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Talk to almost any student who has studied abroad and you will hear glowing accounts of the wonderful experience she or he had, stories that may have inspired you to go abroad yourself.
The fond memories that students relate, while demonstrating the profound impact of study abroad, often mask the challenges that accompany this great learning experience—and may give the impression that you will be able to easily adjust to your new environment. The truth is that everyone who leaves to live abroad can experience “culture shock,” the symptoms of which may include:
- A sense of being lost and out of place
The degree and duration of culture shock can vary for each person and depends on a number of factors, such as the length of time you will be abroad, your flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity, the degree of difference between your home and host cultures, and your expectation of culture shock. It is important to realize that culture shock is a normal, and very important, part of study abroad. It shows that you are grappling with the differences between your cultural worldview and that of your host country. The best way to get through culture shock is to embrace it:
- “Plunge” into the host culture and wrestle with the differences.
- Try to keep an open mind.
- Get to know students/faculty at your host institution.
- Find a “cultural informant,” a local person with whom you can discuss your frustrations/encounters with difference.
- Learn as much as you can about your host culture.
- Maintain some support structure with other Americans who may be going through the same experience, but don’t fall into the trap of retreating into an American clique to avoid the discomfort of culture shock.
- Keep a journal that records your impressions of new experiences and the transformations that are occurring in your own mind and spirit.
- Remember that learning and insight will come from sustained and direct contact with your host culture, not from observation at a safe distance. Your study abroad experience provides the opportunity to reevaluate the way you view yourself and others. Being in a new environment and culture will present challenges of many kinds, and how you deal with these challenges will ultimately help shape the person you become.
There are some excellent online resources designed to help students prepare for cultural differences. One such site is the interactive “What’s Up with Culture?” site (http://www2.pacific.edu/sis/culture/), a useful tool for dealing with cultural differences before, during and after study abroad.