Study Abroad Student Handbook
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Center for Global Education

Adjustments and Culture Shock

In this section, you will learn what culture shock means and how you can overcome its effects. Experiencing new cultures, and obtaining a better understanding of your own culture, can result in some of the most positive, life–altering experiences students have while studying abroad. When going abroad to the country of your choice, students will experience differences in manners, beliefs, customs, laws, language, art, religion, values, concept of self, family organization, social organization, government, behavior, etc. All of these elements combine to form the country of your choice's rich and unique culture.

shock

While the introduction to new and foreign cultures greatly benefits students, it can also be overwhelming. The new cultural elements a student encounters in the country of your choice may be so different that they seem "shocking" in comparison to cultural norms they are used to at home. As Bruce La Brack writes in his article "The Missing Linkage: The Process of Integrating Orientation and Reentry":

"Just as you can't really describe the taste of a hot fudge sundae to someone who has never experienced one, it is difficult to actually convey just how disorienting entering another culture can be to a student without any cross–cultural experience."

1. Rhinesmith's Ten Stages of Adjustment

Culture shock and its effects can occur in a number of stages. However, culture shock is not an exact step-by-step process; every student doesn't experience culture shock the same way or at the same time. The following 10 steps of cultural adjustment outlined by Steven Rhinesmith show how culture shock can be like a roller coaster ride of emotions:

rollercoster

Source: Returning Home, Canadian Bureau for International Education, 1984, p. 7.

Culture shock and its effects can occur in a number of stages. However, culture shock is not an exact step–by–step process; every student doesn't experience culture shock the same way or at the same time. The following 10 steps of cultural adjustment outlined by Steven Rhinesmith show how culture shock can be like a roller coaster ride of emotions:

  1. initial anxiety
  2. initial elation
  3. initial culture shock
  4. superficial adjustment
  5. depression–frustration
  6. acceptance of host culture
  7. return anxiety
  8. return elation
  9. re–entry shock
  10. reintegration

Riding the roller coaster of culture shock, a student actually follows a natural pattern of hitting peaks and valleys. The high points of excitement and interest are succeeded by lower points of depression, disorientation, or frustration. Each student will experience these ups and downs in different degrees of intensity and for different lengths of time. The process is necessary in order to make the transition from one culture to another; it helps a student or traveler to balance out and adjust.

Stages 1 through 5: Exposure to a new culture

Prior to going abroad, students may be excited about new adventures to come. A student arrives in the country of your choice and perhaps begins to develop increasing independence as he/she starts to experience a citizen of the country of your choice culture or another country's culture. At first, a student's expectations may be too high. He or she may see things almost as a tourist would during the first few weeks in the country of your choice. A student may be heavily comparing and contrasting his/her home culture with the culture abroad. It is common for students to focus on what they see as weaknesses in foreign cultures. Students tend to point out what a foreign culture lacks; this often leads to feelings of frustration over what is "missing" or what can't be obtained in the country of your choice in the same ways it can be at home. Students may be challenged on a regular basis by different ways of living in the country of your choice (banking, eating, relationships, etc.). Negative feelings and frustrations may reach a level where you begin to recognize you are going through "culture shock".

Stage 6: Acceptance of a new culture

As a student gets used to a citizen of the country of your choice ways, things that seemed like a "crisis" may now simply be seen as different ways of doing things. Most students gradually adjust their lifestyles to be balanced with a country's own cultural norms. The cultural traits that once annoyed or bothered a student generally come to be accepted as normal. Students usually begin to understand and appreciate the cultural differences between the United States and the country of your choice. However, if significant problems arise, a student may briefly return to the "frustration" stage of culture shock. As a student begins to adapt more and more, he/she may have a new set of friends, may be traveling more, and may even be dreaming in another language. The "a citizen of the country of your choice way" may now become the "normal" way of living.

Stages 7 through 10: Leaving a new culture behind

As a student becomes integrated to the ways of the country of your choice's culture, the more difficult it may be to re–adapt to the United States upon return home. The United States just won't look the same way it did before leaving to study abroad in the country of your choice; a student may see home with new eyes and may also be more critical of U.S. cultural traditions once thought to be "normal". This is called reverse culture shock. Fear of experiencing reverse culture shock should not deter students from trying to integrate as fully as possible while in the country of your choice. No matter how integrated a student becomes while abroad, he or she will probably still be "shocked" by differences noted at home after so much time spent in the country of your choice and the other countries to which you will be traveling. However, over time, a student will learn to re–adapt and reintegrate into his or her home culture.

