Cultural Adjustment

While abroad, you may well experience some form of homesickness or cultural adjustment. Generally speaking, cultural adjustment comes in four stages: after the initial euphoria of being where you have wanted to be for so long, you may find yourself increasingly irritated by many aspects of the host culture. An adjustment should follow, and, eventually, an adaptation to your host culture. Probably the best defense against culture shock is realizing that it occurs to virtually everyone in some form or another. Culture Shock Curve

The dislocation, homesickness, and discomfort you may experience after the initial excitement and euphoria have worn off is all part of cultural adjustment; it may help to know that everyone experiences it to a greater or lesser degree, regardless of what they may say! A sense of humor and knowing what symptoms to expect will help you get through all but the worst case. One of the first signs of cultural adjustment will be increasing irritation and frustration with the difficulty attached to performing the simplest tasks (such as mailing a package, buying shampoo, making a phone call, etc.). Many of the things we take for granted are suddenly not there for us, and many of our unconscious reflexes are inappropriate or ineffective. This feeling can lead to homesickness, depression, loneliness, and intolerance of everything that is different about the host country. It helps to stay busy, especially if you can do something you do well or something you’ve always wanted to try: find a piano to practice on, swim, sign up for a photography course, join a soccer team. Everywhere you will see bulletin boards with invitations to join clubs, sign up for group ski excursions or kayaking expeditions, participate in volunteer groups, etc. You have nothing to lose and much to gain from overcoming your shyness and jumping in. Be sure to discuss your interests early in the semester with a staff member. Some students experience a feeling of depression halfway through a yearlong sojourn abroad, particularly if they have returned to the U.S. You should realize that this is normal and it will pass. (Our best advice, by the way, is to plan to spend vacations exploring your host country rather than returning to the U.S. Visits from friends and relatives can also be difficult.)

Shopping in Florence, Italy

Shopping in Florence, Italy

Gradually you will regain your self-confidence; without knowing when or how it happened you will realize that you have begun to feel comfortable in your new environment—you will not, in fact, be able to remember clearly what it was that struck you as being so very annoying. Students who spend the whole year abroad generally adjust more fully to their host culture than students only abroad for the semester.

When the time comes to go home, you may find that some of the things that irritated you most have come to seem more natural than their U.S. equivalents. If you feel that your problems of adaptation are not decreasing, are having a negative impact on your mental or physical health, or are interfering with your studies, do talk to your friends or to a staff member. They may be able to help with advice or, in some cases, recommend a professional counselor who is used to helping students just like you deal with depression or homesickness.

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