Cross Cultural Journey for International Students

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Many students choose to come to the United States to obtain a degree, to gain professional and academic training, to learn about another culture, or to enhance their personal growth. Whatever the reasons for coming to the U.S., and regardless of how much is known about the culture, nearly all international students go through a period of adjustment when they begin their studies.

Stages of  Adapting to a New Culture

Researchers have found people who are experiencing a new culture go through similar stages. These stages are useful guidelines, but not all people experience each stage, and the length of stages can vary for different people.

The honeymoon stage: Everything seems exciting and new; people often feel energetic and enthusiastic during this period.

The culture shock stage: Differences in values and customs between your old and new cultures become more obvious. Culture shock increases especially when students have difficulties with a new language and/or experience prejudice. Common feelings include anxiety, homesickness, and/or anger.

The recovery stage: The stress starts to wear off and students begin to feel more at ease. Students learn more about the new culture, find more understanding, and manage better than before.

The adaptation stage: Students come to accept and appreciate both the similarities and the differences between cultures. They clearer ideas about what they like and dislike about each culture.

Difficulties You May Experience

Change: All changes, whether positive or negative, can be stressful, because change brings the unknown and unfamiliar with it. Certainly, coming to a new culture involves many changes.

Loss: Coming to a new culture can mean having some losses to grieve such as less contact with family and friends, loss of the status you are used to in your home culture, loss of familiar and favorite places, foods, climate, etc.

Value differences: The differences in values between U.S. culture and your home culture can be challenging. These can include moral, social, political, educational, and work-related value differences. Generally, the greater the differences between the cultures, the more challenging the process of adaptation.

Expectations: Your experiences in the U.S. may be affected by the expectations you have beforehand. Difficulties can arise when high expectations aren’t met.

Social skills: The social skills necessary to be successful, both interpersonally and academically, vary from culture to culture. Many international students have very effective social skills in their home culture, but may find it hard to learn the different skills typically needed for success in the U.S.

Host country receptivity: The way you are treated also affects the adaptation process. If you encounter people who express prejudice and expect you to conform exactly to American culture, adaptation can be more difficult. If you experience this, reach out to someone you trust for advice on how to address the situation. Studying abroad is a big challenge, and most people will be understanding and want to help you succeed.

Signs of  Adaptation Stress

It’s normal to feel sad and lonely at times, but sometimes, the stress of adapting may reach a level that needs special attention. Signs that you may want to reach out to someone for help include:

  • Feeling homesick most or all of the time.
  • Experiencing loneliness often and having sadness and anxiety almost every day.
  • Crying more than usual, often for no particular reason.
  • Sleeping and/or eating a lot more or a lot less than usual.
  • Showing irritability frequently.
  • Physical pain or discomfort that doctors cannot explain.
  • Having many minor illnesses, such as colds, headaches, or stomach pains.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Exhibiting academic difficulties not typically experienced before.
  • Feeling tension and pressure much of the time.

Suggestions for Successful Cultural Adaptation

There are many things that can help during the adaptation process.

Academic Suggestions: If you’re stuggling in classes, seek out assistance to improve reading and study skills. Be sure you’re staying in close contact with teaching assistants and professors and ask questions when information isn’t clear. If you feel uncomfortable asking questions in class, stop by your instructors’ office hours.

Social Development: While it’s important for international students to retain their home country’s cultural identity and beliefs, learning about U.S. culture and becoming familiar with the social customs here can aid in the adaptation process. Try to develop relationships with people who are from the U.S. They can answer questions you have about differences in customs and explain when things seem confusing.

Self-Care: Coming to a new country to study and work is a big transition. Make sure you’re finding others who you can count on to be supportive and understanding. Find time to do things that remind you of home and bring you enjoyment. While you’re here to study, it’s also important to have leisure time. If you feel homesick often and it doesn’t seem to get better. Reach out to someone like an advisor or counselor to get help. It’s important to remember that cultural adjustment can take some time and that it’s different for everyone.

Want to know more?

There are many resources at your college or university who are there to help you with your transition. Counseling services, the international programs office, and academic services are all good places to start.Additionally, the following sources provide additional tips on adjusting to and making the most of your time studying abroad.

Fox, G. (2012). University Success Plan: For Indian (and other South Asian) Students Studying Abroad in America, the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Beaverton, OR: Kick Ass Media.

Patrick, H. (2016). The International Student’s Guide to Studying Abroad in the United States. Eugene, OR: Wayzgoose.