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Understanding Culture Shock

Wheels thump onto the runway. Engines scream in protest at being thrust into reverse. The aircraft slows. The lighted seat belt sign flicks off. You stand up, gather your carry-on bags from the overhead bin, slowly make your way through the crowd of passengers, and hurry up the ramp into...what?

Wheels thump onto the runway. Engines scream in protest at being thrust into reverse. The aircraft slows. The lighted seat belt sign flicks off. You stand up, gather your carry-on bags from the overhead bin, slowly make your way through the crowd of passengers, and hurry up the ramp into . . . what? Adventure, certainly. Opportunity, definitely. Exciting educational experiences, and, oh yes, culture shock.

It’s inevitable. Maybe not right away, but sooner or later it will happen.

At first, your new surroundings will seem novel, intriguing, and energizing. You will meet people and make new friends. The college or university you are attending is ready and eager to welcome you. You find faculty, administrators, and staff there to help you settle into your living quarters. You learn your way around the campus, and explore the town or city around it. Your fellow students are fun and friendly in helping you get to know American customs. You feel confident you have made a good decision about coming to study in the United States.

Ironically, just when you’re beginning to feel comfortable in your new surroundings and you slip into a good routine, culture shock can hit. The differences between your home and the United States that once seemed so fascinating may become frustrating and distressing. You’ll find there are many differences, large and small: the weather, the systems of measurement, the money, the music, the sports. You realize how much you miss your old friends and family, favorite foods, and familiar customs. Culture shock has struck.

What is culture shock, anyway?

Essentially, it’s a sudden loss of everything familiar, an absence of the usual guideposts we use to orient ourselves in the process of everyday living—and without which the world becomes confusing and difficult.

No two people are likely to experience it in exactly the same way. It can range in intensity from a sense of general uneasiness to mild homesickness to depression, which can manifest itself in physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite, stomachaches, and/or other stress-related difficulties.

But before you start to panic and book a flight home, there are three things to remember about culture shock:

  • First: it’s not unusual. It happens to almost everybody in this sort of situation. You’re not being foolish or silly because you feel this way.
  • Second: it won’t last. The feelings are temporary.
  • Third: you will have people to help you on campus who will offer plenty of support to overcome culture shock when it hits—and to minimize it in the first place.

Help is closer than you think

You have an important first line of defense right on your campus. Most colleges or universities will have people and programs to help you adjust to your new home. In fact, they probably started preparing for your arrival long before the wheels of that airplane hit the runway. International orientation counselors are there to anticipate your needs and provide a variety of campus resources. Don’t hesitate to ask for their help.   

Universities organize comprehensive orientation programs for international students, and participating in them will help you avoid the worst effects of culture shock. David Crisci, who heads the international program at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, says getting off to a good start is key. Crisci meets every new student to make sure he or she is settling into the dorms (where, incidentally, a “welcome basket” of snacks and “school spirit” items is waiting). Then, the students get a chance to rest and adjust to the time change before participating in a special two-day pre-orientation program.

The pre-orientation addresses both practical and social activities. On the practical side are things like making sure documentation is in order; learning about job opportunities on campus if a student needs supplemental funds; understanding what needs to be done to take advantage of such opportunities, such as obtaining a Social Security number, tax information, etc.; and just getting an idea of where facilities are located on campus and in the surrounding community.

Most orientation programs introduce international students to places of worship and even local ethnic food shops. You’ll also learn about student organizations and clubs. Look for the ones that match your interests, whether it’s your academic field, favorite activity (theater, music, sports, etc.), or service opportunity. Joining campus clubs will give you a chance to meet and get to know people with similar interests—a sure way to overcome the loneliness that characterizes culture shock.

Of course, you’re also at university for academic reasons, and you will want to make sure you are connected to campus resources like tutoring, advising, counseling, and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, which can help you hone your speaking, writing, and reading skills. Being comfortable with English is especially important because it both determines your academic success and eases the stresses of assimilation.

Jorge, a student from Colombia, found that applying to an American university was a more complex process than he might have experienced at home. “In America, you must apply as a ‘whole person,’” he says. “Grades are not the only consideration. I liked that.” Jorge wants a degree in aviation management—a field he could not pursue in his native country. Also, he wants the degree in English because he feels it will give him more career options later.

Finally, don’t forget about technology. Cell phones, Skype (a Web-enabled phone service), e-mail, and other new tools help students stay in touch with family on the other side of the world in seconds. Your college or university is likely committed to making that instant communication available and easy for you to access.

The friendship factor

Perhaps the best way to combat culture shock is through the “friendship factor”—the person-to-person relationships you establish. That means finding friends in a widening circle: friends from your own country, friends among other international students, and, of course, American friends.

“One of our first considerations is to help students find contacts from their own nations,” Crisci says. “You can be struck with a feeling of isolation if you feel you’re the only one here from your country . . . the only one speaking your language. Even though you may realize that communicating in English is part of your American experience and you appreciate the immersion that will improve your English skills, it’s still comforting to be able to speak and hear your own language sometimes.”

For Daniel from Ireland, getting his business degree in America provides “career insurance,” he says. English is not a problem for him—except for the slang. American idioms and expressions take some getting used to, he says. Petrol is “gas.” A boot is a car’s “trunk.” Football is “soccer,” while American football is another sport entirely. “But it’s fun,” he says.

Cultivating friendships among other international students is also a good idea. Even if they are from countries other than your own, they still have a lot in common with you. Unquestionably, they will understand what you’re going through, since they are probably experiencing (or have experienced) culture shock in varying degrees as well. They have also likely faced—and perhaps already solved—some of the same logistical problems you’re facing: where to find stores, food, and services in this strange environment you are all encountering together.

Your fellow international students, especially returning students, can often supply valuable information and insights that you probably could not acquire any other way. Ask them what they find helpful, challenging, unusual, and even funny. (Yes, funny, because a sense of humor can help you face culture shock and the problems of living in America all the better.) Finally, ask them how focusing on their career goals puts culture shock in perspective.

Karthika, a graduate student from India who already has an engineering degree, was looking for another professional path and came to American to earn an advanced degree in health services administration because, she says, “I liked the options in this field.” She was pleased that she could already start working in a nearby hospital.

At home in America

Finding and making American friends, in a sense, takes you to the outside rim of that widening friendship circle. When you reach that point, you are that much closer to being truly at home in America, and that’s something college and university administrators love to see.

The truth is Americans are open and friendly people. They are genuinely curious to learn about you, your country, and your customs. They are eager to make friends. Most will go out of their way to help you. “Our students, faculty, administrators, staff—everybody from professors in the classrooms to the servers in the cafeteria to the secretaries in the offices—everybody will extend every effort to make international students welcome,” says Crisci. “It’s really exciting to see the friendships grow and develop. By our Thanksgiving holiday break in November, most international students are going home with their new American friends.

“My office door is always open,” Crisci says. “I’m happy to have our international students come in and to help them with any problem. But I’m even happier when they don’t come any more. That means they don’t need me. They feel at home.”

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