Student exploring his surroundings while studying abroad.

Cultural Adjustment

Most study abroad students experience a range of emotions upon leaving home - from very mild to intense. It is common to feel overwhelmed or frustrated about the culture of the host country. Typically, you can expect to go through an initial period of excitement. As this excitement wears off, you may begin to start missing your life back home. Some level of frustration may be experienced at times, which can cause unusual irritability. Minor difficulties and challenges, especially those that are related to cultural differences, may take great relevance and lead to major crises. In some cases they can even cause depression. Keep in mind that this is a natural process, and that it may last just a couple of days.

Once you learn how to cope with the cultural differences, you will soon find yourself adapting, which will then allow you to feel more comfortable at your new home. Typical symptoms include: homesickness, feeling bored, excessive sleep, changes in appetite, and irritability.

The level of cultural adjustment can vary from person to person. Whatever the level may be, some recommendations on how to deal with (or even eliminate) its effects are:

  • be aware that cultural adjustment can happen to anybody and there is nothing wrong with experiencing it.
  • get enough rest; you will probably need more rest more than usual.
  • meet local people; this can help you learn about the culture.
  • have an open mind and avoid judgment.
  • maintain a sense of humor.
  • ask people why they do things the way they do; this will help you understand their culture.
  • you don’t need to agree with what people do abroad, but you should strive to accept that it’s the way they do it based on their own values and beliefs.
  • try to focus on the positive and try to learn from the negative.
  • give yourself a break and get together with other Americans. Sometimes it feels good to verbalize your feelings. Keep in mind that if you are going to discuss the local culture, you need to do it in a discrete and respectful way.

If the symptoms of culture shock don’t go away or worsen, talk to your program coordinator.

Local Attitudes on Diversity

Students should attempt to understand regional and local attitudes on issues such as appropriate attire, alcohol consumption, religion, gender roles, sexual orientation, etc. - well before the start of their program. There are a wealth of resources available, including those from Diversity Abroad.