Sherry’s journey to leave home in China and come study in the United States started off, like many international students, with excitement and hope. A new life at a US college was something she was looking forward to, and she headed to Nebraska ready to embrace her new identity as a university student.
Her initial experiences in the US were positive: At the beginning of her first semester, Sherry was very active on campus and earned good grades. But she struggled with extreme culture shock, especially with social interactions and connecting with friends. She started to question herself and became increasingly unhappy.
“I went a long time without realizing that my little problems were all starting to roll together into a big problem,” Sherry said. “All that long-term unhappiness and unease turned into depression, which I had never experienced before.”
At first, Sherry didn’t realize depression was a serious problem and she didn’t take any action to pursue professional help. She thought she would be able to deal with it, both with her friends and by herself. But as time went on, she became increasingly self-isolated, even cutting off outside communication.
Her friends did not give up on her, however. They consistently reached out to offer support for her to get better.
Additionally, Sherry went to counseling, even though she was unsure at first how effective it would be. She particularly worried that her parents would not understand the problems she was facing and was afraid to communicate about mental health issues with her family.
“When I first came to study in the United States, I only had WeChat communication with my mom regularly … My dad [and I] communicated a lot less — after two months, we only spoke once,” she said. “So, it gave me the feeling that a culture gap was created between [me] and my family.”
“Students might think that depression means they are not tough enough to face their situation,” Sherry explained. The first time that students from certain backgrounds mention thoughts of depression, their parents’ first reaction is often to blame the student and to tell them to be tougher mentally. It becomes difficult to take the step of making a counseling appointment — they usually turn to their friends first. Often, those friends may also be hesitant to suggest counseling.
Even while grappling with depression, Sherry knew she needed to make a change. Her friends planned a trip to take together, encouraging and trusting her to make whatever decisions were necessary to improve her well-being. After the trip, and with their support, she decided to transfer to Auburn Global.
In Alabama, her mental health journey entered a new phase.
“After I arrived at Auburn, in my first semester I was still recovering from depression,” she said. “In the second half of my first semester, I had a desire to prove myself again and start pulling myself up. However, I still felt a lot of self-guilt, and did not look for the help I needed. In my mind, I thought I would disappoint people who loved me if I admitted I needed help.”
The Auburn Global team took notice. “My future student services advisor, Yi, had heard about my case,” Sherry said. “She volunteered to have a conversation with me about what I was facing.” On meeting Yi, “I immediately felt that she was warm and welcoming, and I felt safe to talk to her about everything.”
Sherry made consistent appointments with Yi to talk about her plans, challenges, and life overall. Each time they met, they talked for about an hour, with Yi guiding Sherry through making study plans, setting up goals, and answering questions. When asked how often she talked with Yi, Sherry laughed and replied, “I can’t remember; it was a countless number of times.”
She also worked closely with Auburn Global academic director Dr. Robert Weigl and managing director Dr. ChuChu Chidume. “They were both very patient in working with me, providing advice, and encouraging me to study hard,” she said. “I was fortunate to have this help.”
That semester, Sherry pulled her GPA up. Afterward, she consistently earned a spot on the Dean’s List, a distinction reserved only for high academic performers. She’ll graduate in December 2022.
When asked to give advice to other international students who may be struggling with culture shock and depression, Sherry said, “have the courage to speak out about the challenges and difficulties you are facing. Have confidence in speaking out about yourself to your family and friends, and seek out counseling if you need it. I understand there will be a culture difference and language barrier, but you should still have the courage to ask for help. With society right now opening up to more understanding about counseling services, seeking professional help will definitely benefit you.”
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