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Culture Shock

After the excitement and adventures of the first few weeks settles, it’s not uncommon for students to experience a temporary period of adjustment. The best things family members and others can do is to offer support and reassurance.

It’s a fact that many students—regardless of maturity, disposition, previous experience abroad, or knowledge of the country in which they will be living—experience some degree of culture shock while studying abroad. This feeling of being lonely and overwhelmed in a new culture is both a normal and predictable experience.

You should not be overly concerned by this initial wave of negativity or unhappiness, as almost all students experience some form of culture shock during an education abroad experience. Fortunately, most students adapt quite successfully, become more independent, learn a great deal about themselves and another culture, and thrive like never before. Of course, if your student’s experience is concerning or prolonged, please contact the Programs Abroad Office at volsabroad@utk.edu or 865-974-3177.

Understanding Culture Shock

In order to best support your student, it’s important to understand this phenomenon and how to overcome it. Culture shock is often described in terms of the phases that are most frequently experienced. However, the length and severity of each phase can vary considerably.

  1. Honeymoon Phase—Occurs after initial arrival in host country, up to one month; excitement and anticipation for the experience are dominant feelings.
  2. Frustration/Distress Phase—Occurs weeks to months into trip; feelings of anxiety, homesickness, and frustration with cultural differences set in; length of stage varies.
  3. Negotiation/Adjustment Phase—Most often occurs during middle of stay as individual develops strategies to cope with difficulties and learns to adapt to host culture; length of stage varies.
  4. Acclimation/Adaptation/Biculturalism Phase—Typically occurs toward the end of the study abroad experience; individual feels comfortable in host culture and has been able to integrate new experiences with pre-study abroad life; feeling of host country as “home.”
  5. Reverse Culture Shock Phase—Occurs upon return to country of origin; period of readjustment to life at home as individual may struggle to integrate life abroad with return to home culture and reconnect with family and friends.

Assisting with Cultural Adjustment

How can you help your student? Here are a few tips:

  • Be prepared to hear some stories of frustration, and keep in mind that your student may be just looking for an understanding ear rather than asking you to solve the problem.
  • Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for students to call or email home during moments of low morale but not when they are busy and things are going well. Consequently, families often picture a more negative situation than actually exists.
  • Read about your student’s host country to learn about the politics, economics, and social norms. A good resource is CIA World Factbook. Referencing these sources may provide your student with helpful information and help you better understand your student’s experience.
  • Encourage your student to reach out to the host institution/provider coordinator or the program leader for suggestions or assistance with adjusting. In addition to being in the country with your student, this person is also likely to be knowledge about other available resources.
  • Be prepared for your student to return home somewhat changed by the study abroad experience. Your student may be homesick for host country foods or friends, and may express frustration about returning home. Providing support, interest, and understanding will help with your student’s readjustment.

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