Just a couple of months ago I made the move from the four walls of my parent’s home in Pune, India, to being within the four walls of the unit I share with my classmates in Philadelphia, PA. Why I chose to move countries this Spring despite another virtual semester still perplexes my parents. But as some of you reading this would understand, pandemic or not, I’d rather be as close to the university campus as possible! And despite the three months leading up to the move adding on to the grad school stress that I didn’t need in the first place, I am glad I made the decision.  

As an international student there were quite a few things to keep track of, applications to complete, forms to fill and waiting to do, especially in this precarious and uncertain time. Some of you might be in the same place now that I was in when I decided to make the move, trying to make sense of the mountain of things to do. So, I am going to share some tips and behind the scenes of my journey in the hope that it might help you out!  

Finances first  

This is tough but the most important aspect to think about. It is no secret that an Ivy League education is expensive, but as international students there are many avenues to explore for financial support. And getting things in order take time. Whether it is a student loan or a scholarship or another form of funding, it is best to sort it out as soon as you decide to accept the admission (irrespective of the mode of the program). I went through all the financial services options available to UPenn students, did several (mostly random) searches for scholarship/funding options in my home country and spoke with many a friends and relatives for their suggestions and experiences. It is always good to have alternatives.  

Looking back now I realize that I should have been as proactive when it came to looking for work opportunities as well. Once you are admitted you get information from the program and GSE about the various Graduate Assistantships and other on-campus opportunities for international students; keep a track of these emails. Applications for many positions start as early as March. In the current situation there may be some restrictions for international students (depending on where they are based) but it is better to apply and enquire about the restrictions than not apply and miss out on a chance to find a potential way around those.  

Visa worries  

The pandemic has really changed what we knew of travelling across borders. Sorting out my finances was tough but going through the whole VISA process was a whole different ball game. With the situation changing every other week, it is crucial that you keep a track of the official rules and regulations regarding travel from the website of the US Embassy/Consulates in your country and of your home country. I had to wait for weeks to get an appointment slot, since many students were opting to travel for spring, I had to set up daily reminders to check for slots! One good thing that came out of this wait period was that I got all my documents and requirements covered and sorted by the time I had to go for my visa interview.   

See if you can find groups of students from your region on social media. These groups not only help in keeping track of VISA related requirements but also help in connecting with fellow students for travel and housing searches. 

Shelter Skelter 

Another crucial decision to make is about housing. I was already in touch with my classmates, all international students, and we decided to look for housing together. But even with four of us doing the search, it was quite a task. The University website was quite useful to look for information on both on and off campus housing. Since I began my search in late November, several places were already booked. So be sure to begin your search alongside the process for acquiring your visa, to have a place on time. Once you have zeroed in on a place check with students who are in the city about the area, Google can’t give you answers to all your questions about the surroundings, it’s best to know from someone with a firsthand experience. 

Closing comments 

There are quite a few things to be mindful of as an international student so I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep a track of all the emails you get from the university and the program. Details of most of the things you’d need to take care of prior to your move can be found through this. It is possible that you might get overwhelmed, especially in a situation where there is added uncertainty from a pandemic, so keep communicating with students or advisors from the program.  

A challenging yet exciting life as a grad school student awaits!