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Adjusting to a New Culture

Meagan RohrerNearly everyone goes through an adjustment when starting a new job or moving to a new city, so adjusting to a new culture and country is like other transitions, but a little more difficult because of the culture and language differences.

Being able to adjust to your new environment and culture is perhaps one of the most important facets of your experience abroad. Not only will your cross-cultural adjustment help your learning and development in the new country, it will make your international life more rewarding and interesting.

Remember, it is totally normal to experience some challenges and frustrations-the key is to recognize them and make efforts to work through them. There are multiple stages of culture shock, and not everyone goes through each of them at the same time or with the same intensity. It is important to remember that these stages may occur repeatedly; however, the intensity will diminish as time goes by.

Stages of Cultural Adjustment

Stage 1 -  Cultural Euphoria.
This is the starting point, both as you prepare for your experience abroad and upon your arrival. Everything is new and exciting. You enjoy the differences you are finding. Although you miss your friends from last year, the novelty and excitement of experiencing a new environment outweigh the loss. This stage seems pleasant enough, but there are some drawbacks. You tend to see the culture through rose-colored glasses, and your interpretations aren't necessarily realistic. You also focus more on all the visible aspects of the culture (e.g. food, scenery, clothing) and are ignoring the more complex and less obvious cultural aspects. In addition, you tend to focus on similarities rather than differences in the early stage of the visit.

Stage 2 - Cultural Confrontation
One to four months after you arrive, the newness wears off; and you will feel frustrated. Your feelings can shift from very positive to extremely negative. You may view both the home and host cultures in unrealistic terms. One is superior while the other is lacking. This is because everything that you used to do with relative ease back home appears more difficult due to the culture and/or language. Homesickness may also contribute to your feelings of discomfort. You feel discouraged and begin to doubt whether you can learn the language or adjust to the culture. Despite these feelings, you are making critical progress in expanding your cross-cultural awareness. Whether or not you are aware of it, you are developing your own strategies for coping with cultural differences. This is the stage known as 'culture shock.' There are steps you can take to make a smooth transition through this stage.

How to Cope with Stage 2
Before you go
  1. Prepare yourself for culture shock before you go abroad by learning as much as you can about your host country and culture – explore the culture through your passions - read novels by local authors, newspapers, watch movies about and from the country, listen to popular music and meet people from the host country, etc.
  2. Learn the language, including body language, to help you fit in more easily. Find out about differences in body language, personal space, manners, etc.
  3. Create realistic expectations of what your academic and personal experiences will be like while abroad. Write down your goals for what is important to you to get out of the study abroad experience. Discuss these with your professors, CIE staff and resident directors and friends. Don't be afraid to revise your goals as you grow and change.
  4. Expect culture shock to happen and recognize it as a normal process of adjusting to a new culture.
  5. Start your journal now
After you arrive
  1. Remember that you are not the only one experiencing occasional frustration, irritability and depression etc. Going through culture shock, in other words, does not imply the existence of any psychological or emotional shortcomings on your part.
  2. Get involved. Join a club, gym, choral group or volunteer for an organization related to your interests or in an area you wish to explore.
  3. Don't hide in your room or with a group of U.S. Americans but meet locals and other international students.
  4. Take care of yourself-eat healthy, exercise and get enough rest.
  5. Read some of the local newspapers and listen to the radio every day.
  6. Keep a journal and write letters to friends and family at home.
  7. Make an effort to immerse yourself in the host culture. Repeated efforts pay off. Remember that you are the 'new' person.
Things will happen; mistakes will be made one time or many times, but that's what makes it all interesting. Everyday is an experience. Expect to make mistakes with the language, the metro and pretty much everything else. But you will get into a groove and eventually you will be more used to living abroad than in the U.S.
Portia Becker, Mexico City
When you get homesick, because it will probably happen at some point, think of the opportunity that you are having... it's not every day that you are studying in Europe.
Francisco Villanueva, Spain
Stage 3 - Cultural Adjustment and Adaptation
You are starting to feel at home. You feel increasingly comfortable and competent in the culture. You start to look forward to further interactions in the host country and what you can learn throughout the remainder of your experience.

Undergoing culture shock is in itself a learning experience, and you should take advantage of it. It is a way of sensitizing yourself to another culture at a level that goes beyond the intellectual and rational. Once you have gone through the uncomfortable stages of psychological adjustment, you will be in a much better position to fully appreciate the cultural differences that exist.

The intensity and process of passing through the stages of culture shock vary depending on the characteristics of the individual, the host country and the program. Some study abroad students may experience few changes while others may be more aware of major differences. One major factor that slows down your adjustment to the new environment is excessive contact with family and friends back home or on the home campus. Constant e-mail and phone contact with friends and family in the US may be reassuring but it will also keep you from learning about a new environment and making new friends. We suggest you limit your communication to a few hours one day a week and spend the rest of the week living your new life.

