Sritama Chatterjee is a second year PhD student at the Department of English, University of Pittsburgh. You can find her on Twitter @SritamaBarna
Congratulations! After going through a process which appears to be opaque from a distance, you have made it to graduate school in another country.
You also have your visa now. What happens next?
When I arrived for graduate school in the USA last year, the thought of having to complete a lot of paperwork and taking care of more mundane, day-to-day activities of settling down before I could dive in to studying was overwhelming. Had it not been for some amazing colleagues and my roommate, a fellow graduate student, I would not have known how to navigate through this maze of bureaucracy and adulting in a country whose structures I am unfamiliar with.
Listed below are some suggestions that might help an international graduate student navigate the process, though a domestic student might also find some of these suggestions useful:
Looking for long-term housing: The thought of looking for long-term housing without even physically visiting the place that you are interested in leasing can cause anxiety. Besides, you might also be worried about room-mates and the amount of money that you should spend on housing. Some places where you can start looking for accommodation are the on-campus graduate housing provided by your school, off-campus rentals on your school website, dedicated off-campus housing groups on Facebook where people frequently advertise apartment listings or looking for room-mate posts, and Craigslist. No matter which path you adopt to look for housing, ensure that you verify the identity of the lessor so that you know that you are not leasing from a fraudulent lessor. This is especially important if a monetary transaction such as payment of security deposit is involved. In such circumstances, graduate students who are already in the program can be of great help because they have insights about neighborhoods and might agree to visit apartments that you are looking to lease. If such a thing is not possible, at least take a video tour of the apartment to avoid any shock after you have arrived, like faucets not working or a leaking roof. Finally, if you do decide on a place, read the terms of the lease carefully before signing on to anything.
Attending Orientation: You have probably received details from the international office of your school about attending orientation, which is generally mandatory for international students. Attending orientation is a good way to familiarize yourself with the ethos of a school and the orientation often has useful information about the resources available to you as a graduate studyent and tips to adjust yourself to the city and the school. It also provides a good opportunity to meet fellow international graduate students from other departments and often acts as a first step toward community building.
Getting required identity cards: Now that you are here in a new country, get identity cards such as school ID, state ID, driver's license, social security card (applicable if you are based in the U.S.), and other cards that might be helpful. Generally for a school ID, if you upload your documents and photograph from home, all that you have to do is drop in to your school office and collect it. Sometimes school identity cards also act as free transportation pass that allows you to travel in your city and gives you entry into museums and parks without paying a penny. You want to make the best use of it. For other kinds of identity cards, log in to the specific websites to find out more details about what you need at the time of application. The international student office at your school might also have handouts and resources that outlines steps to approach these processes. Get hold of these, if these have not already been handed out to you during orientation.
Getting a SIM card for your mobile and opening a bank account: Once you have arrived at your destination, you will have to get a SIM card for your mobile which will allow you access to a mobile network, so that you can be in touch with friends and family. Often, you can get SIM cards which are categorically dedicated for international calling. If that is not the case, you might have to pay extra money for international calling balance. There are also services (family plans) which can be shared with multiple people. See if you can get buddies or other people in your cohort to get them to join the family plans since it is sometimes cost-effective. The other option is to get a service that comes with a high speed internet so that you can call home over WhatsApp and/or Facebook Messenger.
For financial transactions and to ensure that your fellowship money gets credited to your account, you will need to have a bank account. Try finding out from your school, if you will need to open an account with any particular bank or else look for options that are available in your place and see what is conducive to your needs and purpose.
Completion of registration process: After you have arrived, touch base with your departmental graduate coordinator to make sure that your registration as a graduate student is complete. Provide any documents such as transcripts and fill in all forms so that you are enrolled in payroll. If you are a funded international graduate student, this is essential to avoid any delay in receiving stipends.
Enrolling in health insurance: As an international student, you school has probably made it mandatory for you to have health insurance. Even if it is not compulsory, I would always recommend getting health insurance because chances are good that you will have to visit the doctor at some point during your tenure as a graduate student. Medical expenses, diagnostic tests, and mental health care can be very expensive and even unaffordable without insurance. Getting health insurance is imperative. Sometimes, if you are fully funded by your graduate school, your school might provide for your health insurance. But you need to enroll for it on a timely basis and not miss deadlines for enrollment. Read your health insurance policy carefully to find out what is covered, the copayment amounts for doctor visits, whether it includes dental and vision care, or if you need to get them separately.
Setting up appointment with advisor and enrolling in courses: Meet with your graduate advisor to decide which classes you should be taking, if that is you are entering a program that requires you to take classes. School often require that you are enrolled for a certain number of credits to maintain your status as a full-time international graduate student. Complete your enrollment process early to avoid any late fees. Try to understand the expectations of your advisor and be clear in what kind of mentorship you would require from them because they cannot help you unless you are specific about your goals.
Finally, the process of settling in to a new place and completing all these necessary steps can be very stressful, make sure that you are drinking enough water, taking baby steps, and appreciating yourself every day for having accomplished so much.
What are some initial steps that you have taken as an international graduate student to make the process of settling down easier for you? We would like to hear about it. Tell us in the comments below!
(Photo Credit to Sritama Chatterjee)