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International Student Housing Options in the U.S.

Josh Moody

Even the most dedicated college student only spends a fraction of his or her time in the classroom.

College life often means distributing time across studying, participating in student organizations and working. But at the end of a day of learning and campus life, where do students go? For many students, their university doubles as home. And for international students in the U.S., experts say it can be a place where campus and community align -- a home far away from home.

"I think the easiest way to transition from home to a new country is to be able to rely on the institution to provide that housing and meal plan," says Christine Guevara, executive director of Campus Health and Wellness at St. John's College in New Mexico.

Across the U.S. only 15.6% of students lived on campus in 2015-16, according to the most recent data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. The percentage of international students living on campus in the U.S. is not clear from this data.

Living on Campus

For students, a university can be a place where they learn, eat, make friends and sleep. College housing policies vary, but at many schools, students are required to live on campus for at least one year, typically as freshmen. Some schools have longer residency requirements, such as living on campus for four years at St. John's College, though some exceptions do apply.

[See: What International Students Should Know About Recent U.S. Trends.]

College officials say living on campus allows students access to the resources they need to be successful. But what living on campus looks like may vary, with housing options ranging widely by college and numerous options available to students.

"I think most schools these days will offer both apartment-style communities and what we might call the traditional-style communities," says Greg Connell, associate dean of students and director of residence life at Florida Institute of Technology.

Apartment-style, Connell explains, typically means a four-bedroom, two-bathroom unit with a shared living space and kitchen. By contrast, the traditional-style option is a room shared by two students with a communal bathroom and other facilities down the hall.

"The apartment-style community is going to give students more privacy, but that traditional-style tends to lead to more socialization and more relationship forming," Connell says, adding this interaction may give students an entry to get involved on campus.

Even within traditional residence halls, the layout can vary. For example, St. John's offers single-occupancy dorm rooms.

"Students are very pleased to have that single option, and it allows them the privacy they were hoping for," Guevara says.

While Guevara notes that some privacy-minded students are reluctant to have a roommate, she suggests it can be a way to make friends, create bonds and experience college life. Students sometimes have the chance to connect with a roommate via social media prior to sharing space together.

"Colleges do it differently -- some assign roommates, some get to pick roommates," explains Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of International College Counselors based in Florida.

Campus officials say the process of assigning or selecting a roommate typically begins with students filling out a questionnaire once they have committed to the school. There they can indicate living preferences, such as when they prefer to sleep and study and other personal habits, to help find a compatible roommate.

While dorm rooms are largely outfitted to meet basic needs, students will have to provide some general items to fill out the space.

"Most campuses are going to provide the furniture, the structural pieces inside the dorm room, so all of those soft touches students are going to be expected to provide on their own," says Guevara, adding that students are responsible for bringing bedding, towels and other toiletries. At St. John's, a shuttle service provides transportation to students to purchase such items.

Another option at some schools is to have certain items, such as bedding, shipped in advance of the move-in date.

"We can go ahead and place those (items) in the student's rooms prior to their arrival," Connell says. "That's a service that I would recommend to a lot of international students. Reach out to the institution, see if they can ship boxes ahead of time."

[See: 15 Most Affordable Colleges for International Students.]

Generally, campus officials say, college students should consider what they want in their dorm room versus what is provided. While basic necessities such as a bed, desk, chair and closet or drawer are standard, other features may not be provided. For example, students may need to acquire their own minifridge, microwave or television if they want these appliances on hand.

Aside from outfitting a room with necessities and modern conveniences, Adler suggests bringing reminders from home.

"They're allowed to be young and allowed to bring things that make them feel comfortable," she says, adding that can include stuffed animals, photos, flags and other comforting items that help students feel connected to faraway friends and family.

Living Off Campus

While pop culture often depicts the traditional college housing experience as taking place on campus, that is largely no longer true. According to National Postsecondary Student Aid Study data analyzed by Seton Hall University professor Robert Kelchen in 2018, more students live off campus than in university housing, a trend that has remained stable since 2000.

But many college officials urge international students to carefully consider the pros and cons of moving off campus.

"The No. 1 concern is their access to transportation, and making sure that they have reliable transportation to ensure they can get to class each and every time. Sometimes students don't have consistent transportation, and that can prove to be an issue for them," Guevara says.

Cost may be another factor. While living off campus is likely to save students money, it may make life more complicated. In place of a meal plan, students will have to shop for and prepare their own food, pay individual utilities and take on other responsibilities that are typically handled by a college when a student lives on campus.

"Most on-campus housing is all-inclusive. You're not going to get a separate bill for your water, electric, cable, internet. But when you go off campus, most of those places, you're going to get a separate bill for those amenities," Connell says.

There's also the matter of what to do with a 12-month lease if a student plans to return home for the summer.

"I've noticed a lot of our international students want to go home only during the summer because it might be cost-prohibitive to go home multiple times during the year. If you're signing a 12-month lease, what are you going to be doing with your lease during those (summer) months when you might be back home?" Connell says.

Safety is also an issue that concerns college officials. Before moving into off-campus housing international students should do their homework.

"I recommend they speak with as many people as possible. And this would be true of any student, honestly, who's coming to a new area. They don't necessarily know the town very well, they don't know the more dangerous portions of town," Guevara says.

[Read: Estimate Living Expenses to Determine College Affordability.]

Guevara adds that students should speak with international student coordinators at their college about moving off campus. Due to visa regulations, colleges will need to keep an up-to-date record of where the student lives. Renting from a private landlord may also require additional paperwork, such as rental history, which a college can provide to demonstrate proof of residency.

What to Know About Living in the U.S.

For the international students Adler works with, she likes to acquaint them with the U.S. through a summer program, when possible. This gives them exposure to the country and a sense of what they'll experience when they head to college. Other tips she offers include reaching out to potential roommates via social media and joining college Facebook groups clustered around class year or major.

Connell notes colleges undertake various initiatives to make international students feel at home, including dining nights catered to themes from their home country. There are also student organizations representing regions or countries, which he plugs as "a good network for those students, somebody who's been there before, who understands the struggles" of international peers.

Connell also emphasizes the need for international students to set up a communication plan with family back home. Students should designate times when they will be available to talk to family and on what medium, whether that's a video chat or phone call.

"Having that communication plan in place, I think, is really important, because a lot of times the time zone difference makes communication difficult," Connell says.

For students overwhelmed by college life, Adler reminds them to turn to the resources available, starting with the office that oversees international students. "Colleges want these kids to be successful, so they have an entire office set up to provide resources for these students," she says. "The student has to take responsibility to understand what the resources are."

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