2. Homesickness

Homesickness is one of the most common adjustment problems related to culture shock and loneliness. Experienced by students from every country, homesickness is a universal side–affect to being away from home. Psychologists often refer to homesickness as "separation anxiety" because students–in particular those moving away from home–feel separated from all that is familiar.

homesick

Feelings of homesickness may even start before you leave to study abroad in the country of your choice. You may find yourself mildly depressed or anxious several weeks before leaving. The anticipation and preparation for this major change of lifestyle can trigger pre–departure homesickness, or sudden feelings that you don't want to leave, or even a want to back out of your decision to study abroad.

Some students might experience homesickness within the first few days or weeks of being abroad, while others might not be hit by homesickness until later on, or closer to the holidays. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, family events or even family illness or death can all cause you to feel homesick, or make you wish you were at home. Also, many students report increased feelings of homesickness during the winter months when darkness, rainy weather and the cold can lead to feelings of depression.

The following are a few tips to help you cope with feelings of homesickness:

homesick
  • Don't wait for homesickness to go away by itself. Confront your feelings by talking to someone (a counselor, family member, roommate, or another student, etc.) about your homesickness. Chances are that the other students in your program may be feeling the same way you are.
  • Bring some of home along with you to the country of your choice. Be sure to pack photos of family and friends, bring your favorite CDs and cook family recipes while abroad.
  • Make friends with locals and invite them to spend time with you. Creating such a support network can really help to alleviate homesickness while creating lasting friendships.
  • Be patient with yourself as you adjust to the unexpected realities of being in the country of your choice, and how abroad is not like home.
  • Get involved by seeking out opportunities that keep you busy and occupied so that you won't think about home. Try to work, intern, volunteer, or travel. You could also join a sports team or club, join a gym, or participate in program activities.

3. Stress

Stress has many definitions. Stress affects everyone differently. The additional/new kinds of stress you may encounter in the country of your choice may lead to anxiety/panic disorders, depression, paranoia, eating disorders, and other phobias. Any mental health challenges you have prior to going abroad may become more severe once you experience the effects of culture shock. Even mental fatigue from constant language immersion and time change may cause the symptoms of culture shock to seem overwhelming.

4. Worldwide Concern

The symptoms of cultural adjustment a student experiences may be more intense due to the events of September 11th and other worldwide threats. Students, parents and administrators may have additional anxiety; they may also take studying abroad and safety abroad more seriously than they did prior to September 11th. Any added feelings of panic or fear related to the international war against terrorism can directly affect how well a student deals with culture shock. If you feel worldwide concerns are adding to your culture shock, seek out family, friends, or program staff/counselors with whom you feel comfortable discussing your concerns.

5. Relevant Questions

  • What are some of the common emotional side effects of culture shock?
  • How can you avoid feeling frustrated, depressed or discouraged?
  • Can you identify any possible cultural differences––between home and the country of your choice–that cause you anxiety?
  • What are some things you can do to combat stress?
  • What are Rhinesmith's 10 phases of cultural adjustment?
  • Have you experienced any of Rhinesmith's 10 phases, if so, how did you deal with your feelings?
  • How is culture shock like a roller coaster ride?
  • Do all students experience culture shock the same way, at the same time?
  • Why is it harmful to "fear" a country's culture?
  • What is the name of your program's student counselor (in case you need to talk with someone about your problems)?
  • Why might you also experience reverse culture shock upon arrival back home?

6. Checklist

  • I am already familiar with some major cultural differences between home and the country in which I will study (i.e.: religion, language, laws)?
  • I understand that it is normal to experience culture shock, including feelings of anxiety, depression and frustration.
  • If my depression does not go away, I know where to get help (i.e.: a student counselor)?
  • I expect to have both good days and bad when learning to overcome my culture shock, and I will be patient with myself as I learn to adapt.
  • I know that I am not alone in how I feel.
  • I will try not to be negative or overly critical of another country's culture. Instead, I will look for the positives that a culture possesses.
  • I will make an effort to meet and make friends with locals rather than just hanging around other Americans.
  • I will not let terrorist threats turn my culture shock into culture fear.
  • Upon return home, I will be patient with myself again as I experience reverse culture shock. (This includes trying not to be overly critical of the U.S. just because being home is not like being abroad.)

7. Resources

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