Cultural Adjustment Abroad
Studying broad is a thrilling experience and is often referenced by study abroad alumni as the most valuable experience of one’s life. You will probably arrive in your host country feeling optimistic, enthusiastic, and experience feelings of excitement. However, study abroad can also be disorienting and disruptive. In the first weeks when you arrive on-site it is not uncommon to experience surprise, dismay, and even anxiety as a result of the cultural differences associated with a new location and the unfamiliar situations in which you find yourself. Your program will offer on-site orientation specific to your host country to familiarize you with cultural differences you may encounter while studying abroad in your host country. It is designed to help you ease into this transition, to introduce you to your new environment and culture, and to provide you resources to feel more comfortable. These initial feelings of discomfort and insecurity are not unusual and after time will dissipate.
Everyone experiences cultural adjustment differently, with varying emotional and physical reactions to the experience. You will likely find that you and your peers may have many similar emotions and feelings to the transition, but keep in mind your experience and cultural learning is unique to you. Understanding the common stages of cultural adjustment will allow you to recognize that what you are feeling is normal and part of the cultural learning process.
Things to keep in mind:
- Be aware of what you are experiencing. If you encounter any difficulties or discomfort which prevent you from being successful, discuss this with your on-site administrators or the UIC Study Abroad Office.
- Cultural adjustment varies by program.
- Cultural transitions can trigger or exacerbate mental health challenges or conditions. If you have seen a mental health provider in the past, inform them of your plans to travel abroad and discuss mitigation and coping techniques with them,
- Know that many students share the same feelings and experiences as you.
Research has shown that many students go through a four-step adjustment process to acclimating to their host country. The first stage, the honeymoon phase, is the initial euphoria and excitement. You may feel as if you are ready to take on all the new experiences and have a genuine interest in learning. This stage is characterized by feelings of excitement about new sights and surroundings, tourist-like involvement in the host culture, and intrigue with the similarities and differences between your host country and your home culture.
Culture Shock/Cultural Confrontation
Following this period of excitement, some students experience culture shock or cultural confrontation. The novelty of your new environment has worn off and you may find yourself focusing on the negative – stereotyping differences between cultures, viewing small issues as major catastrophes, and feelings of stress, frustration, and disengagement.
Culture Shock can be defined as a sense of confusion, discomfort, disorientation and uncertainty felt by those exposed to a different cultural environment for an extended period. Culture shock can happen to any traveler, and it is important to learn how to understand your own culture shock to eventually overcome it and be able to accept and enjoy the environment around you. Most people who have traveled have experienced some form of culture shock; it is part of the experience. Cultural shock is a personal experience and the symptoms of culture shock are experienced differently by everyone. Some students do not experience culture shock at all. While having low periods and feelings of discomfort is normal, if you are experiencing extended “lows” communicate that to the on-site staff or the ACM staff in Chicago. Despite these feelings, you are making critical progress in expanding your cross-cultural awareness. At this time, you are developing your own strategies for coping with cultural differences.
Positive Outcomes of Culture Shock
It can be unpleasant but has positive effects:
- Learning experience
- Increase intercultural understanding
- Enhancement of self-efficiency
Eventually you begin to feel more at home. You will settle into your routine and you will feel more familiar with the new culture. At this point, you may feel comfortable with the cultural practices of your host country such as a different time and style of meals or the academic culture at the local university. You will notice that your perspective has shifted and you are able to understand the bigger picture and approach things with a sense of humor. By this point, you will most likely feel adjusted; however, there will still be periodic highs and lows as you gradually adjust. Cultural adjustment is in itself a learning experience and an opportunity to grow as you begin to sensitize yourself to another culture.
Feeling at Home – The “home” stage
The new culture no longer feels new, but like a second home. You have a greater ability to navigate the new culture. You now can understand habits, customs, and food, but also establish firm ties within the community. By this point you can live and work to your full potential and are no longer negatively affected by differences between the host and home culture. You are able to identify with both your home and host culture and can live successfully in both.
Throughout your time in your host country, you may experience cultural bumps. A Cultural Bump occurs when a person has expectations of a particular behavior and gets something different when interacting with individuals from another culture. When there are miscommunications due to differing cultural norms and language barriers it can result in a potentially unpleasant difference. However, these cultural bumps are also learning opportunities and can result in cultural and/or linguistic growth. We encourage you to ask questions and follow-up if there is anything unclear.
Tips for Cultural Adjustment
- Take care of yourself physically and maintain your normal exercise routines
- Give yourself permission to feel bad
- Don’t make major decisions impulsively
- Observe and reflect on your surroundings
- Establish a support network of peers, friends, staff, and instructors
- Recognize that culture is relative
- Reach out to the UIC Study Abroad Office or local staff for guidance if you are struggling
- Ask questions and clarify when you are uncertain
- Connect with locals and make new friends
- Be patient with your adjustment– it takes time
- It’s ok to make mistakes
- Be open-minded to new experiences and people
Communicating While Abroad
All students will be required by their program to have a local phone or phone from your home country with an international coverage while studying abroad. While you will not be forced to purchase/have a working phone, we highly encourage you to do so for your convenience and added safety benefits. Usually students either opt to purchase a local SIM card that can be inserted into an unlocked phone or utilize an international plan from your home country. If you choose to purchase a local SIM card, your program partner will assist you in making these arrangements when when you arrive on-site. Be sure to make sure your phone is unlocked before traveling abroad. We recommend you choose the local SIM card as it is far more reliable and cost effective.
Set Up A Communication Plan
Internet Availability and Phone Service
Helpful Applications to Stay Connected
- Facebook & Instagram
- Google Voice
- Hello Talk