“Culture shock” is the term given to the collection of feelings that affect most travelers when they are overwhelmed by cultural differences. The symptoms can include feeling lonely, homesick, overwhelmed, fearful, angry, confused or judgmental. The onset, severity, and length of time with which culture shock will affect any one student will vary. It is important for you to keep in mind: culture shock is a common and a natural part of your student’s study abroad experience.
When students first arrive at the host country, they feel happy and excited. Everything is new and interesting, and they want to explore it all. This is the honeymoon stage when students fall in love with the host country and nothing could possibly get in the way of a fabulous experience.
A few days, weeks, or months later, the students start feeling somewhat disillusioned and while things in the environment have remained the same, they may now regard everything negatively. This is the next stage of culture shock and the time when some students are apt to feel that they have made a mistake and would like to return home. The students are finally able to discern cultural differences and feel like interlopers in the new culture. They are also exhausted from constantly having to make behavioral adjustments and frustrated because the usual emotional support system – family and friends – are not there.
Fortunately, with effort and time, this stage usually passes and the students achieve a state of balance or equilibrium with the environment. This is the stage when the students become more integrated into the host culture, aware of cultural expectations, and cognizant of the behaviors and attitudes of people from that country. The anger and disappointment fade as the students realize that they can function effectively outside the home culture.
If there is one sure thing about culture shock — it is that it has an ephemeral nature. It will end, but it will not disappear magically.
We hope you will not become alarmed if your student starts complaining about his or her situation. In all likelihood, he or she is going through the second stage of culture shock. A few helpful hints:
- Encourage the student to persist through the challenges that come with cultural adjustment.
- Remind them of their goals for studying abroad, and the things that will be gained from this experience.
- Applaud their efforts to become immersed in the host culture.
- Encourage them to continue initiating interactions with fellow students or the host family, participating in local or university activities, and learning from mistakes.
- Ask them to read out loud to you their “Letter for a Rainy Day”
In a few weeks, the student is likely to look back at these seemingly dark days and be incredulous that he or she even considered returning home!
Be prepared for your student to go through re-entry or reverse culture shock when returning home, as discussed in the Supportive Family section. This is often unexpected, but can present the same challenges. Read more about reverse culture shock here.