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CGE Storyteller: Kate Henry | Overcoming Culture Shock While Abroad

Because the first weeks of studying abroad are often the hardest, I wanted to use this early post to talk about culture shock. This is often the primary villain in terms of initial discomfort, and it often goes hand-in-hand with homesickness, loneliness, and other unwanted feelings.

During your preparations to go abroad, you will likely see a graph of an upwardly slanting ‘W’ that is used when talking about the timeline of culture shock (See page 14 of Know Before You Go: A Student’s Guide to Going Abroad); it illustrates the highs and lows that most people go through during the first weeks living in a new country. While accurate, the graph doesn’t encompass the complexity of culture shock. 

The first study abroad program I went on to Alicante, Spain, was the first time I had left North America. I’m a Nashville native, so at UT, it was easy to go home if I ever wanted to. This was my first time being separated from Tennessee soil for longer than two weeks. Culture shock hit me early and hard in Spain. It manifested as feelings of intense frustration with my classes, my living situation, and (especially) the heat. I would call my parents and not know what to say, because it’s an extremely complex feeling to describe. I secluded a lot. This went on for about two weeks.

What finally got me out of my funk was having a goal: my Spanish. I was determined, if nothing else, to become fully fluent. I was forced to use Spanish with my host mom, Reyes, who didn’t speak a word of English. I used this as my lifeline during the worst of it. I would sit with Reyes and chat, watch telenovelas with her, and get to know her children and grandchildren who would come over to visit.

Everyone has a different goal when studying abroad. Many of my peers in Alicante used the experience as a jumping-off point for traveling across Europe. In terms of fighting culture shock, it’s important to figure out what your goal is, outside of the classroom. Write it down somewhere. Come back to it when you are feeling lost.

In St. Andrews, I was prepared for the culture shock rollercoaster. My goal this time around has been to make international friends. Even though I am introverted, pushing myself to be social when I feel homesick has been an exceptional medicine against it. In the end, I found that the worst of the shock only lasted a few days. Be expectant of it. Have a goal. In the end, when you get through it, you will find new self-confidence and fearlessness.

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