General Education

How to Prevent Study Abroad Culture Shock

How to Prevent Study Abroad Culture Shock
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Lizzie Perrin profile
Lizzie Perrin August 29, 2019

Even the most open-minded and veteran travelers are not immune.

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During a 2009 visit to Turkey, President Barack Obama met with university students in Istanbul to emphasize the importance of encouraging young people to be internationally engaged. Speaking to the power of a global community, he said, "Simple exchanges can break down walls... for when people come together and speak to one another and share a common experience, then their common humanity is revealed." As a student, studying abroad is a powerful way to make exchanges like this happen.

Studying abroad can leave an enormous, lasting impression on your life:

  • It allows you to connect and learn about different cultures, traditions, and beliefs
  • It offers you the opportunity to learn and even master a foreign language
  • It helps you boost your skills, discover new career prospects, and broaden your personal and professional network
  • It empowers you to bring aspects of new cultures home to share
  • It expands your perspective of the world, yourself, and your place in the world

While there are many benefits to studying abroad, it can also raise challenges. Whether experienced through a country's customs, mindsets, or interpersonal interactions, cultural differences while studying abroad can cause culture shock.

In this article, we'll cover:

  • Phases of cultural adjustment
  • Causes and symptoms of culture shock
  • How to prepare for international travel,
  • Possibly ways you may experience culture shock while studying abroad
  • Tips for adjusting to life once you return home

Where will your learning take you?

Deciding to live outside of the country for an extended period requires a lot of thought and dedication. You'll have the chance to experience new and exciting adventures, but you'll also leave your friends and family behind. It's an opportunity that can pose significant challenges, especially if you haven't traveled outside of your comfort zone before. But don't worry, you are not alone.

It's no secret that studying abroad can be daunting. People have studied the phenomenon of culture shock, especially concerning studying abroad, for decades. One of those people is Dr. Stephen Rhinesmith, a global leadership expert who focuses on navigating complexity, diversity, and uncertainty in different economic and cultural environments. He is also the creator of Rhinesmith's Ten Stages of Adjustment, which outlines how new cultures and environments may impact our emotions and mindset.

The ten stages of cultural adjustment are:

  • Initial anxiety
  • Initial elation
  • Initial culture shock
  • Superficial adjustment
  • Depression–frustration
  • Acceptance of host culture
  • Return anxiety
  • Return elation
  • Re-entry shock
  • Reintegration

While you may experience some anxiety leading up to your trip, it may take a backseat to the excitement of deciding where you'll go. Whether you choose a country by its potential for cultural exposure or a direct connection to your field of study, the best destination for you all boils down to your skills, interests, and goals.

Finding a study abroad program that connects to your major is a great way to maximize your time, resources, and efforts in an international setting. For STEM students, studying abroad can present unique challenges due to the heavy course load that often comes with these fields. But there are many opportunities for STEM students to find a study abroad experience that works with their curricula and schedule.

The same rings true for a variety of majors and study abroad destinations. Business majors may see London as an opportunity to study one of the world's largest economies at the center of its financial hub. For vocal performance majors, Italy may stand out as a prime place for studying 16th-century opera and music.

What are the causes of study abroad culture shock?

As Dr. Rhinesmith describes, a honeymoon or "initial elation" phase follows after students adjust to the initial anxiety of an unfamiliar environment. From there, further stress, shock, and frustration is less frequent but can present itself as you continue to adjust to life overseas. Depending on where you travel, some cultures may be considerably different than your own, while some may feel familiar.

A foreign country can feel different for many reasons:

  • The primary or native language varies from your own
  • The physical environment may seem new, whether that's climate, altitude, level of noise, or the style of your lodgings
  • Locals may react strongly to your presence, especially if you travel to areas with low rates of travel or tourism
  • The cuisine may be unfamiliar and require you to adjust to stronger or milder flavors
  • It may present unusual attitudes or expectations, such as the way people dress and greet one another, or whether local businesses operate on a similar schedule to those at home.

Symptoms of study abroad culture shock

While Dr. Rhinesmith's theory speaks to the adjustment process as a whole, the symptoms of culture shock tend to differ from one person to the next. Ultimately, this means that everyone adjusts to foreign environments differently.

Culture shock can manifest in many ways, including

  • Homesickness
  • Trouble eating or loss of appetite
  • Feeling shy, lost, or nonsocial
  • Sleepiness, irritability, or hostility toward locals
  • Physical ailments such as an upset stomach, headaches, or digestive issues
  • Feeling as though the differences you are experiencing are insurmountable

Adjusting to life outside your comfort zone may seem like a roller coaster at first, which makes understanding the symptoms of culture shock key. By taking stock of the warning signs, you'll be able to create strategies for overcoming negative emotions and behaviors and see studying abroad in its essential form: the opportunity of a lifetime.

How can you prepare for culture shock?

Dealing with culture shock is no small task, but there are many ways you can prepare for it. Arguably, the most effective strategy is to learn some of the native language spoken in the country you're traveling to. Even memorizing common phrases play a significant hand in breaking down a language barrier.

To grow your foreign language skills before travel, try any of the following:

  • Take an introductory course on your destination's native language
  • Use apps like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone practice communicating in your spare time
  • Watch foreign films set in your destination
  • Find someone who speaks the language and practice with them

Additionally, try researching the country ahead of time or spending time with someone familiar with its culture. Not only will this help you to anticipate the differences you may encounter while traveling, but also discover any possible similarities between life abroad and at home.

How to overcome culture shock

Luckily, there are many ways to combat the stress of conforming to foreign cultures and environments. It often happens naturally.

Practical ways to minimize culture shock:

  • Find something at your destination that is familiar to you. Whether it's a type of sport, food, or music, this can bring a level of comfort you otherwise might not find.
  • Pay attention to your mood and emotions. If you're feeling particularly anxious or depressed, take it easy until you are feeling better to explore.
  • Take care of your physical health by finding a walking buddy, going dancing, or cooking for yourself and friends.
  • Remind yourself why you decided to study abroad—and that if you hadn't taken the chance, there's a possibility you would regret it later on.
  • Find other students in your program to talk about your struggles. Use this opportunity to communicate, share experiences, and encourage one another.
  • If all else fails, bank the situation as a learning experience. Conquering adversity is one of life's most critical lessons.

Even if you've done everything you can, there may be situations that require you to leave study abroad early. This situation could be due to the death of a loved one, illness, financial trouble, or feeling as though the expectations you had for your program didn't match up with reality. Ultimately, choosing to stay or leave is a decision that only you can make.

What is reverse culture shock?

Of all the factors that come to mind when thinking about studying abroad, the experience of returning home is not exactly central. But in some ways, returning to your community can be as tricky as your initial departure for your study abroad destination.

Challenges you may face once your program ends:

  • Living at home feel unfamiliar, as you had integrated yourself with a foreign culture for an extended time
  • You may experience inflated feelings of belonging and nostalgia at the idea home that doesn't last once you return
  • You find it hard to relate to people within your community as strongly as you used to
  • A changed relationship with your nationality, or view of your country in a more realistic or negative light

You can adjust to these issues by being patient with yourself, your friends, and your family. Give yourself credit for putting time and effort into adapting to life in a completely different culture—and remind yourself that winding down from the journey can take time. You will also possess many new life skills and experiences, so don't be afraid to share them with the people you love.

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