Study abroad is a profound and life changing time in your life, but it is often romanticized as a perfect experience where you feel nothing but joy and happiness. While most students love their experience overall, it is still real life and students will experience ups and downs, just like at home. Nonetheless, with the right tools and knowledge, you can mitigate some of the extreme feelings.
Living in a new environment is rewarding and exhilarating, but it can also be disorienting and frustrating. The “culture shock” you may experience is due to the twofold stress of being in a new environment coupled with the fact that you are away from home and your regular support system.
Another way to frame culture shock is to think of it as “transition shock”. Remember when you first came to college? You were living away from home, learning to be independent, transitioning to a new lifestyle, and making new friends. All these changes probably caused you some anxiety and fear.
Studying abroad is another such challenge – and maybe seems even more intimidating. But adapting to another new place shouldn’t be as daunting when you realize that you already made such a transition at least once before. If you think of the coping skills you used when transitioning to college, you are already setting yourself up for success when transitioning to a new culture.
Transition shock is completely normal, and no one is immune even if they have traveled abroad before. Picture the challenges as a wave that will ebb and tide during your time abroad. The good news is that it is a normal reaction, and you will adjust!
Symptoms of Transition Shock
- Feeling irritable, defensive, or depressed
- Feeling isolated in your new environment
- Being homesick
- Feeling anxious about new – perhaps ambiguous - cultural norms
- Not knowing how to act in situations
- Feeling uncomfortable or out of place
- Questioning your own identity
- Sleeping and/or eating disturbances
- Loss of focus
- Being more susceptible to illness
Working Through Challenges
- Research: Do research on your host culture and speak with international students or other students who have studied in the same culture. This will help you develop realistic expectations for your experience and identify potential sources of stress.
- Connect: Make connections with other students on your program, and with people from your host culture. Avoid socializing exclusively with other American students, or students from your home culture.
- Health: Keep healthy through diet and regular exercise
- De-Stress: What helps you de-stress at home will likely help in a new setting. Use what you know works for you: talking to people, prayer/meditation, journaling, exercise, artwork, etc. If you don’t currently have stress management strategies, give this serious thought before you go.
- Support: Recognize symptoms of stress so that you can manage it before it gets out of control. Ask for help from on-site staff and friends when you feel depressed or stressed. Develop a support network.
- Reflect: Use this time of irritability for cultural learning and self-assessment. Try to understand the logical, historical reasons behind host culture patterns. Reflect what impact they are having on you and why. Give yourself quiet time and private space to reflect.
- Translate: Think about your experience as a narrative or a story. How might what you are experiencing right now fit into the greater picutre of your life – perhaps to find what you are truly passionate about or to acquire your perfect job after graduation.
- Transform: Give yourself some credit – it is challenging to live in a foreign country or different U.S. destination! Picture yourself when you first arrived and compare it to who you are now. Trust that the experience is challenging you in a good way and that you are developing lots of important intercultural skills and knowledge as well as self-reliance, confidence, and maturity.
Online Learning Resources
Want to get the most out of your experience? Check out What’s Up With Culture? to better prepare yourself for your time abroad.