Study abroad is not always going to be easy or perfect. There will be many days that are challenging. Explore the following sections to learn more about why this occurs and how to approach these feelings.
The Cultural Adjustment Process
Adjustment is a subjective term. Every person adapts to change in their own way and in their own time. It's safe to say that studying abroad involves a process of adjustment and re-adjustment as you experience cultural shifts. Everything is new and time does not stop. The Cultural Adjustment Process can be viewed in five stages:
- Arrival Abroad
- Culture Shock
- Return Home
- Reverse Culture Shock
- Acceptance & Re-Integration
The Pre-Departure Guide focuses on the first two stages, Arrival Abroad and Culture Shock. Additional information about the Return Home, Reverse Culture Shock, and Acceptance & Re-Integration phases is covered in our Re-Entry Guide and Study Abroad Returnees section of our website.
The first few days and/or weeks in your host country are commonly referred to as the "honeymoon" phase of study abroad. It is the start of your new journey, and though it may be a bit scary, it is usually exciting, busy, and full of activity. You may have been waiting for this moment your whole life, so it is easy to get swept up in the energy of it finally happening. It can be nerve-wracking to arrive in a different country with so many unknowns, but you will also be surrounded by awesome buildings, beautiful scenery, wonderful food, and great people. Once you navigate the airport, customs, and transportation to your housing, you will likely feel a great sense of acomplishment and can begin to settle in to the place you will call "home" for the remainder of your stay. During this stage, you are more likely to recognize cultural similarities and be charmed by the differences.
Please note that any and all emotions are normal upon arrival. Though some students may be extremely energetic and experiencing a sense of euphoria, others may feel timid, nervous, or even homesick. No experience is the same and all emotions are valid.
If you feel homesickness set in immediately, don't be alarmed. It is okay to call home, but also remember the boundaries that you set prior to departure and try to start immersing yourself in the experience. Sometimes it is easier said than done as change can be hard. However, the more optimistic and open-minded you can be about your experience, the easier it will become to adjust to your new surroundings.
Semester and academic year participants often feel homesickness a bit more than students participating in shorter length programs. This is likely because they know they will be away from home and all that home embodies for a longer period of time. We generally recommend that semester and year-long students give themselves at least 2-3 weeks to adjust to their new environment. Try not to detach from your experience and stay in your room. Instead, get out and go for a walk to explore the local area, try introducing yourself to other participants in your program, or seek support from the staff at your host institution and ask for recommendations (they know the local area, institution, and campus amenities best!). You can also contact your ISU study abroad advisor for advice if you are feeling unsure about how to proceed.
Homesickness may also be an indicator that you are experiencing early-onset or severe culture shock. Continue reading about culture shock and how to cope with it in the section below.
Once the initial excitement of being abroad wears off and you begin your day-to-day activities, that's when it all becomes real. Often times this can stir up feelings of uncertainty, disconnect, and discomfort. Again, everything is new and time does not stop. The everyday differences can be frustrating, maybe even annoying as you try to adjust to a new "normal". These feelings are all part of initial culture shock. Culture shock can present itself in many forms and it may come in waves of severity and frequency. Some students experience severe culture shock, while others do not experience it at all.
Stages of Culture Shock:
Much like the overarching Cultural Adjustment Process, culture shock itself comes in stages. Again, you may experience all, or none, of these stages.
- Irritation and Hostility (The Negotiation Stage): Gradually, the euphoria will diminish. You are apt to become overwhelmed with all the things you have to adjust to, and will subsequently feel irritated or compelled to try and make things go "your way". For example, you may get lost when trying to navigate the local subway system and grow frustrated with the lack of clarity on how to use it. You may find that things go against what you believe is just common sense.
- Gradual Understanding (The Adjustment Stage): You start to come to terms with your new home and begin to relax into a routine. Your emotions have started to balance out and you are no longer feeling as irritated or frustrated with the differences or minor inconveniences. Instead, you are understanding and have a have a more positive outlook on life in your host country. You will like start making more of an effort to fit in and enjoy your experience to its fullest potential.
