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Planning a Semester or Year Abroad

Intercultural Transition

Congratulations on your decision to learn and grow by studying abroad! To maximize your study abroad experience, it is valuable to thoughtfully consider and prepare for the challenges of intercultural transition.

Moving to a different culture is truly a major transition. Intercultural specialists have identified stages of personal adjustment that most people who live abroad tend to experience, no matter where they come from or what country they are now living in:

  1. Initial euphoria: New things about the host culture seem intriguing and exciting. Similarities between the sojourner’s home culture and the host culture stand out. Sojourner’s attitude is highly positive, perhaps unrealistically so.
  2. Cultural confrontation: Sojourner’s focus turns to differences, which seem common and troubling. Little difficulties can appear to be major. This stage is characterized by confusion and frustration. Culture shock continuum of responses occurs here. (More on this shortly.)
  3. Gradual adjustment: Sojourner feels more oriented and is better able to interpret cultural cues. The culture seems more familiar and comfortable. Less sense of isolation. Sense of humor returns.
  4. Adaptation and biculturalism: Sojourner can function in two cultures with confidence. Enjoys certain customs, attitudes, and values in the host culture and may miss them upon return home.

As you can see, most people experience some measure of psychological disorientation when they move for an extended period of time to a culture different from their own, especially if their host culture is markedly different.

This disorientation is termed “culture shock.” Culture shock is a normal developmental phase of adjustment to a new cultural environment. It is not a psychological disorder. Culture shock occurs when one’s values and typical ways of viewing the world clash with the values and viewpoints of the new cultural environment.

Culture shock typically builds slowly from a series of smaller events. It comes from experiencing ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing that are quite different from yours. These differences can threaten your basic, unconscious sense that your cultural customs, assumptions, values and behaviors are “right.”

You may also lose many of the ways you orient yourself to daily life, such as when to shake hands and what to say when you meet people, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not to, and many other basic behaviors.

Culture shock is the occupational hazard of living abroad. You have to be willing to go through it to have the pleasure of experiencing another culture in depth. For some students, culture shock is brief and mild; for others it is more significant. It is probably most helpful to think of a continuum of responses ranging from culture surprise to culture shock.

Most students who experience culture shock are still able to function reasonably well and to keep up with the responsibilities of school and everyday life. It is important to be active in coping with culture shock.

If you find that your experience of culture shock is pronounced and does not improve in a few weeks, despite your active efforts, it is important to talk with your program staff about how you can get support to feel better.

You can find excellent information about coping with culture shock in Module 1.7 (Surprises and Shocks) of the University of the Pacific’s On Line Cultural Training Resource for Study Abroad

Re-entry

You need to consider coming home as part of the complete cycle of your study abroad experience. You will have changed and changes will have taken place back home.

You can expect returning home to involve a process of adjustment too. Some students say that the re-entry adjustment process was more challenging than the adjustment to their host country. You can better navigate the process of returning home with some reflection and active strategies.

You will find great resources for dealing with re-entry challenges in Modules 2.1-2.3 of University of the Pacific’s On Line Cultural Training Resource for Study Abroad.

Managing Psychological Stress

There is a set of key behavioral skills that you will need for effective adjustment in another culture: skills for managing stress and anxiety. You will need to manage the stress inherent in living in a new culture and tolerating all the uncertainty and ambiguity involved.

Even if you are a very flexible, adaptable person who has a high tolerance for ambiguity and loves to encounter new situations and people, you are still going to feel stressed at times. It is critical to have strong skills for coping with stress and anxiety.

Take stock of how you currently cope with stress and anxiety. Which of these behaviors are effective and which are not? Are you using any ineffective or destructive strategies? Do you need to learn some new skills or get help to let go of destructive strategies?

If you need to make such changes, consider consulting now with someone in Luther’s Counseling Service or with an off-campus therapist about desired changes in your coping strategies.

Building new skills requires time, energy and practice. It is not something you can do in the last few weeks before you go abroad. The time to start working on this key set of skills is now, so you can make the most of your study abroad experience.

If You Have Had Recent Mental Health Issues

Many college students have dealt with mental health issues at some time in their lives. Many have participated in counseling or taken medication and are now doing quite well. Having these experiences in one’s history certainly does not preclude study abroad.

Study abroad programs cannot bar a student from study abroad simply because of a history of mental health issues or treatment. However, it is important to consider carefully the decision to go abroad if you have recently been dealing with such issues as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, an eating disorder, alcohol or drug abuse, or recovery from sexual assault or other trauma.

