Studying abroad can be an incredibly daunting prospect, and no matter how hardy you think you might be, travelling miles across the world to an entirely different country, experience and culture can be quite a shock to the system.

For some people this seems like nothing more than a dream; it can be pretty hard to imagine what it’s like to up and move to a completely different continent, but this is the reality for international students at universities across the globe. A lot of the time, it can be hard for these jet-setting students to find exactly where they fit in on campus…

Study abroad veteran, Renatha Lussa, explains exactly what is meant by ‘culture shock’, and the best way students should deal with the befuddlement of moving to study overseas.

Studying abroad is a fulfilling and exhilarating experience, but it certainly requires a lot of preparation.

We’re not talking about technical issues, like how many pairs of socks you’ll need to bring; we’re talking about the BIG preparation, the stuff that’s essential to making your experience one that’s rich and positive. No matter how much you want to pretend that you’re cool, calm and collected and you can definitely handle it, before you go…you need to prepare for the culture shock.

Oh yes, we can hear you: “Culture shock? Me? But where I’m going is only an hour away from home!” But while it is true that the degree of difference between your own and the host culture is important, that really is not the only variable. Let’s not forget that the concept of ‘culture’ can also be used to describe an organisation, institution or a group. It is because of this that even the smallest consortium can generate culture shock.

So, what exactly is culture shock? Well, the truth is that it’s hard to determine a definitive definition because it represents a real cocktail of emotions; feelings of loss, confusion, stress, anxiety and helplessness, drawn from both the challenge of new cultural surroundings and from the loss of a familiar cultural environment.

Culture shock can be divided into four stages:

1. The Honeymoon

“Yeeesss, this looks awesome! Let’s go there! Ah, amaaaazing!”

We get it – you’re bound to be excited and have an idealised, rose-tinted view of your shiny new culture. It’s inevitable that you’ll also be facing anxiety and stress, but it’s completely outweighed by your enthusiasm and general euphoria…

Karim Sanaz is an Iranian student at Uppsala University in Sweden. He looks back on the time he touched down in Sweden and remembers just how different everything seemed compared to his home country, “I actually didn’t feel any sense of belonging. To me it was more like watching a beautiful movie without being part of it.”

2. The Crisis Phase

“I am so tired. No one here gets me. I just want to go home!”

It sounds just like a movie script- the part just before you give in to your emotional rage and force your tender knuckles into a solid concrete wall…(probably best to try and refrain, you will be wanting your deposit…as well as your knuckles!)

This stage can occur anywhere between the first two weeks to several months. Some of the differences you found totally “amaaaazing” to begin with can really start to grate on you. Maybe you’re struggling to make yourself understood and wind up feeling like a child; alienated, confused, exhausted.

3. The Adjustment Phase

Well…you’re still here…

Congratulations – seriously! Understanding, acceptance and adaption is what will see you through now. Throughout this phase, you begin to face challenges head-on, in a confident and positive way.

You finally understand the new culture is different, accept it as it is and adapt your own values, personality and behaviour to fit the host culture.

4. The Resolution Phase

“My home away from home!”

You’ve done it! You have developed your routine and the effort you put in and challenges you overcame throughout the previous stages are now undetectable! You’re emotionally stable, and are finally feeling comfortable in your new surroundings with your new, surrogate family.

Clarisse Mergen studied her Master’s degree in Canada. She arrived in Montreal in 2009, and after just three months, she already felt she had reached the resolution phase, “I’ve learned new behaviours that are now automatic reflexes, like waste recycling. I am also now more curious about the country’s politics and the way institutions work.”

Coping with Culture Shock

First of all, give yourself a pat on the back. It may not have been easy, but you’ve just passed the first step that leads to the resolution. Another great thing is that now you know more about culture shock, you’ll be able to identify exactly when it happens.

If you’re feeling drained, emotionally sensitive, critical of the culture or if you really just want to go home, you’ll know it’s a perfectly normal reaction and you definitely shouldn’t give up! Just understand, accept and adapt.

Okay, okay…easier said than done, we know.

Here are a few tips to help you out if culture shock should strike you again:

  • Make sure you read some books about where you’re going before you get there. This is a good way to develop realistic expectations as you delve into the culture.

  • Cover your basic needs and make sure your security is met. Ensure you’ve chosen a safe area to live in and make sure your budget is under control. Be sure to bring along any medication you’ll be likely to need, as well as some earplugs if you’re sensitive to noise.

  • You can create a sense of safety and reassurance by bringing all your favourite, familiar items along with you. Mergen admits: “I brought some pictures of my friends and family – as well as my teddy bear! It actually helped me feel at home at the beginning of my stay.”

  • Keep in touch with people at home through MSN, Skype, Facebook, Blogs, telephone and post – you really are spoiled for choice! Sometimes it can be difficult to keep a relationship going purely through email, so make sure you pick up the phone occasionally, it does make a massive difference – and you really will start missing the sound of your Mum’s voice!

  • If times start to feel a little unstable, elements of your home culture always feel comfortable when you’re abroad – speaking your own language, eating your favourite home dishes, reading the news from back home. But be careful not to overdo these tricks, as they can easily over step the line and become ways of resisting change. Sanaz recommends that foreigners don’t spend too much time within their own community, “Try to tackle the language barrier as early as possible. It might be difficult at the beginning, but it is rewarding,” he says.

  • Maintain a network of people you love, trust and who you know will give you confidence when you’re feeling unsettled. If you’re a fan of rugby or love going to the cinema, join a club and really make the most of it! Generally, this is an ideal way to meet the locals in a chilled and cosy atmosphere. If you’re really not a fan of anything in particular, try something new and why not something local: beach volley ball in Brazil, calligraphy in China, Bollywood dance in India. Don’t forget that charities and volunteering opportunities are also a really good option as they’re a great way to get involved and make a contribution to the community.

Armed with this friendly advice, you should be more equipped to tackle the culture shock that comes with studying overseas. You might find that you don’t feel it at all, but just remember that others can feel it incredibly strongly, and you need to be there for them if they do. The intensity of culture shock depends on a lot of factors so you really aren’t able to generalise. At least this way, everyone’s aware of it, and you’ll know you’re not the only one who’s feeling this way and you certainly won’t be the last!

Just make the most of this experience, and wherever you are in the world, embrace it and have fun.

Parts of this article were first published on Top Universities.

Image via Shutterstock.

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