Tag: I’m Admitted, Now What?

I’m Admitted, Now What?: A Guide for International Students (Part II)

Now that we’ve gotten all of the logistical stuff out of the way in I’m Admitted, Now What?: A Guide for International Students, let’s talk about the experience of coming to the United States for graduate school. I’m not an international student myself, but I previously worked in an International Students and Scholar’s Office, so I’ve heard first hand some of the problems that international students run into and have some tips on how to avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

Plan for homesickness. This isn’t limited to international students, of course (a lot of your classmates will be moving to the area from other states or cities), but it can be especially difficult when you’re moving from another country. It’s totally normal and natural to occasionally feel lonely or uncomfortable while you make this transition, but there are definitely things that you can do to combat it. You’ll want to strike a balance between old and new; maintaining your connections to your friends and family back home, while also establishing new bonds with your classmates and faculty. To maintain those connections, I would suggest: bringing a lot of photos of friends and family to decorate your new home, find a local restaurant that serves your favorite food or drink from back home, set a recurring skype or zoom date with someone back home once a week, maintain some of your old habits (if you always went for a jog before work, or had a cup of tea once you came home, keep doing that!). To establish new bonds, participate in a mentorship program, join a club or study group, participate in cultural events in your new city, and open yourself up to new experiences.

Prepare for academic culture shock. Many students make the mistake of thinking that because they’re familiar with American popular culture, they won’t experience culture shock. But even if you’ve grown up watching Friends, there will probably likely be many moments during your new life where American culture will seem strange, and particularly norms surrounding American educational systems. Especially in graduate school classes, professors expect students to participate by asking questions and offering their own thoughts, and many of your classes may even be discussion-based, rather than lecture style. Another difficulty that many international students run into is unintentional plagiarism; it’s essential that students learn to quote and cite other sources honestly and accurately, in the way that their professors expect.  Academic work in the United States depends on making absolutely clear which ideas and language are your own, and which come from someone else; if the lines get blurred, the credibility of your work is undermined. Luckily, the library at your school most likely offers a workshop or resources for avoiding plagiarism; I would recommend looking into those as soon as possible.

Identify support systems. Speaking from someone in the admissions office, I can attest that the goal of everyone at your university is making sure that students succeed. That starts with admissions, making sure that incoming students have all the advice to make the right decision for them and have all the information they need to ensure their transition to campus is smooth. As a student, you’ll find that in addition to your professors, the Office of International Students, the library, the Health Center, and your program’s administrators are all eager to help you succeed. Don’t wait until you’re in over your head to reach out to ask for help: that’s what we’re here for! I can’t tell you how many times, as an international student advisor, I wished that a student had reached out for help even a week or two before. And remember, life happens and it can be messy. Though I certainly hope your journey is a smooth one, if a major life event happens to you while in school, please please please let the people around you know as soon as possible.

Remember that deciding to attend graduate school abroad is a big step, and will likely not be without its challenges. However, adopting the mindset that challenges are an opportunity for growth (rather than proof of inadequacy) will take you a long way. You likely have a clear reason for why you’ve chosen to make this major change, whether it’s to experience a new culture, broaden your career opportunities, achieve a new level of academic excellence: whatever your reason is, keep that in the front of your mind as you navigate through your new adventure.

I’m Admitted, Now What?: A Guide for International Students

Now that the final deadline for international students has passed for Heller’s master’s programs, I thought it would be a good time to resume the “I’m Admitted, Now What?” series with a post just for international students. If you haven’t read the previous posts in this series, I recommend reviewing these:

I’d also like to issue a quick disclaimer: this is meant as general advice and primarily focuses on F-1 students and their experiences. However, this should not be considered definitive or all-encompassing; visa regulations and travel guidance is subject to change, so for more information, make sure to check out Heller’s Visa Process page, Pre-Enrollment Checklist, or contact Brandeis’ International Student and Scholars Office.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get started! Say you’re an international student who’s just been admitted… what should you do first (other than celebrate)? Consider this your checklist:

