Going to college can be a difficult adjustment for all teenagers. It is often the first time we move away from home; no parents, no curfew, no chores, and no vegetables! Feeling at home on campus is difficult for all freshmen; there are very few familiar faces and the buildings all seem to look the same. Taking part in orientation activities such as scavenger hunts and icebreaker games is a great way to smoothen the adjustment. I was particularly lucky to be able to take part in the international orientation program, which truly assimilated me into the Princeton community by teaching me ‘How to be an American.’
As a Canadian I had clearly never been exposed to American culture before, so it was imperative that I attend international orientation in order to, “learn practical information that will help you adjust to life in the U.S., as well as meet other international students before the rest of the incoming freshman class arrive,” or so my email said. Upon arriving at Princeton, I was happy to find a plethora of resources with just the “practical information” I was looking for.
The first of these was an informative pamphlet entitled “U.S. classroom culture.” The key points outlined included the singularity of the U.S. classroom’s “learner centered approach” and the variety of teaching methods used in U.S. classrooms as opposed to international systems that are “based on a lot of memorization and a kind of mechanization of the learning process.”
Even more interesting was the table that compared the U.S. education system and the Non-U.S. education system. For example, in the U.S. “the Department of Education influences schools, but does not govern them.” Whereas in a Non-U.S. education system the “Ministry of Education governs schools from the top down.” Having attended school in Switzerland and Canada, I was surprised to find that the U.S. education system was apparently completely different than anything I had ever experienced in my Non-U.S. education system. Back home in Canada, the ministry of education would dictate each and every detail of the syllabus; things were obviously very different here in the land of the free. To make matters worse, in Switzerland our classes followed the International Baccalaureate system, which aims to “develop inquring, knowledgeable, and caring people.” As the pamphlet said, this system was memorization based and completely mechanized. I had no idea how desperately we international students really needed to “adjust to life in the U.S.”
Next, we eagerly took part in many exciting events intended to teach us more fully “How to be an American.” These involved a ‘traditional American barbeque,’ a scavenger hunt to learn ‘the lay of the land before the Americans arrive on campus,’ and an incredibly stimulating lecture on “maintaining your F-1 immigration status.” The best part about all these events is that we got to do them all over again at orientation with the rest of our class.
But my favorite moment of the program was by far the “How to be an American” speech. Some of the highlights included a description of American greetings such as shaking hands, and a gentle reminder not to kiss everyone on the cheek that you meet. There was also a demonstration of how girls react when they run into their friends on campus, which bore a striking resemblance to a yappy dog jumping all over its owner as he comes home from work. Finally they drilled into us that if an American says, “how are ya?” their question is rhetorical and you should just continue walking.
Most people found this lecture quite shocking and the majority of us came out completely terrified and still unsure of how life was going to be at Princeton. But overall, we were lucky to have been educated on traditional native customs, before meeting our American peers. “How to be an American” was one thing we no longer had to worry about.