Adapting to American Universities: Culture and Rules

Many students who travel to the United States to attend university are visiting the country for the first time. Living in a foreign country for an extended period can be stressful, especially for those who have never before left their home country. Adjusting to a new culture can at times be frustrating and confusing. Like all countries, America offers a unique cultural experience for new visitors.


American Values


While not all Americans share an exact value system, certain traits or attitudes are often shared or praised by Americans at large. Learning about these values can lead to understanding American behaviors and attitudes. Most Americans value independence and striving for success and achievement as a result of their individual actions. Individuality is prized by Americans who tend to encourage their children to seek out a unique path in life that matches their personality and which makes them happy. Americans tend to subscribe to the idea of equality. Women and men of all ethnic and cultural groups are thought of by the majority of Americans as equals. The United States Constitution contains laws that aim to ensure and protect this equality for everyone in the country.



American relationships can be very informal in nature. Dressing, acting, and speaking casually can be seen almost anywhere, including universities. Communication, while informal, often emphasizes directness.  For many, open discussion of ideas, opinions, and problems is encouraged, if not expected.  People in the American Midwest are known for being casual, friendly and direct in their style of communication.


It is important to remember that these traits are not necessarily true for all Americans and that diversity can be found in every corner of the nation.

Difference in the Laws

During your time studying in the United States, you will be required to follow American laws. While most of these require little effort to adapt to, there are a few important changes that international students should take special notice of before traveling abroad.

The legal age to purchase and use tobacco products is 18 and in some states it is 21.

Similar to restaurants and other public places, more and more American universities are becoming smoke-free. Smoking on one of these campuses may result in being charged a fine. Research your university’s official policy on smoking before deciding to light up.

The legal age to purchase and consume alcohol is 21.

Drinking alcoholic beverages while under the age of 21 is a legal offense in America. Your status as an international student does not change your need to follow this rule.  Universities, in particular, will police this policy heavily. Many American universities will not allow alcohol of any type on their campus, even if you are over the age of 21. Search online or speak with a university official to learn more about your school’s alcohol policy.


Adapting to life in a new culture takes time, and the best way to expedite the process is to engage yourself. Speak with your fellow students. Learn what their culture means to them, and what values they see as central to their lives. Learning about a new culture can be one of the most rewarding and memorable aspects of studying abroad. To make a successful transition, you must open your heart and mind to new ideas and experiences and be patient with yourself.

No major life transition happens overnight!


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Alex is a Sociology major at Truman State University. He enjoys learning about new cultures and new people.

This is the official blog of the Truman State University Center for International Students.