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5 Steps to Study Abroad Success

Adapting to New Surroundings

Culture Shock

Culture shock is not quite as shocking or as sudden as most people expect. It is part of the process of learning a new culture that is called, "cultural adaptation." You may experience some discomfort before you are able to function well in a new setting. This discomfort is a natural stage in the adaptation process.

Just as you will bring clothes and other personal items abroad, you will also be carrying invisible cultural baggage with you. That baggage is not as obvious as the items in your suitcases, but it will play a major role in the adaptation to your new environment. Cultural baggage contains the values that are important to you and the patterns of behavior that are customary in your culture. The more you know about your personal values and how they are derived from your culture, the better prepared you will be to see and understand the cultural differences you will encounter abroad.

Remember that...

*It is normal to have some ups and downs during the period of transition to a new culture.
*Culture shock does not happen all at once. It builds up gradually.
*Everyone experiences culture shock. Looking back on the experience, many say it was a source of insight and personal growth.

Know What to Expect

The more information you know about studying abroad and your host country, the easier it will be to anticipate future events and develop strategies to successfully adjust to life abroad.

1. Try to maintain relationships with people at home while you are away by keeping in touch regularly. This assures people that you continue to care about them. Planning to stay in touch does not require a promise to write or telephone on a strict schedule, but it does help to establish a realistic interval between communications. You will be extremely busy getting settled and learning about your new environment, so it is essential that long periods between communications do not alarm your family and friends at home.

2. Once you arrive, locate a library that carries newspapers from your country. Find out how to access the cable television network that broadcasts world and local news about your country or region. Use the Internet's news groups and World Wide Web for updated information about your home country.

3. Surprises always await you when you arrive in a new place. People may walk and talk more quickly, traffic patterns may be confusing, and buildings may look different than expected. Such differences are easy to see and quickly learned. If something seems strange or very confusing, the international student office is often the best place to go for help with such matters.

4. Studying abroad means making big changes in your daily life. Generations of students have found that they go through a series of stages as they adjust to living abroad.

5. At first, although the new situation may be confusing, most students also find it to be exhilarating, a time of new experiences, sights, sounds, and activities. With so much to learn and absorbing the new culture, the initial period of settling in often seems like an adventure. During this time, you will tend to look for and identify similarities between your home culture and your host culture. You will find that people really are friendly and helpful. The procedures are different, but there are patterns, things that you can learn when depend on. You may classify other aspects of the culture that seem unusual or even unattractive as curious, interesting, or quaint. There will be many opportunities to meet people in the community; such opportunities can be rewarding, but they also present an expanded array of cultural puzzles.

6. Your cultural comfort level will vary over time as you move in and out of your home culture.

Emerging Differences

Gradually, as you become more involved in activities and get to know the people around you, differences, as well as similarities, will become increasingly apparent. There are many differences that may at first seem "foreign" or strange. However, exposure to those differences is what makes the study abroad experience worthwhile.

Living in a foreign country necessarily means that you will be exposed to lifestyles, cultural aspects, and people who you have not been in contact with before. Of course, adjusting to a new environment is difficult as well as exciting. This difficulty may lead to something called, "culture shock." However, if you remain positive and keep an open mind, you will overcome culture shock and develop a new appreciation for such differences.

Coping with Culture Shock

The most effective way to cope with culture shock is to step back from a given event that has bothered you, assess it, and search for an appropriate explanation and response.

Try the following:

1. Observe how others are acting in the same situation

2. Describe the situation, what it means to you, and your response to it

3. Ask a local resident or someone with extensive experience how they would have handled the situation and what it means in the host culture

4. Plan how you might act in this or similar situations in the future

5. Test the new behavior and evaluate how well it works

6. Decide how you can apply what you have learned the next time you find yourself in a similar situation

Throughout the period of cultural adaptation, take good care of yourself. Read a book or rent a movie in your native language, take a short trip if possible, exercise and get plenty of rest, write a letter or telephone home, eat good food, and do things you enjoy with friends. Also, take special notice of things you enjoy about living in the host culture.

Although it can be disconcerting and a little scary, the shock gradually eases as you begin to understand the new culture. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and perceptions of others toward you—and you toward them—are not personal evaluations but are based on a clash of cultural values. The more skilled you become in recognizing how and when cultural values and behaviors are likely to come in conflict, the easier it becomes to make adjustments that can help you avoid serious difficulties.

Will I Lose My Own Culture?

Sometimes students worry about losing their culture if they become too well adapted to the host culture. Don't worry: it is virtually impossible to lose the culture in which you were raised. In fact, learning about the new culture often increases your appreciation for and understanding of your own culture. Don't resist the opportunity to become bicultural, able to function competently in two cultural environments.

Just as culture shock derives from the accumulation of cultural clashes, so an accumulation of small successes can lead to more effective interactions within the new culture. As you increase your abilities to manage and understand the new social system, practices that recently seemed so strange will become less puzzling. Eventually you will sufficiently adapt to the host culture and become comfortable with both your academic and social life. You will be able to relax and fully enjoy the study abroad experience. You will also improve your sense of humor!