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Adjusting to Life Abroad and Culture Shock

Culture shock is a term used for symptoms related to the process of adjusting to life in a new culture. It is not necessarily as drastic as the word “shock” may imply and many students report that they did not experience this while abroad. However, they later remark they were homesick, irritable, anxious, experiencing insomnia, or exhibiting other symptoms which are actually associated with this process of adjustment.

Many students are in a euphoric state during their first few weeks in a new country, and the cultural differences are part of the charm. This period is known as the “honeymoon” phase. It is not unusual, however, for students to experience immediate culture stress accompanied by actual physical symptoms. For other students this honeymoon period may not end until the middle of the semester – the fifth through the seventh week away are typical times for homesickness to set in. Adjustment to any new situation takes time and, with some persistence, any unsettled feelings will pass.

The knowledge that these feelings are normal will not necessarily make it any easier if you receive an emotional phone call from your student. However, should you receive such a call at any point during the semester, realize that students often turn to their loved ones at home for comfort and support, especially when they are at the lowest points in their cultural adjustment process. Just as you may have received similar calls or texts when your student first arrived at Scripps, in most cases, after hearing your voice and airing problems and complaints, your student signs off feeling relieved, with enthusiasm renewed. Typically, you do not get to see this transformation though. Expressing confidence in your student’s ability to adjust and emphasizing the importance of patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor are the best things you can do.

If your student is having significant difficulty with any issues, encourage your student to talk to the on-site program staff for support. The program directors and other members of the international office staff are in the best position to help students over any hurdles and can provide a sympathetic ear and helpful strategies to get through this normal slump, or if necessary, refer students to other resources. Again, the SAGE staff are here to help as well.

Some parents are interested in the on-line workshop we recommend to students -What’s Up with CultureThe Workshop provides non-site specific preparation for life in another culture. The workshop also provides helpful resources for issues related to the specific culture where the program is located.

Students can also experience some adjustment issues upon their return, known as re-entry shock, and we hope you will encourage them to come to us about these issues during the break or when they return to campus. The Workshop listed above includes a module about returning home and you may want to bookmark that for reference and revisit the site toward the end of your student’s experience.