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Education Abroad

Adjusting to New Cultures

Study abroad students will experience a wide range of emotions once they leave home. It is important for parents to understand what their child is going through and to be patient and supportive as their child adjusts to the new culture. Most study abroad students spend the first few days settling in and trying to adjust; however, adjustment is not accomplished in a few days. Adjustment is an on-going process demanded by one situation and then another. What follows are the four stages of cultural adjustment identified by Gregory Trifonovitch.

The Honeymoon Stage

Characterized by exhilaration, anticipation and excitement. The study abroad student is fascinated with everything new. The students are embarking on their “dream come true,” which is to study in a foreign country. While delighted with the new culture, however, the students also face cultural differences and misunderstandings. When their misunderstandings mount up, they are likely to experience the second stage of adjustment.

NOTE: If your daughter or son calls home in the first few days to complain about the housing, the food, the weather, the university, etc. remember that they may be experiencing culture shock.

The Hostility Stage

Characterized by frustration, anger, anxiety and sometimes depression. Following the initial excitement, frustration comes with dealing with bureaucratic matters and the weariness of speaking and listening to another language every day. Students are upset because, although they have studied the language, they don’t seem to understand anyone. Even in an English-speaking country, students will find accents, attitudes, and lifestyle different and foreign to them. Students react to this frustration by rejecting the new environment in which they feel discomfort. The internal reasoning might be, “If I feel bad it’s because of them.” The students blame their external environment for their bad feelings. Some of these hostilities are translated into anger over minor frustrations, fear and mistrust of locals, absenteeism from class, lack of interest, lack of motivation, and, at worst, complete withdrawal. Academic problems may begin at this stage.

The Humor Stage

Follows when the student begins to relax in a new situation and begins to laugh at minor mistakes and misunderstandings, which, in the hostility stage, would have caused major headaches. This more relaxed state of being occurs after the student has made some friends and is able to feel comfortable academically in classes.

The Home Stage

Occurs when students not only retain allegiance to their home culture, but also “feel at home” in their newly acquired one. Students have successfully adjusted to the norms and standards of the university and should be commended for the ability to live successfully in two cultures.

Returning Home

Often students experience another kind of culture shock when they return from studying abroad. Sometimes they find fault with everything American. Sometimes they find their old lifestyle dull and boring after all the exciting and interesting things they experienced overseas. Remember that your sons or daughters have changed as a result of studying abroad, and even though they look the same, they probably feel different inside. Just as they needed time to adjust to life abroad, they need time to re-adjust to life back home.