Before I left for the U.S., I attended all the orientations about what life would be like there.  I heard tons of useful advice about how to prepare, what to pack, and what to expect.   And like most people, I scoffed at some of that advice.  But boy I wish I hadn?t!

Settling into Indiana was not as easy as I thought it would be, and I quickly began to regret not listening to the suggestions of what to bring with me from home.  Here are the top 3 things I really wish I had brought, and the advice you shouldn?t ignore when it?s time for your orientation.

1. Toiletries

Not packing toiletries such as lotion and soap from home was the first thing I greatly regretted. I am ashamed to say that when the helpful ladies at the EducationUSA orientation gave us this advice, I laughed at it. ?I am going to America, where everyone has great skin and looks (and probably smells) good, and everything costs US$1,? I thought. ?I will buy it there.?

Unfortunately, when I arrived in Indiana it turned out the supermarket is very far from where I live and only accessible by bus.

When I finally figured out the bus route and managed to get there, I was bombarded by more choices in face wash, lotions, cleansers, and all manner of soaps than I had ever seen in my life!

I stood for at least 30 minutes in that section trying to figure out which to buy, until, out of sheer exhaustion, I settled on one lotion that looked like it might be as good as one back home.  Thankfully, Vaseline is as international as Coca-Cola and I was able to find that in America for my toddlers.

Supermarket aisle shampoo
Which to choose? (Creative Commons photo by Kerry Lannert)

As it turns out, the people who have actually been to America and have been advising students on how to settle there as comfortably as possible know exactly what they are talking about. I should have brought my own huge bottle of lotion from home as advised, because my skin broke out and left me looking like a pimply-faced teenager! Participating in orientation with a breakout may be a confidence-shattering first experience and I advise all students to take even the smallest of nuggets of advice at their pre-departure orientations seriously.

2. Dressy Clothes

I don?t know if it was the euphoria of traveling to America or the thought of a U.S. shopping spree that made me magnanimously donate all my formal clothes to my younger sister, but I did!  I packed only casual student clothes, jeans and tees and sweaters, with not a skirt, dress or smart jacket or slacks in sight.

When I got to school, however, I found out that there were a few official welcome events that required me to dress up, and I didn?t have anything with me to wear.  I had to go buy several new outfits ? something that can be quite expensive when you are not really sure where to shop or get good bargains.

Students wearing Columbia University sweatshirts.
It's not always jeans and sweatshirts (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user airsoenxen)

Students in America do typically wear jeans and t-shirts to class, but there are more formal occasions as well, especially for students who have been awarded scholarships, since schools will often hold receptions to honor the scholarship recipients. I wished I had brought a pair of slacks, one or two shirts, a smart skirt and at least one little black dress.

Goodwill Stores, Salvation Army and other thrift stores can offer cheaper clothing if you?re stuck without the outfits you need, and in fact many Americans do buy clothes from these places. So don?t be ashamed to sneak a peek, because you can find real bargains at these stores. I remember seeing a pair of dangerously high designer heels at a Goodwill store and wishing I was willing to gamble with the possible falls that might ensue so I could buy them!

3. My Favorite Foods

I sorely regret not bringing my royco usavi mix and my knorr cook-in sauces and spices as my EducationUSA adviser, Mai Mano, had suggested.  I really miss the taste of home, and I wish I could give that treat to my family once in a while.

[Read more: Why do international students miss food from home so much?]

The first time I made American beef I was shocked at how flavorless it is compared to organic Zimbabwean beef - dare I say, it tasted like chicken?!   I tried adding some Indian spices like curry, but they too lacked the flavor and aroma I was used to from Indian spices in Zimbabwe (and I still thought the beef tasted like chicken!).

My Zimbabwean friends eventually helped me get some of the foods I was missing. They showed me the African and Oriental markets, where I could buy maize meal for making sadza, and taught me that kale is like the covo vegetable from back home.

Sadza Zimbabwe food
Zimbabwean food that is difficult to recreate in the States (Creative Commons photo BBC World Service)

It's still not quite the same.  Everything is packaged in smaller amounts but costs more, like the Cerelac baby cereal that my children so love, which costs almost the same price as back home for half the quantity! The upfu, or corn meal is affordable and makes the whitest sadza there is, which tastes pretty average, but the kids love it anyway.

That?s one bit of advice I was really glad I did take: to find a community of Zimbabweans here in Indiana. They are like a piece of home and they know all the best places to get good bargains on the things you need! Some students try to keep a distance from their fellow countrymen, so as to get to know America and Americans, but you may end up being very lonely and unable to navigate your way without a little help from those who can relate.

Take it from me and save yourself the trouble, attend the orientation EducationUSA or any other agency gives in your country and take every bit of their advice seriously.