⬜  After you’ve accepted your offer of admission and paid your tuition deposit, you’ll gain access to your Visa Information and Declaration of Finances (VIDOF) Form in March. To complete your VIDOF form, you’ll need to submit a  clear picture current valid passport including photo, expiration date, name, and passport number, as well as proof of your ability to pay for one year of your program (tuition + fees + living expenses). Generally speaking, any proof for funds you’ll be contributing needs to be 1. dated within 9 months of your start date (so there needs to be a date on the bank statement), 2. include a specific amount of funds (in other words, saying “the account holder is in good standing” is not sufficient), and 3. funds need to be liquid at the time of your program start date (meaning that they need to be funds that are immediately available, so for example, a mortgage, funds that have a maturity date after your program start, etc. would not be acceptable). If you’d like to bring dependents under an F-2 visa, you’ll need their passport and proof of funds for them as well.  Make sure to follow the instructions on your VIDOF form carefully.

⬜  After you receive your I-20 or DS-2019, check to make sure that all of the information on the I-20 or DS-2019 is correct. You’ll use your SEVIS number to make your visa appointment; make sure you bring the same documents you used to apply for your I-20/DS-2019 to your visa appointment (and don’t forget your I-20 or DS-2019!). I recommend applying for your I-20/DS-2019 as soon as possible because visa appointments can fill up quickly! You can find a full guide to preparing for your visa interview on Brandeis’ ISSO website.

⬜ Make sure you’re up to date on relevant travel information or advisories well before your flight. You can find an updated list of travel proclamations related to COVID-19 that are currently in effect on Brandeis’ ISSO website. As of now, all air passengers traveling to the United States will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test within 3 days before their flight or provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19, so be aware that this may still be in effect at the time you’ll be traveling, and plan accordingly.

⬜ When you enter the US, you’ll be issued an I-94 form that should read either “F-1 D/S” or “J-1 D/S” (depending on whether you’re an F-1 or J-1 student). Make sure you check your I-94 carefully to make sure it says one of those two, and that your notation on the I-94 matches your visa. If you notice a mistake on your Form I-94 (paper or electronic) or passport stamp, please try to request a correction while you are at the airport. If you do not notice the mistake until after you depart the airport, please bring it to the ISSO as soon as possible so that they can advise you on how to request a correction.

⬜  Find housing (see information in a previous post, linked above!). Brandeis does not provide housing for graduate students, so you’ll want to make sure you have a plan for where you’ll be staying prior to your arrival.

⬜ All new and returning international students in the United States are automatically enrolled in the Student Health Plan (SHP), but if you will be in the U.S. and have an insurance policy that meets the waiver requirements can waive the university SHP by contacting our general customer service (800-437-6448 or info@univhealthplans.com) to request the paper (PDF format) international student waiver form. If you have health insurance that meets these requirements, make sure you waive your coverage, but if you do not, no action is needed.

⬜  When you arrive, you will need cash in US currency or a credit or debit card to which you can charge expenses. You should aim to bring $200-$500 in US currency to cover expenses in the first few days of your stay here. Bring enough small bills ($1s, $5s, and $10s) so that you can buy any snacks/food or anything else that you may need upon arrival. You may also bring travelers’ checks, but keep in mind that they may not be accepted everywhere. Make sure to check with your credit card company and/or your bank to ensure that you will be able to use your card(s) here in the US upon arrival. You may want to open a US bank account once you arrive; there are a number of local banks around Brandeis where you can get help to open an account.

Again, this is just a primer on things to be thinking about as you prepare to make your big move to the US; for more information or clarification make sure you contact Brandeis’ International Student and Scholar’s Office!

 

I’m Admitted, Now What?: Housing Part 2

I’m following up on my recent post on finding housing while in graduate school with a special post about avoiding scams while looking for housing. According to a recent survey conducted by College Pads, approximately 15% of students encounter a rental scam when looking for housing— unfortunately, it’s much more common than you would think! Although some scams are easily weeded out with just a little bit of investigation, others can be quite convincing, so it’s important to do your homework and keep these tips in mind.

