Culture Shock When Studying Abroad – A Story Not So Rare

Language barriers, foreign customs, and homesickness are the biggest reasons international students suffer from eating disorders and insomnia and feel empty and helpless when they arrive in a foreign country. This phenomenon is not uncommon and has been named “culture shock.”

Learn about this phenomenon with Everest Education and College Compass and learn how to deal with it!


1. What is culture shock?

Culture shock is the feeling of uncertainty, confusion or anxiety when moving to a new country, experiencing a new culture or environment. This situation often happens with international students studying abroad away from home, having to reacquaint themselves with a new environment without family and friends by their side. However, culture shock doesn’t just happen when we go to a foreign land. In some cases, when we have adapted to a new culture, we may experience “reverse” culture shock when we return to our home country.

While the adjustment process can vary from person to person, most people go through stages before adjusting to a new environment. Culture shock can be stressful for new students and lead to anxiety, but it’s entirely possible to overcome it and thrive.

2. Stages of culture shock and what to do next

Culture shock is often broken down into four stages: the honeymoon phase, disappointment, adaptation, and acceptance. Some people may not go through all four stages, or one phase may last throughout the learning process. If you are able to identify the characteristics of these timelines, you are in for a happier and more wonderful study abroad experience.

Honeymoon period

The first stage is often referred to as the honeymoon phase. This stage can last from when you first set foot in a new land to about a few months later. This may be the time before the semester starts for international university students, so you are not too busy with school and homework. This is the time you should take advantage of exploring the campus and making new friends and relationships, ready to experience and explore to make good memories.

If students are only studying abroad for a short time, this initial excitement can represent the whole time studying here. Usually, after about half a year, the excitement will fade as you get used to the environment and lose the inspiration to explore.

Disappointment period

The honeymoon period is usually followed by disillusionment. Students can become increasingly irritable and disoriented as the initial joy in a new environment wears off. Especially if there is a language barrier, this is the time when we will feel the most inhibited because we can no longer patiently explain what we want to say. The inability to communicate effectively makes it difficult for students to open up, study or have fun with native friends.

Some of the signs of this stage may include frustration, irritability, homesickness, depression, fatigue. Prolonged negative emotions lead to limiting social interaction and participation in surrounding activities. Some people may suffer from eating and sleeping disorders during this period and always entertain the thought of returning home soon. Without timely help, frustration and loneliness can lead to depression for international students.

A simple and effective way to relieve homesickness is finding things that connect you to your hometown. A hot bowl of pho, a facetime call at the family dinner table, or a chat with friends can help warm you up. But if you are still not feeling well and your symptoms are severe, you can seek professional help in psychology.

This is the best time to seek help in the student psychology department that nearly all American universities have. Typically, Harvard University has a portal and hotline for any student who needs emotional support. Some schools like the University of California even have psychologists on campus, always ready to take appointments.

Adaptation phase

The adaptation phase usually takes place after about a year, when students feel more familiar with their new surroundings. Feelings from the frustration phase begin to subside as the language barrier is lowered and adaptation increases. Students are also culturally familiar with the local lifestyle, transportation and food, making life easier.

Acceptance stage

Obstacles and misunderstandings from the frustration period are often resolved, allowing students to become more relaxed and happy. Most people go through development and can change their old behavior and adopt behavior from the new culture.

There are a few ways that can help you navigate culture shock more efficiently, prolong the honeymoon phase, and gently transition into acceptance, for example:

  • Keep an open mind to learn about a new country or culture, learn the reasons for cultural differences and customs to empathize easily
  • Refrain from indulging in thoughts of home, constantly comparing it to your new surroundings.
  • Keep a journal about your experience, including the positive and negative aspects of the new culture. This will help you see how your feelings progress over time so you don’t get overwhelmed by temporary emotions when making big decisions.
  • Don’t limit yourself to campus or school activities, be active and socialize with locals.
  • Respect your feelings about feeling lost and confused, and don’t be afraid to seek advice and help when needed.

How to deal with Culture Shock – and what we can do to help you.
Listen to Tony – Chairman and Co-founder of Everest Education, and College Compass – in this video below.

College Compass is a college admission consulting program by Everest Education. We offer strategic solutions to help aspiring high school students (Grade 9-12) and gap year students get into the best universities and colleges in the world. 

Our program is led by experienced admissions counselors/coaches who graduated from top US universities (Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UPenn…) and thoroughly understand the US education system. Our students have been accepted to many top universities globally, including Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, Duke, Williams, Amherst… 

We offer you a personalized pathway and strategies, including school selection, standardized testing, extracurricular activity guidance, essay writing, scholarship applications, etc. No matter which phase you are in, we offer a tailored package to your age, preferences and study goals to help you achieve your dreams.

>> Learn more about College Compass here

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