're going to class-shop. You can, for the first two weeks, go to 10 classes and then decide what you actually want to take. But now everyone's taking a totally different plan. Whether to stay in Berkeley or return to your home country, or stay somewhere else in the U.S. And either take a class hybrid or entirely online. So everyone's making different plans for themselves. For yourself, you should analyze your situation: where do you want to be, what are your parents thinking, what do you want to do. Because next semester is non-traditional.

There are some interesting ideas floating around, including one called time displacement. Next semester, there won’t be much going on for socials and clubs. So why not just invest all the time into taking harder classes or more classes. So that when you’re able to and ready to go back to campus, you can then use the time to enjoy more social life. It's not a path that everyone's thinking about, but it's also an innovative way to think about this if it's something you might want to do.

Marshall: One important thing you need to master in college is time management. Plan your things on your cell phone. Use Google Calendar. Especially during these trying times, when everything is online, you need to plan everything ahead.

Ann: Some people might find it hard to deal with this extra time, but it is also a great opportunity to slow down. Start reading a book each week, or pick up some old hobbies. I used to paint a lot before I attended college, and now I have started learning digital design.

Mia: Since I'm graduating, my advice would be to start looking into what you're really passionate about. Because it turns out that when I started looking for jobs, many of the positions that I thought would be really interesting turned out to be not that attractive. I studied econ and data science, but I landed a job in marketing.

Carol: So, for your freshman year, relax and try different things. Because sometimes you will find your interests land in a totally different field. Try different things. Mia: This is what’s really great about Berkeley—the opportunity cost of changing majors. I have friends who changed their majors four or five times in two years. And it's totally acceptable; it's a learning process. It's a process of learning about yourself. It's a process of learning about other people. And just don't try to do things as quickly as possible, but really enjoy the process, not the results.


Watch the entire video panel.

Interested in starting your freshman year with an exciting online "study-abroad" program?

Check out our Global Program for Freshmen program!