  1. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Before you fall in love with a 2,000 square foot studio apartment with sweeping views of the Charles for only $500 a month, ask yourself if the price lines up with the other apartments you’ve viewed. Although there are certainly good deals to be found, Boston real estate is notoriously expensive, and anything significantly less than the average for the area should be treated with caution. With roommates, you should expect to pay between $500 and $800 in rent in the Waltham area, and between $600 and $1,000 in Boston or Cambridge. If you’re looking to live alone, most studios in Boston start at around $1,500. Anything significantly lower than that should be treated with caution.
  2. Do a grammar check. Once you start communicating with a landlord or realtor, pay special attention to the emails you receive. Poor spelling, incorrect grammar, excessive punctuation, or language that seems overly “robotic” should all be red flags that the listing may not be legitimate. If the signature of the realtor contains a company website, check that out too; company websites should also look legitimate and use correct grammar and punctuation.
  3. Make Google your best friend. Always, always, always, do a search on the person or company you’re dealing with. If a scammer is targeting you, chances are that it’s not the first time they’ve done this, and you can usually find negative reviews and comments online. Remember that people can pay for positive reviews and delete negative comments on their websites, so look for third-party review pages (like Yelp or GoogleReviews) and look past the first few comments. If there are multiple people complaining about their experience with the landlord or real estate company, treat that as a red flag.
  4. Know your rights. In Boston, landlords are not allowed to charge you an application fee, a credit check fee, or a fee to ‘hold’ the apartment. If they ask for any of these, that should be a huge warning sign. Once you sign a lease, you may be asked to pay first, last, and a security deposit on an apartment, but you should only do this once you’ve signed a lease or seen the apartment at the very least. You can find more information about your rights as a renter on the City of Boston’s website.
  5. See the apartment if at all possible. For students coming from across the country, or even internationally, this may not be an option, but if at all possible, try to see the apartment. If you’re not able to visit the apartment, see if one of your roommates or another close friend in the area can visit it on your behalf, and ask them to take a video of their walkthrough of the apartment so you can see it. This is slightly complicated by the current pandemic, but most landlords are now showing apartments; at the very least they can do a video walkthrough for you (ask to see the apartment from the outside to verify the address and ask them to state your name or the date so you can verify they’re not showing you an old or out-dated video).

Unfortunately, if you have been scammed, it’s often difficult to get your money back, so if possible, pay with a check so your money can be traced and you can cancel the check if something goes wrong. The good news is that if you follow these tips and use good judgement, you’ll be able to weed out the vast majority of rental scams. Happy apartment hunting!

 

I’m Admitted, Now What?: Housing Part 1

For the latest in the “I’m Admitted, Now What?” series, I’d like to talk about some steps to take after you’ve made your decision and sent in your deposit. Some students may live close enough to Brandeis to commute, but for many, a new graduate program means a new city! I myself moved from Atlanta to Boston for graduate school, and I remember the mixture of excitement and nervousness that comes with taking this next big step. Here are some things that I learned along the way, along with some Brandeis-specific tips, that I hope will help you in your journey:

Location, location, location. Most Heller students choose to live in Waltham, because they prefer to be close to campus; it’s so convenient to be able to walk back to your home in between classes to grab a textbook, have a snack, or (let’s be honest) take a nap. Waltham is a great historic town right along the Charles River, and there are a ton of great restaurants along Moody Street (I love Moody’s Delicatessen for a quick lunch and Balani for a special-treat dinner). Waltham is also less than half an hour from Boston, so getting into the city is really easy, but rent in Waltham is generally a little more affordable than in Boston or Cambridge.

However, if you are looking to move to Boston or Cambridge because you want the experience of living in the city, I would recommend researching the Somerville, Allston/Brighton, or Jamaica Plain neighborhoods. Somerville is popular amongst Brandeis graduate students for its proximity to North Station, where you can board the commuter rail line that takes you right to the base of campus, and the neighborhoods around Porter Square and Davis square are really fun, with lots of shopping, restaurants, and cute cafes. Allston and Brighton are common places for students to live in Boston for their great restaurants and nightlife options; for those without a car, it’s easy to take the MBTA to North Station. Jamaica Plain isn’t as good an option for Heller students without a car, but for those that do, this neighborhood is a great mix of students and young professionals and has plenty of great food along Centre Street.

