As an immigrant, expatriate, or refugee newly landed in the United States, you face a number of obstacles. Americans may not look like you, dress like you, or talk like you. How can you fit in when you seemingly have so many differences working against you? The simple answer is that you need to jump in! The world around you is full of opportunities for getting involved, meeting Americans, and becoming a full member of your new community.* In a recent article for international students, Tra Ho from Vietnam talked about how new students needed to change their mindsets in order to make the transition from outsider to insider at American colleges. Among her ideas, she talked about making new friends and pursuing activities you like.
The following list comes from years of working with and listening to immigrants and expats as they sought to make the U.S. their home. The links below just scratch the surface of all the possibilities, but I hope they inspire you to begin connecting today.
Sometimes it’s all about you! Here are some ways you can nurture yourself and make friends in the process.
1. Hobby groups: There are thousands of groups organized around interests. When I lived in mid-Michigan, one of my clients belonged to the local orchid society. They held meetings and put on an annual swap/sale for other enthusiasts to come buy or exchange these special flowers. After I moved to West Michigan, I was eager to find others to run with and learn about area jogging trails and races. The Grand Rapids Running Club is friendly and organized for people on a budget, only $17 a year for membership. What activity do you like to do? Where is the group for that? Maybe you could start a new group.
2. Self-improvement: If you’re a fitness nut, you may need to find a place to practice yoga or Pilates. Most cities offer classes you can sign up for. Maybe you need to improve your public speaking skills. Several of my students have gained more confidence speaking English in public through membership in Toastmasters.
3. Spiritual support: In the U.S., many people find membership in a church a great way to meet people and experience a personal and spiritual connection. For newcomers who are Christian, joining a congregation is a terrific way of gaining relationships with Americans. Of course, once you join a church, the other members will probably invite you to participate in both social and volunteer activities.
4. Get yourself adopted: For those internationals who are lucky enough to have an American host family, you know how invaluable it can be to have someone looking out for you. Exchange students are able to develop close-knit relationships that last decades, all the while getting advice on the mundane aspects of life like taxes, driver licenses, and RSVPs.
5. Be where you live: If you are new to a neighborhood, you need to get to know your neighbors. This will be helpful the next time you lock yourself out of your house, have a flat tire, or need someone to accept a delivery for you. A good way to meet people is to just go up and introduce yourself when you see someone walking on the sidewalk or watering their lawn. I know not everyone is as outgoing as I am, so you can also watch out for upcoming gatherings through a homeowners association, Neighborhood Watch, or block party.
Sometimes it’s all about the community. Here are some ways you can share yourself through volunteerism and make friends in the process.
6. Share the skills! Even if English is your second language, you can probably read and write better than a child. Perhaps you have really good math skills. Consider becoming a community tutor at your local literacy center.
7. Money mentoring: Maybe you’re a shrewd businessperson. Junior Achievement is always looking for volunteers to teach students about money management, entrepreneurism, and personal finance.
8. Be a good sport! Coaching youth sports teams (whether or not you have kids) is one way to stay physically active while sharing your love for your favorite sport.
9. Community activities: One of my students joined an Adopt-a-highway group to pick up litter along a local roadway. He said every time he drives past that stretch, he feels such a sense of pride and ownership of this piece of West Michigan. Another avenue for community volunteering is the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts, the largest all-volunteer festival in the U.S. Activities range from setting up chairs or painting designs on children’s faces to working on the clean-up crew.
10. Your kids, your community! Your children’s elementary school is always looking for volunteers (room parent, field trip chaperone, technology assistance, shelving books in the library). Most kids love seeing their parents involved at their school. “That’s my dad/mom!” they proudly tell their classmates. That could be you! This local list from Grand Rapids gives examples of the kinds of volunteer opportunities available at American public schools. For more volunteer opportunities in West Michigan, go here. Across the United States, here are volunteer opportunities listed by state.
I’m sure you have many more suggestions from your own experience. I invite you to share them here. In the mean time, I wish you good connections in your adopted communities!
* Of course, meeting Americans and fitting into the community is important. However, I don't dismiss the need to connect to your own ethnic group to give you a touchstone. Belonging to a mosque or temple or other affinity group from your home country can be a source of stability and calm as you navigate the new waters of the USA. Just don't become dependent on them as you make your transition to interdependence.