College Expectations vs. Reality: International Student Edition

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When I first arrived in the United States for college, I thought I knew everything about life as a college student in the U.S. After all, my college expectations came from books and movies set at American universities, and even from stories from one friend who came from Brazil to the U.S. the year before me. My story, however, was very different from what I saw in the media, and even more different from what my friend told me. Some things that I expected did actually happen, such as the football games with everyone dressing up, the large lecture halls and the existence of fraternities, which don’t exist in Brazil.
But there are many college expectations that I didn’t anticipate, and truthfully? I am glad they happened exactly as they did.
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One of my first cultural shocks happened right in my first week of college. In Brazil, when you meet someone, it’s common courtesy to greet them with two quick kisses on the cheek. I became friends with some people on my floor, and one day, one of the guys on my floor had some friends over. Without thinking, I greeted them just like I would greet anyone in Brazil. When one of his friends took an actual step back from my greeting, I realized that maybe the two quick kisses were not common in the United States like they were in Brazil.
After that experience, I realized that I had to put in a little more effort to make friends with Americans than with Brazilians. My college expectations did not include someone being as open with me as I was with everyone I met. But I realized that by doing a little bit of work, understanding each person’s boundaries and finding things we had in common, I was able to make some of my best friends that I am sure I will have for life.
In my city, I only knew people with similar backgrounds to mine, similar experiences and similar lives. Going to the U.S. and becoming friends with people from all over the world has been more eye-opening than I expected. I feel like my beliefs are constantly challenged no matter who I talk to. And that is a good thing. Amazing, really.
I honestly am not sure if I learn more in class or outside of class.
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Another big difference that I felt from my college expectations? Freedom. I live in a city in Brazil where you depend on cars to move around. The city has public transportation, but it’s so poorly cared for that the only people that use it are those who cannot afford a private car. Since my city, Manaus, is in the north of Brazil, close to the Equator line, it is also very hot, so walking is not an option.
In addition to that, the age for driving in Brazil is 18. As a result, wherever I wanted to go, I depended on my parents for picking me up and dropping me off. Ubering many times wasn’t an option for safety reasons. Depending on my parents for going anywhere limited me on many things I could do.
In my college town, however, I walk almost everywhere, and I feel safe doing so. This enables me to have the freedom to come and go as I please and to do whatever I want. I also started working and making my own money, which, for people in my social group in Brazil, is not that common.
I also feel a difference in purchasing power.
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Many of the things I do all the time in Brazil, like doing my nails or eating out in restaurants, are sometimes too expensive in the United States because of the difference in currency. Every time I buy something, I make the mental conversion to see if it’s worth it or if I should wait for my next trip back to Brazil. One dollar equals almost six reais, so if I buy a shirt for 12 dollars, for example, that’s almost 72 reais. Considering that I can buy similar shirts in Brazil for 50 reais, sometimes it’s not worth it to buy in the U.S.
One of the college expectations I was most afraid of when moving was regretting it. I felt afraid of missing my friends and family in Brazil—and my life in general. Many people from my school decided to study abroad, then didn’t like it and decided to go back. The majority of the people I knew ended up coming back and just going to college in Brazil.
Because of that, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. As much as I liked my life in Manaus, I’ve created a new life at Penn State that I love, and that I am not willing to let go of. The semester I had to stay home because of the coronavirus was one of the hardest so far, as I realized that I missed my life at college more than anything.
I miss the good and the bad.
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I miss meeting new people every day, or mixing words that are false cognates from Portuguese to English. I know I miss the interesting classes I had, getting sick for the first time, even walking around with my friends eating ice cream at 2 a.m. I miss falling in the snow.
I also realized that the year I spent in the United States changed me forever. I’ll never forget the lessons I learned. The most important one for me, however, was about the true meaning of home. For me, home is a place that you feel safe and welcome. Home is a place that helps you grow and changes you as a person.
For me, home is Manaus, where I was born and raised. State College then became home and it’s where I am becoming my own person, learning about new things in life and experiencing independence for the first time. And I can’t wait for my next home after college and all the new things I will learn and experience.

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