When we are in our native environment, we are relatively comfortable because of our familiarity with the culture. In general, we know what kinds of reactions to expect from people in a given situation. We know how to get what we need. The cues and symbols that we use to make these determinations are based on our culture. In a different culture, we suddenly lose cues and symbols that orient us to situations of daily life. The process of adjusting to another culture and of gaining an understanding of it often creates psychological discomfort, commonly referred to as culture shock. This is the reaction to differences and difficulties one encounters in a foreign culture and can consist of many phases.
Normal feelings encountered as a reaction to culture shock may include helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness, homesickness, slight depression, irritability and boredom. For most participants, going through culture shock means that they are truly making an effort to understand and adjust to their new environment. It can be a time of tremendous personal and academic growth.
Other reactions may also accompany culture shock:
Often students cannot explain why they are feeling this way, only that these strong feelings exist. This process of discovering cultural differences and experiencing culture shock is a powerful learning tool. As students work through the challenges and emotions of cultural adjustment, the result can be a high degree of understanding both about themselves and about the culture in which they are living. Past student participants have stated that study abroad can be an invaluable education about what it means to be from the US and to gain first-hand knowledge about the diversity of lifestyles and beliefs in the world.
During these challenging times it is easy for students to stick together because it is more comfortable for them to be with people from their own culture. However, by doing so, they may miss many of the enriching experiences the host country has to offer. It often takes a lot of effort to develop relationships across cultures, but the rewards can be considerable.
The important thing to remember is to be supportive, patient, and a good listener. Here are some additional suggestions for the time that your student is abroad:
The encouragement and support of family at home is a powerful tool in the adjustment process. Of course, remember to take students’ needs and concerns seriously and be on the lookout for problems that may indicate that a student is experiencing more than culture shock such as severe depression, drastic changes in eating habits, excessive drinking, self-isolation, etc. If you are concerned about the safety and well-being of a student, please contact the Learning Abroad Center. The following University of Minnesota online resources may also be of assistance to you: www.mentalhealth.umn.edu, www.bhs.umn.edu/services/mentalhealth and www.uccs.umn.edu.