Mix and match. Unless you’re from the area or are moving with your family, you’ll most likely need to find roommates. The Brandeis Graduate Facebook group has a lot of great information and apartment postings, and many students use it to find roommates. Brandeis also hosts a Grad Housing listserv where you can sign up to get emails about available apartments or students looking for roommates, so I would also recommend subscribing to that. Many Heller students choose to live together; having a built-in support group in your program can be really helpful to students new to the area. Living with other students in your program can lend itself to group study sessions, but having students outside your program can often add a new perspective, so don’t be afraid to mix and match with classmates both inside and outside your program!

Timing is everything. Many apartments in Boston have leases that start on September 1st, but I would recommend looking for leases that start on August 1st or August 15th, so you’re not rushing to set up utilities and get settled in during the first week of classes. Boston housing fills up fast, so I would recommend starting to look as soon as you are able (Jump Off-Campus hosts a Brandeis specific site for landlords specifically looking to rent to Brandeis students and other members of the Brandeis community). It can also be very competitive, so if you find a place that you like, be prepared to commit that day: have your documents ready, your checkbook on hand, and a co-signer lined up (if necessary). During the COVID-19 pandemic, most realtors are offering virtual tours, which can make it easier to decide on an apartment even from far away (and an effective tool to weed out scams!). If you’re renting an unfurnished apartment, make sure you’re also budgeting enough time and money to find furniture; there’s an IKEA only thirty minutes away, and a Target less than fifteen minutes from Waltham, but there are also a lot of thrift stores along Moody Street and Main Street where you can dig up a lot of great finds for very low prices.

I hope these tips are helpful as you start your housing search! I’ll be sharing more housing tips in the coming weeks, so make sure you subscribe by entering your email address in the sidebar to the right.

I’m Admitted, Now What?: Financial Aid

I talked a little bit about this in the previous post in the “I’m Admitted, Now What?” series, but today I’d like to dive a little deeper into how to evaluate your financial aid package and how to find additional ways of financing your graduate school education.

Read the fine print. When comparing graduate school financial aid packages, it’s important not to get stuck on the percentage of the scholarship you’ve received. Shorter programs, suburban or rural campuses, and internship support programs can all mean less-out-of-pocket costs for students: even living in Waltham over living in Boston can mean paying 4% less in rental costs, even though you’re still less than half an hour from the city! Additionally, some programs provide internship support; in Heller’s MPP program, students who secure paid internships can apply for matching funds of up to $2,500, and students who find unpaid internships can apply for support through Heller. These small differences can make a big impact over the course of a program.

Another factor to consider is what conditions your scholarship has: at Heller, tuition scholarships are not tied to required research assistantships or teaching assistantships because we reward you for the work you’ve already done. However, at many schools, scholarships are dependent on working as a graduate assistant, which may make it difficult for you to work for outside organizations during your graduate program.

Looking into all of these factors can take time and careful research; if you’re not sure where to look, I would suggest starting with your school’s Financial Aid page and the Policies and Procedures handbook for your specific program.

Start your search. Once you’ve compared your costs with internal scholarships, it’s time to start looking at external sources of funding. Here at Heller, we have a list of external funding sources for U.S. citizens and international students, which can be a great place to start. Fastweb.com and Funding US Study (for international students) are also fantastic resources for students looking to fund their graduate education. International students should also contact their local EducationUSA office;  EducationUSA is a U.S. Department of State network of over 430 international student advising centers in 178 countries and territories and can help you to identify other sources of funding.

In many situations, there may be smaller scholarships for which you might be qualified. These small scholarships can add up; don’t dismiss opportunities because of size! Think about how you identify yourself: this can lead to some smaller pockets of money that are designated to specific groups available through advocacy organizations and/or foundations, including women’s organizations, LGBT organizations, and ethnic organizations.

Get to work! Once you get to campus, you can also start looking for on-campus employment. I’d encourage you to start your search for on-campus positions in the first few weeks, as on-campus jobs are usually in high demand. Many colleges have websites where you can search for open student employment positions, so you might even start searching the week before you arrive on campus. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box (or in this case, your program); international student offices, study abroad offices, libraries, research labs, student employment offices, and athletic departments often utilize student workers. In fact, this blog is written in part by two Graduate Assistants in the Admissions Office!

Once you’ve been in your program for a few months, don’t be afraid to approach professors about research assistantships or teaching assistantships. You can also reach out to your faculty advisor for guidance about how to approach faculty regarding your research interests or desire to teach while in graduate school.

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