The challenges of study abroad are not a cure for these kinds of difficulties and in fact can easily exacerbate them. It is critical that you take stock of whether now is the best time to study abroad or whether you need more time to recover, in order to make the most of your study abroad experience.

Just as you probably would not choose to go abroad if you had just been diagnosed with a significant medical problem that would require more time to treat effectively, it may not be wise to go abroad when you are in the midst of dealing with significant depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. If you are currently experiencing such issues, please take the following steps:

  1. Get as clear an idea as possible about the challenges and stresses you will face in the study abroad program you are considering. Talk to staff in Luther’s Study Abroad Office. Talk to students who have participated in the program. Find out what to expect.
  2. If you have not yet sought counseling for your mental health issues, do so now, either at the Luther Counseling Service or with a therapist in the Decorah community.
  3. If you have been in counseling either at the Counseling Service or elsewhere, talk to your counselor or therapist about your plans to study abroad. Share what you have learned about the nature of your chosen study abroad program and the kinds of challenges you will face. Sort out together whether you are ready to meet those challenges. Discuss what further recovery may be necessary before you are ready to study abroad and how to accomplish that recovery. Consider whether a different study abroad program (a shorter program; a host country that presents fewer language challenges; a location with readily available mental health resources) might be more appropriate at this time. If you go forward with your study abroad plans, discuss how you can be as psychologically healthy as possible while you are abroad.
  4. Discuss with your counselor how you can deal with any increased mental health difficulties you may have while you are abroad. Identify coping strategies and what kind of support you will need and how you can get it.
  5. Disclose any past and current mental health issues on the health forms you complete after acceptance to your program.
  6. Proactively tell staff in the Luther Study Abroad office about your mental health difficulties. Share your thoughts about these difficulties in relation to your plans to study abroad.
  7. Find out about mental health resources where you will be living abroad. Do this whether or not you think you will need to continue with treatment while you are abroad. Talk to Luther’s Study Abroad Office and/or your program representatives. Are there mental health services that will be readily accessible to you? Are these services available in English, if you will not be fluent in the native language? Do you have insurance coverage for mental health services abroad? Will your insurance pay the provider directly or will you need to be prepared to pay for services out-of-pocket.
  8. If you are taking an antidepressant or other medication for a mental health issue, make plans to have an adequate supply of medication with you to last through your time abroad. Do not stop taking your medication just before you leave or while you are abroad. Be sure you can transport your medication with you into the country (some countries restrict what medicines or amounts of medicines you can bring in). Take with you a note from your doctor with the generic name of the medication, the dose, and the reason you take it. Work out with your doctor and insurance company how to get a sufficient supply of medication from your pharmacist.
  9. Talk with your parents about your mental health issues in relation to your desire to study abroad. Share the information you have gathered and the conversations you have had regarding these issues.
  10. Be open about your mental health issues with the program staff who will be with you abroad. They can be a much better resource to you if they are aware.
  11. If you so choose, consult with the Luther Counseling Service or the Luther Disability Services Office about the general process in higher education of establishing a mental health issue as a psychological disability and exploring reasonable accommodations. Ask Luther’s Study Abroad office for more specific information about disability status, reasonable accommodations and your study abroad program. For more information about disabilities and study abroad, consult the Mobility International website. 

The goal of all these recommended steps is to help you make the best possible decision about the timing and nature of a study abroad experience and, when you pursue such an experience, to maximize your learning and growth.

Mental Health Issues or Trauma While Abroad

It is important to be aware of red flags that may signal a mental health or substance abuse issue, whether those occur in yourself or a friend. The Luther College Counseling Service website provides information on such signs and how to help yourself or help a friend who is struggling with various kinds of issues. Click on the following links for more information:

Someone who exhibits the kinds of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings described in these links may well need professional mental health assistance. In some cases, the student may need immediate, emergency assistance, such as when the student is suicidal or has an eating disorder and is exhibiting physical symptoms that constitute a medical emergency (see the preceding links for how to identify situations requiring emergency help).

Students may also experience trauma while abroad. This can occur in various ways, one of which is sexual assault. When you or another student need help with the kinds of situations just outlined, especially emergency help, it is critical that you talk right away with your faculty leader, resident director, program contact person, or someone in the international office at your university about how you can get the help that you or the student of concern needs.