Home Away From Home: An International Student Guide to South Carolina

University of South Carolina
advice for students
culture shock
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By Kate H Knapp
Last updated on February 8, 2024

With international festivals, ethnic restaurants and markets, and cultural centers, South Carolina offers a warm welcome to international students.

From the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwest to the Atlantic Ocean coastline in the east, South Carolina provides a great deal of environmental diversity set against a beautiful backdrop. The state is one of the original 13 colonies of the United States, and its 400-year history is preserved in many of its architecture, battlefields, and sites throughout the state. Some of the major cities are expanding globally, with an uptick of international businesses setting up shop here. 

International students attending the University of South Carolina (USC) will find reminders of their home country in this southern state thanks to a variety of ethnic restaurants, major cultural events, international markets, and cultural communities in Columbia, Charleson, Spartanburg, and elsewhere.

Columbia and Beyond

Home to the University of South Carolina, Columbia has been named one of the best college towns in the United States (livability.com). The city’s central location in South Carolina places it within a few hours’ drive of the state’s impressive mountains, beautiful beaches, and bigger cities in neighboring states. The state’s capital city, however, offers plenty of reasons to stay close to home. 

Lovingly referred to as “Soda City” — because its abbreviated name is COLA — Columbia has a smaller population of 700,000 people, but provides a lot of big-city things to do, including shopping districts, museums, historic sites, exciting outdoor activities, and year-round cultural events. The city is “famously hot,” especially during the summer, which is a great time to take advantage of the area’s many indoor attractions.

International students will find a little bit of home, as well as flavors from around the world, at the Soda City Market. Taking place every Saturday morning along downtown’s Main Street, the market features a diverse range of food and products from 33 different countries.   

Additionally, the Columbia World Affairs Council may be of interest to international students, as its members working to “promot[e] intercontinental awareness in South Carolina” by “serv[ing] as the bridge between [the] local community and its global counterparts.”


Just two hours southeast of Columbia, Charleston sits right on the water and is a great place for international students to visit. More than 54,000 people who call the city home were born abroad and nearly 7% of its population is international. The city also features more than 180 international companies within its metro area. Students from afar will find a welcoming city with plenty of options of places to eat, shop, and worship, as well as cultural events throughout the year that highlight aspects of home. 


Not far from South Carolina’s international airport, Spartanburg is no stranger to welcoming people from all over the world. The city is home to residents from more than 75 countries and boasts more than 100 international businesses. Less than a two-hour drive northwest from Columbia, Spartanburg features a lot of different cuisines to bring a small taste of home to an international student.  

South Carolina’s International Markets

Looking beyond the many ethnic restaurants across the state, international students searching for familiar flavors can typically find them at international markets. These are just a few places featuring the scents, spices, and specialty snacks that may remind them of home.  

Chinese Markets

Latin Markets

Indian Markets

International Markets Close to USC

International students studying at USC won’t have to go far to find a little taste of home thanks to a wide variety of ethnic markets within minutes of campus. 

Chinese Markets

Korean Grocery Store

Indian Markets

Latin Markets

Middle Eastern Markets 

European Grocery Stores

Cultural Festival and Events in South Carolina

South Carolina offers a range of international events throughout the year, especially in Columbia, Charleston, and Spartanburg. Each of these festivals highlights a different culture’s food, music, traditions, and celebrations, making them a great way to feel connected to home. 

  • Columbia International Festival: Visitors come from all over to celebrate this major event and see the fashion show, shop at the bazaar, taste food from around the world, learn about cultures through demonstrations, or watch the Parade of Nations, where nearly 100 countries present their flag proudly. 

  • Korean Festival, Columbia: Korean culture is highlighted through music, dance, and taekwondo performances, as well as regional cuisine, such as bulgogi, kimbap, kimchi, and more. 

  • Main Street Latin Festival, Columbia: Every year, more than 20,000 people crowd Main Street to hear salsa, merengue, reggaetón, and grupero music, watch folklore-inspired dancing, and taste Latin cuisine. 

  • Spartanburg International Festival: One of the city’s largest events, the festival attracts more than 12,000 people who come to learn about different cultures at the Avenue of Nations; try foods from Japan, El Salvador, Kenya, Peru, Tanzania, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Laos, Jamaica, and more; and see dance, music, and art performances across three separate stages.

  • The Tartan Day South Celtic Festival, Columbia: Held annually in Columbia each April, this weekend-long celebration showcases the Celtic cultures and traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and England. Highlights include live Celtic music performances, animal exhibitions on sheepdog herding and birds of prey, and athletic competitions, among other events.

Holidays such as Diwali, Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, and others are often celebrated with events on campus or at places of worship, like the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of South Carolina.

Feel at Home Without Leaving Campus

With more than 5% of enrolled students coming from 100 different countries, the University of South Carolina wants international students to feel at home on its 200-year-old campus. 

To help ease the transition to a new life in a new country, the school offers several programs and events, such as its Buddies Beyond Borders. USC has noted that “many international students find that their expectations of America are much different than the reality of living in Columbia, South Carolina.” Newly enrolled international students are paired with current USC students who offer guidance on how to settle into campus life in Columbia.  

The Thinking Globally ambassador program provides international students with the opportunity to share their culture with others, practice their language skills, and represent their country in the classroom. Volunteer ambassadors “present to first-year USC students in University 101, academic classes, and community classrooms throughout Columbia.” 

International Education Week is a great way to get involved with the USC community, as the yearly event aims to “promote communication between different cultures at USC and to help develop global-ready USC graduates.” The International Festival on Greene Street highlights cultures from all over the world through dance, music, and creative displays and is a favorite annual tradition.

Finally, international students can make friends and build a community on campus by joining one of the 575 different student-run clubs and organizations, such as the International Student Association

Finding a Home Away from Home

With such a wide range of international festivals, ethnic markets, and diverse activities throughout the state, students are sure to find comforting reminders of home in South Carolina. 

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