- Adaptation or Biculturalism (The Mastery Stage): Everything just "makes sense" and you feel at home as your new routine and relationships have become normal pieces of your day-to-day life. If you haven't already, you may feel drawn to start learning the local language, you are more comfortable talking to strangers and navigating the area, you have confidence, and you anticipate the sadness you will feel when you have to say goodbye.
Understanding Culture Shock:
Culture shock occurs when your values are questioned. This could be by exposure to something different or someone questioning your feelings or opinions towards a subject. As you try to make sense of these differences, you many experience symptoms such as compulsive eating, unexplainable crying, and stereotyping, just to name a few. You also may not realize you are experiencing culture shock until much later - this is also normal.
When culture shock initially sets in, it can make you feel insecure and possibly spark a desire to return home. However, by pushing through the difference and practicing healthy coping mechanisms, you begin to adjust. Culture shock may continue to come in waves, especially during longer sojourns abroad. The more time you spend away from your home base, the more differences you are bound to encounter. Students who spend a full semester or year abroad, will likely experience these waves of culture shock (and emotions) compared to those who study abroad for a shorter period of time.
It is important to remember that adjustment is subjective. Everyone's experience with this will vary and everyone has different coping and adapting strategies that work for them.
Managing Culture Shock:
Learning as much as you can about your host country, their cultural norms, and how living there may differ from your life back home can also help ease you into your life abroad and make it a bit less shocking. The following resources provide a plethora of information on different countries, their history, current events, and culture.
- AtoZ The World: Digital media resource provided by Milner Library with cultural information regarding host countries.
- The World Factbook: Resource provided by the CIA for up-to-date facts and data on most countries regarding history, people, government, economy, etc.
Don't let culture shock discourage you from following through with your study abroad plans nor from experiencing new things. As mentioned above, culture shock affects each individual in unique way and some may not experience it at all. However, if you are experiencing any signs of culture shock or difficulty adjusting to your new surroundings while abroad, consider the following recommendations:
- Push yourself to establish connections and make friends with fellow students and/or locals. Forming these relationships will help you feel as though you are not alone in your journey. If you are comfortable with those around you, talking to them about what you are feeling can also help you process through the emotions.
- Engage in healthy distractions that bring you comfort, a sense of normalcy, and/or a sense of purpose. Some students choose to get involved with organizations on their host campus, others volunteer in their local community, and some may find the simplest comfort in going for a hike or reading a book while sitting at a local garden or on a nearby beach.
- Take time for reflection and practice self-awareness. Many students choose to reflect by journaling, blogging or even vlogging. This is helpful to be able to look back and understand how you felt and why you felt that way. You can remove yourself from the present and think about things in both past and future sense.
- Use flexible thinking and be conscientious of your frame of reference. You are going to be faced with challenges where you cannot approach the situation in the same way you always would. You have to think outside of the box. By doing so, you can make better, more open-minded decisions.
- Try to be optimistic and open-minded. Choose to wake up each day with a new outlook on things, smile, and make the best of the situation you are faced with. Keep in mind what is in your control and let go of the rest.
In general, change can be difficult, especially while studying abroad when there are so many changes happening at once. You will undoubtedly be placed in new situations, and it may be challenging to navigate some of them. Take a step back and think about how you are handling each situation. Try to be present in the moment and understand the perspective of others, while also remembering that your decisions not only impact you, but others around you. When immersing yourself in a different culture, it is important to remember that not everyone shares the same cultural and/or personal values. Though you may not see eye-to-eye, being respectful of other's opinions and values is crucial. This will allow you to learn not only about others, but about yourself.
Returning home, just like leaving home, can be accompanied by many feelings and emotions. For most, returning home is again exciting and is even sometimes referred to as the "second honeymoon" phase. You are reunited with friends, family, and other loved ones whom you haven't seen in a long time and you get to settle back into a routine. Many feel a sense of normalcy in their return and find comfort in that. However, returning home can also be overwhelming - not just emotionally, but mentally and physically as well. From being jet-lagged to missing the faces and spaces you got to know so well while abroad, returning home may feel like a completely new journey with accompanying culture shock and a process of adjustment.
As a reminder, additional information about the Return Home, Reverse Culture Shock, and Acceptance & Re-Integration phases is covered in our Re-Entry Guide and Study Abroad Returnees section of our website.