Prior to departure, participants begin to think about the challenges of living in another culture. However, administrative considerations often become overwhelming and take precedence over emotional and personal preparations for going abroad.
What follows are three ways for you, as a friend or family member, to think about the upcoming study abroad experience. Participants’ identity and the things that make them unique inevitably become part of the experience abroad. When living abroad, some aspects of identity may come to the surface that might not otherwise be paid much attention, such as dietary concerns, health, smoking and drinking habits, one’s family, gender, learning styles, physical and cognitive ability, race/ethnicity, minority or majority status, religion, sexual orientation and social class. Before going abroad, participants may want to consider how different aspects of their individual identities might affect, or be affected by, the experience abroad.
Before departing it can be helpful for participants to think about how their own cultural background has influenced their beliefs and values as well as how the foreign culture will similarly influence those who live in it.
It is also important for participants to identify goals, objectives and expectations before leaving in order to plan for their experience and to mitigate some of their anxiety or apprehension.
Adjusting to a new culture is a process. Although usually more intense, this process is similar to the ups and downs, excitement and frustrations that we all go through when we start a new job or move to a different part of the country.
Before going abroad, participants are often excited about the trip and at the same time wary of the upcoming challenges.
Upon arriving in-country, participants may find everything to be new, different, exciting, and fascinating. These initial feelings, sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” stage, may last anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months.
The novelty of the new culture eventually wears off and participants confront difficulties stemming from the loss of familiar cues and symbols. The resulting frustrations and annoyances are commonly referred to as culture shock.
Things tend to get better as participants develop their language skills and learn to navigate in the host culture. Many of the uncomfortable reactions to culture shock go away. Participants may begin to see a balance between the positive and negative aspects of the culture.
Participants may again feel an increase in frustration as they confront larger cultural and personal difficulties. Sometimes at this point deeper personal issues surface. The result may be feelings of isolation, boredom, and a lack of motivation.
After resolving some of the feelings of isolation, participants may feel more and more comfortable in the host culture. Some develop strong relationships with non-Americans; others decide they are only long-term visitors and as such will not develop close relationships. They may gain a better understanding of the major differences and deeper aspects of the culture. They may integrate aspects of the culture into their own identity, so that the host culture has become a part of them.
A few weeks before returning home, participants often think a lot about what the return home will be like. Feelings of anxiety may increase as they think about leaving what has become their home, about how much they have changed, and about how the changes will be perceived by friends and family back home.
Upon return, participants must again adjust but this time to a culture that was once familiar. Many of the above phases of adjustment may repeat themselves, with varying intensity, as participants readjust to being home.
Read as much as possible about where your friend or family member is going in order to gain some perspective about the experience. This could include reading guidebooks, foreign and international newspapers, magazines, novels, plays, poetry, and political and economic analyses. You may also want to talk to international students and veteran travelers who have been where your friend or family member is going.
Read about culture. You may also want to read, and encourage your friend or family member to read about culture in general and how it affects our behavior, beliefs, customs, and how we view the world.
The following questions may clarify how culture can influence the goals, expectations, hopes, and fears participants may have about the upcoming study abroad experience. They are intended to help participants prepare for the cross-cultural aspects of the experience as well as invite you to think both about how culture affects you and how it will affect your friend or family member’s experience.