If at any time your culture shock crosses over into symptoms of depression or other mental health conditions, please reach out to your program leader, onsite administrators, onsite resources and/or Loyola University Counseling Center, where mental health staff are available 24 hours a day 7 days a week by phone at (504) 865-3835, press one.  

Just as you may have challenges adjusting to your new culture, your host culture may have challenges adjusting to you. Stereotypes go both ways, and U.S. American students can be perceived as loud, arrogant, crude, promiscuous, alcohol-obsessed, rich, cheap, politically naïve, shallow, etc. Please avoid reinforcing such stereotypes. Remember you are an ambassador of the United States and Loyola University – respect others and act responsibly.

Also consider the nature of the political climate and relations between the U.S. and your destination, as well as other countries you plan to visit. In some cases, U.S. Americans living/traveling abroad may be singled out as objects of resentment, intimidation or even violence because of U.S. government policies. In this case it may be prudent to adopt your style of dress and behavior as much as possible to local norms, so that it is more difficult to identify you as an American.
Try to bond as much as you can with other people besides the ones you are coming with from NOLA, and I guarantee you that you'll have a great experience, i.e. I was the only one coming from Loyola this semester so I was forced to bond with the Spanish kids. Now, I have a bunch of friends and I'm trying to get them to come abroad to LOYNO.
Francisco Villanueva, Spain

If I had known the importance of the language before hand, I would have at least learned the basics. (Catalan) Even though it will be very tempting to go out to the places Americans go, try to do what locals do. Go to their bars, parks, etc. There are always wonderful places that may not be so visible to the nonlocals. Make an effort to find them and socialize with locals. It will pay off.
Camille Ducos, Spain
Stage 4: Re-entry Transition and Returning to Loyola
When you return from your study abroad experience you will be a different person. Your reactions to people and situations at home will be affected by your experience abroad. You will have been exposed to many new ideas, experiences, and independence. Remember the adjustments you experienced while abroad? What happens when you return is known as “re-entry.” Immediately after your return, you can probably expect to go through an initial stage of euphoria and excitement.

Most people are overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being on their home turf again. But as you try to settle back into your former routine, you may recognize that your abroad experience has changed many of your perceptions and assumptions, old ways of doing things, even what it means to be yourself. This intellectual and personal growth means that you can expect a period of disorientation as you are adjusting to Loyola, not unlike the experience you had when you first went abroad.

Be prepared for people to ask about your experience but not want to hear all you have learned and want to share.  Some people ask and just want to hear your response, “Oh it was amazing” and that is it.  This is another good reason to get involved with international groups on campus and other study abroad returnees.  Your experience does not have to end with your return to the U.S.

How can you prepare for re-entry?

It is helpful to talk about your challenges with former study abroad program participants and to begin to think about ways you can continue to share and develop your international experiences.

Try to stay in touch with friends you made while abroad. Remembering what it was like for you to have been “for a time” a foreigner should inspire you to try to get to know the international students on campus who may themselves be feeling some of the same social disorientation and alienation you once felt.
Loyola has international clubs and events and a growing international community. Joining clubs and meeting international students and scholars is a wonderful way to continue your international growth upon your return to campus.

Initiating contact with international students, those who have been abroad, and students currently abroad is a good way of readjusting and staying in touch with the international scene.

Here are some additional activities and opportunities to continue your new global vision:
  1. Apply to CIE for a work-study position. Non-work study options may also be available.
  2. Apply to CIE to be a peer advisor for students interested in studying abroad.
  3. Join inBUS and become a mentor or “buddy” for a new international student attending Loyola.
  4. Volunteer to staff your study abroad country table at Loyola’s annual country fair.
  5. Volunteer as a past participant with CIE. Represent your program at the Study Abroad Info Table, participate in the annual Study Abroad Fair, or serve on the student panel at the pre-departure orientation for the next group of outgoing study abroad participants.
  6. Submit your travel photos to the CIE for the annual International Photo Contest.
  7. Write about your experiences on the Loyola University New Orleans Study Abroad Facebook page (see the “Discussions” tab).
  8. Work or volunteer as a tutor for the Loyola Intensive English Program (LIEP). Contact if interested.
  9. Submit original writing you did while abroad or reflections on what you learned or on being back to The Maroon, or travel magazines and websites such as Transitions Abroad, Glimpse, Cafe Abroad or Abroad View.
  10. Enroll in courses at Loyola that build upon your overseas experience.
Have another go! There are many ways of ‘returning’ -- if not to the same country, then to another. Perhaps you are seeking volunteer work or teaching opportunities abroad. Maybe you’re qualified for a graduate fellowship, such as a Fulbright, Marshall or Watson. Or maybe you would like to do graduate or professional school work, earning a degree from a university in another country. For information on study and work opportunities abroad, contact CIE or the Career Development Center.


Photo by Megan Rohrer

Revised 8/14/2018