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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.