Read about Cultural Adjustment & Culture Shock
Culture is a total way of life of any group of people, and adapting to a different culture can be exciting, frustrating, and challenging. When a student participates in study abroad, culture impacts the way that they interact with everyone they meet in their new environment – the people with whom they share accommodations, bus drivers, professors, café owners, classmates, and more. Learning how to engage with others in new cultural contexts while living and studying in another country has its adventures, benefits, and trials. Often, these opportunities to engage across cultures is considered the most rewarding aspect of a study abroad experience.
Learning to navigate another culture's values, beliefs, and thought processes can take a lifetime; however, most students only have a semester or two. This is why research prior to departure can greatly assist students to better understand the intricacies of cultural transition and gain more significant meaning from the experience while it occurs. Students should take the time to understand what culture is and how it affects them abroad.
No two students adapt at the same pace or in the same manner; however, there are several phases of cultural adaptation that people living in another culture for an extended period of time experience. The following information is adapted from Survival Kit for Overseas Living by Robert L. Kohls (chapter "Culture Shock: Occupational Hazard of Overseas Living").
Adjustment to a new culture tends to occur in stages. Initially, there is a honeymoon phase. Your student is in a new country, and everything is exhilarating and exciting. Perhaps they are involved in a flurry of orientation and getting settled, getting hosted around the town or city. The sights, sounds and tastes are all a new adventure. And, at first, your student may even see more of the similarities between the host country and the U.S. than the differences.
Suggestions for support
Listen to the student's exciting stories and appreciate the unique experiences he or she has the opportunity to enjoy. Remember these good experiences to use when times become more challenging. Some cultures are so different from the United States' that it may be difficult for the student to put it into words. Ask your student specific questions about the country, culture, and people in order better understand their experience.
Irritability and Hostility
After the first couple of weeks, the initial excitement might pass and your student may begin to confront the deeper differences in their new location. Maybe they will be tired of the food or struggling with the language. Maybe the university seems incomprehensible and bureaucratic. Maybe they will be tired of long commutes whenever going somewhere. Maybe everything is much more expensive than the student originally anticipated. Or perhaps things are less expensive, but not of the quality or variety that is customary at home. The initial enthusiasm has drifted away and the student has entered the stage of irritability and hostility. Worse, the student may just feel like they don't really belong.
Suggestions for support
During the first few weeks, it is not uncommon for students to contact home upset about some aspect of the new culture, people, and program. It is important for parents to remember that students may initially focus on what is going wrong in the program, rather than right. Find out exactly what is frustrating your student, but avoid judging the cultural differences. Be supportive of your student and encourage them to discuss these issues with the resident director. The on-site staff has dealt with many students in these situations and is well prepared to help your student during the initial adjustment period.
Be patient. Almost always, the initial struggles will disappear with time and the student will experience a stage of gradual adjustment. A sense of humor will reappear. Things that seemed strange or just inconvenient will gradually become familiar. The student will be able to function more easily within the culture. When contacting home, the participant will begin sharing the enjoyable experiences with you again.
Suggestions for support
Listen to your student's stories with interest. Congratulate them for understanding the social norms, making local friends, and other such successes. Your student is slowly adapting to new surroundings.
Adaptation or Biculturalism
Lastly, there is the stage of adaptation or biculturalism. Your student has managed to retain their own cultural identity but recognizes the right of other cultures to retain theirs. The participant has a better understanding of their self and others, and can communicate easily and convey warmth and understanding across the cultural barriers.
There is no one way to experience culture shock. It may be acute or barely noticeable. You may find it returns once after you thought your student had already passed through all the stages. As a parent or guardian, you may not even be aware that your student is going through culture shock, or to what extent. Simply be aware that culture shock exists, that it will probably affect your student in one way or another, but that it doesn't last forever. Culture shock can be a very valuable experience, which can leave people with broader perspectives, deeper insight into themselves and a wider tolerance for other people.
Reverse Culture Shock
Students often go through a phase of "reverse" or "re-entry" culture shock when they return from studying abroad. Sometimes this phase can be more challenging than what was initially experienced abroad. Students expect to go through adjustments in foreign countries, but do not always realize that life has continued on without them at home and there may be changes for which they were not prepared. For your student, returning to their home culture probably feels much like when they arrived to their host country. Home might feel foreign, or no longer feel familiar and natural. The stages of culture shock experienced abroad can repeat coming home, in reverse culture shock.
It is important to remind your student that some people adapt to a new culture more easily than others. Encouraging your student to think about who they are, what goals they have, their way of thinking, behaving, and going about everyday tasks will make it easier for them to adjust to a new environment. Although there is no set formula to ensure that students will transition seamlessly, there are certain skills and traits we all have (or with minimal effort, can develop) that make the adjustment process easier. Below is a list of skills that are important to leverage when trying to adapt to life in a new culture:
- Tolerance for Ambiguity
- Low/Goal Task Orientation
- Being Nonjudgmental
- Sense of Humor
- Warmth in Human Relationships
- Strong Sense of Self
- Tolerance for Differences
- Ability to Fail