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Cultural Adjustment to US Student Life
Preparing for Culture Shock

How do we define culture? “People are different around the world. Their needs, however, are the same. How they satisfy their needs is different, and this is what we mean by culture.” (John Condon)

When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable.  It is designed to make its own people comfortable.

Imagine being dropped into a foreign place where your English might not serve you as well as you might have expected, the people dress differently, buildings look different, the food is not the same as it is at home, people look, speak and act differently, and you have no friends, Sounds a bit disconcerting?  Many of the international students studying in the US for an extended period of time will have experienced this. 

Let’s begin with defining what culture shock is and how can an international student minimize the effect of culture shock. Culture shock is a syndrome that is brought on by the stress that results from the loss of all the familiar signs, symbols and surroundings that we have grown up with and taken for granted when we plunge into a totally unfamiliar environment.  We are like fish out of water.  Culture shock is something that may be experienced by all travelers, though it is probably most significant in those who spend a longer time away from home.  It is a bit like jet lag or motion sickness in that not everyone suffers to the same extent or in the same way.

Upon arrival in a foreign country, most international students experience a “honeymoon phase” for several weeks or even a few months.  Everything is new and exciting.  The local people are polite and gracious, and anxious to help out. 

This may be followed by stage two, the “What am I doing here?” stage.  This can be characterized by a hostile and aggressive attitude towards the host country and its people.  This hostility grows out of the genuine difficulty that one may experience in the process of adjustment.  In spite of one’s good intentions, feelings of frustration, irritability and anxiety may occur.  Changes in mood, sleep patterns, energy level, sex drive and appetite may also be noticeable.  Sense of humor, one of most people’s valuable assets, may disappear.

You may feel guilty about these negative feelings, but they have real causes, for example, problems with the phones, suffering from diarrhea, being robbed, school is not quite what you expected, you can’t get the hang of the language, and to top it off, the local people seem indifferent to these problems.  Your interpretation?  They’re being insensitive and unsympathetic to your problems, so you decide, “I just don’t like them.”  Ready to exacerbate this alienation is the fact that students often tend to congregate together in their own little “cocoon.”  While this may provide a sense of security and a convenient forum for complaining, it doesn’t help much with integration into the local way of life. 

Finally comes stage three, typically after about six months, when you accept the customs and other quirks of the host country as just another way of living.  At this point, one not only understands and accepts all of the cues of social intercourse – the food, drink, habits and customs – you actually enjoy them.  Your sense of humor resurfaces.  Adaptation to your school and courses may help.

What can we do about it ?

It is important to be aware of the existence of culture shock and other mental and health problems and to recognize that these are natural processes through which many people pass.  There are several ways in which you can make your adjustment to life overseas a bit easier:

  • Realize that culture shock may occur;
  • Take time to acclimatize  - to the jet lag, the food, the living conditions, the weather;
  • Develop a social life;
  • Keep in touch with family and friends and events back home;
  • Remember your personal goals;
  • Make the most of your work – set small realistic goals, tolerate what you cannot change;
  • Make use of and offer peer support;
  • Deal with stress as it arises;
  • Be proactive about your physical health: pay attention to your diet, hygiene, and get regular rest, exercise and relaxation;
  • Ask for help if you need it.

E-mail has made communication with family and friends back home quite easy.  Some travelers spend most of their days glued to a computer at the local Internet cafe.  Here the danger is that by staying too connected with events and people back home you may limit your incentive to get involved with events happening locally, and hence prolong your culture shock.  So take advantage of e-mail but use it in moderation.

It is important that you learn as much as you can about the country and its culture before you leave home. They say that 10 percent of your success will depend upon your particular skill, and the other 90 percent upon how well you communicate with others.  It is difficult to communicate with those whose customs, traditions, and ways of operating you do not understand.  This underscores the need for at least some basic language training, prior to your departure, as well as early on at your destination.

What if I have problems?

Depression is a common occurrence, no matter on which side of whatever ocean you may find yourself.  It is one of the most common reasons for students to return home prematurely.  The symptoms of depression may include mood swings, crying spells, irritability, fatigue, lack of appetite, loss of motivation or get-up-and go, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and thoughts of death and suicide.  If you feel yourself falling into this pattern, it is essential that you get help.

Factors Important to Successful Intercultural Adjustments

  • Open mindedness: The ability to keep one’s opinions flexible and receptive to new stimuli seems to be important to intercultural adjustments.
  • Sense of humor: A sense of humor is important because in another culture there are many things which lead one to weep, get angry, annoyed, embarrassed, or discouraged.  The ability to laugh off things will help guard against despair. 
  •  Ability to cope with failure: The ability to tolerate failure is critical because everyone fails at something overseas.  People who go overseas are often those who have been the most successful in their home environments and have rarely experienced failure thus may have never developed ways of coping with failure.
  • Communication: The ability and willingness to communicate one’s feelings and thoughts to others, verbally or non-verbally, has been suggested as an important skill for successful intercultural communicators.
  • Flexibility and adaptability: The ability to respond to or tolerate the ambiguity of new situations is very important to intercultural success.  Keeping options open and judgmental behavior to a minimum describes an adaptable or flexible person.
  • Curiosity:  Curiosity is the demonstrated desire to know about other people, places, ideas, etc.  This skill or personality trait is important for intercultural travelers because they need to learn many things in order to adapt to their new environment.
  • Positive and realistic expectations: It has been frequently shown that there is a strong correlation between positive expectations for an intercultural experience and successful adjustment overseas.
  • Tolerance for differences and ambiguities: A sympathetic understanding of beliefs or practices differing from one’s own is important to successful intercultural adjustment.
  • Positive regard for others: The ability to express warmth, empathy, respect and positive regard for other people has been suggested as an important component of effective intercultural relations.
  • A strong sense of self: A clear, secure feeling about oneself results in individuals who are neither weak nor overbearing in their relations with others.  People with a strong sense of themselves stand up for what they believe, but do not cling to those beliefs regardless of new information, perspectives, or understandings which they may encounter.

In order to allow for the most optimal acclimation to a new culture all international students can take advantage of pre-departure orientations that are offered in home countries by EducationUSA centers. To find out about pre-departure orientation dates in your country, please visit In addition, upon arrival all schools offer arrival orientations lasting from 2-7 days whose sole purpose is to facilitate the student’s acclimation to the school and campus life. Most arrival orientations are very comprehensive and include information sessions on all aspects of familiarizing the student with registering for class, student visa restrictions, opening a bank account, shopping trips to the nearby stores and introduction to US students studying on campus.

In summary, moving into a new culture can be the most fascinating roller coaster ride of your life. It will be interesting, exciting, and a little scary at times, but will enable you to explore an entirely new way of living, allow you to think differently, communicate on many levels and turn you into a “global citizen". An opportunity like this comes only once in a lifetime.  This is a ride you will not want to miss. 

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