When someone tells you to expand or leave your comfort zone or that great things never came from comfort zones, they are telling you to have the courage to try new things. Most international students will probably agree that it was scary at first to leave their family, friends, and the comforts of home to study in a new country. But exploring and growing on an international campus can make your learning adventure all the more rewarding and help you grow more confident and find purpose.
Zequn “Sylar” Liu, student community coordinator in the Shorelight marketing department, used his international education to find growth outside his comfort zone — and guides other international students to do the same.
Finding Your Community Takes Courage
Sylar is originally from Liaoning Province in China. He graduated from Auburn University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in information system management (ISM).
“I started off in computer science, but I couldn’t figure out Java,” Sylar laughed.
In addition to switching majors, Sylar also switched colleges, starting at a small Christian school, Mississippi College, before transferring to Auburn. For many undergrads, the culture shock of coming to a new country is hard, but transferring to a new university after arrival would be even more challenging.
“Fortunately, I met people by being involved with some clubs and acting on the stage,” Sylar said. He was a part of a theater group at Mississippi and used the experience to meet friends and practice English.
“It’s hard for international students,” he said. “You have to balance the Chinese community, local American students, and your specific clubs and groups. Theater helped me. I think the lesson I learned from there is just to be confident. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. And then even though you’re making mistakes, you can let them happen and move on.”
Overcoming Classroom Culture Shock
Many international students studying in the United States are used to memorization- and lecture-style classrooms, and are less familiar with learning by doing (also known as experiential learning). Other students have trouble getting used to the university curriculum workload.
Coming to Auburn University introduced Sylar to the culture shock of going from a small environment to a large one: with almost 30,000 students on campus, Auburn has close to six times the student body as Mississippi College.
“My first year at Auburn, I had my first class with more than 100 students. The most I had in Mississippi College was 20 or 30. So instantly you feel like you have a big distance between you and your professor,” said Sylar. “How do you get involved? How do you get known? The professor has a hundred students there, if you don’t spark a connection, they’re not going to notice you. So, the first time I came here, I had that culture shock, too.”
Getting overwhelmed in a new system is easy, but finding your way is rewarding and builds confidence. Sylar found smaller ways to find community and make the campus feel more manageable. He joined the Outdoor Adventure Club where he met new friends, discovered new activities, and expanded his comfort zone. He also knew that business was an area he found exciting and used that idea to guide him to new communities with similar interests.
“What most helped me was that I knew I wanted to study business,” Sylar said. “So, I attended every business event I could find on campus. That actually helped me find my first student job at the Academic Advising Office at the Harbert College of Business. I just went in there to interview for the position and they really liked me.”
Reframing Your Outlook for the Win
“I was a student assistant at the Harbert College of Business Academic Advisors for nearly two years,” said Sylar. “During my tenure, I was privileged to assist domestic and international students. This experience deepened my understanding of academic advising and highlighted the pivotal role advisors play. In this setting, I discovered my natural affinity for people and my genuine passion for guiding students.”
He also began to realize his love for Auburn University’s favorite time-honored pastime: American football. Like so many students who come to campus, “I became a really big sports fan, especially football,” he says.
As graduation approached, Sylar reconsidered his goals.
Sylar knew he wanted to work more with both people and sports, so he tried several roles combining his passions, including basketball talent scout and intern for USA Team Handball. He also created an American football social media channel for fans from China that got syndicated by a sports company back home.
“It’s definitely a challenge because you go through all this learning, all this new technology stuff, and you don’t know if you are actually good at it. And when you graduate with the degree, you just start thinking, are these my true strengths? It was a real struggle,” said Sylar. “I decided that sometimes you have to switch, embrace yourself, and be that person who you truly are.”
Despite the comfortable tech-driven business career track Sylar had prepared for in the classroom, he realized that that earlier job working with exchange program students — and not his course of study — felt like the better fit.
For several years, he made good use of both his professional and personal interests — and drew from his own experiences — as senior student services advisor for Auburn Global. Today, he’s expanded his reach even further, serving as the student community manager on Shorelight’s marketing team.
5 Ways to Expand Your Comfort Zone
Now, people recognize that it is better to expand your comfort zone than leave it entirely. It’s OK to return to your comfort zone, especially when you need to feel safe and in control. But there is also much truth to the saying that life begins at the end of your comfort zone, or maybe the edge, where you can widen it at your own pace.
Here are five ways Sylar pushed his comfort zone that you can try, too:
Break up your routine: Don’t get bogged down in the same daily habits. Take advantage of your day-to-day chores and tasks by doing them differently.
Travel: See new places, meet new people, feel new feelings — these are hallmarks of a great adventure and ways to rethink your comfort zone.
Challenge yourself: Go for an extra mile during your run, overcome your fear of public speaking, or learn how to play the guitar. Your comfort zone will grow a little with each win.
Cross an item off your bucket list: Go camping in the desert or paragliding in the mountains. Take something you’ve always wanted to do — but never thought you would do — and do it.
Fail! Failing is the inevitable partner of trying. You will succeed, but you will fail along the way. Getting comfortable with that idea is important, and so is finding ways to turn every experience into something valuable.
It wasn’t always easy for Sylar, and trying out career options that were different from what he prepared for at university took a lot of strength.
“It’s really scary to just give up on what you have learned like that and try something new,” said Sylar.
“But when this opportunity’s not good, you find another one, and if that one is not good, then you find another,” said Sylar. “I believe there’s always a place for you. You just have to keep trying and see where you fit.”