As students and travelers, we’ve all been there — dreading the moment when class would end and we’d have to go back to our host family’s house where nothing (absolutely nothing) was comforting or even familiar, spending hours on long-distance phone calls with our moms/dads/friends/boyfriends/girlfriends back home, crying because the internet disconnected us from our “normal” lives for even an hour, or even feeling that everything in our host country is amazing and that we never want to return home ever again. Coping with these conflicting feelings are often what draw many of us to the field of international education to begin with. But what do we do when we’re on the other side of culture shock? What happens when, instead of being the student experiencing the host culture for the first time, we find ourselves in the role of administrator or faculty member? What do we do when we receive that late-night phone call or e-mail from a student who wants to be on the first flight home? Here are five ways I’ve found success in helping students work through the hard stages of culture shock and get the most out of their time abroad:
1. Help students plan ahead
Planning ahead is a big part of helping students deal with culture shock. If students don’t know what culture shock is before arriving in a foreign country, they may be blindsided by the unfamiliar outpouring of feelings and emotions. Talking about culture shock at a pre-departure meeting can help students understand what they’re going through even if it doesn’t make them feel any better. Talking candidly with students about the stages of culture shock (see, for example, Butler University’s webpage about cultural and academic adjustment) is a good first-step to helping students deal with culture shock
2. Encourage students to keep a journal
Encouraging students to keep a journal about their experience abroad is another way that we can help students deal with culture shock. Just as writing about a problem may help us work through it in our home environment, so can keeping a journal help students work through culture shock in the abroad environment. Pre-departure, students may want to list concrete goals for their abroad experience in their journals for reference and re-evaluation when the going gets tough later on. As students experience culture shock, referring back to the stages of culture shock to see where they are, how far they’ve come, and what stage they may experience next, may be fruitful avenues for journal entries.
3. Provide students with suggestions and opportunities to stay active
Participating in cultural experiences, joining a club or team, or even just going for a walk or a bike ride can help students deal with the cultural adjustments they experience while abroad. As a faculty member, this coping strategy may mean that we have to do a bit of extra leg-work for our students, such as helping them find a place to rent a bike or providing them with ideas for activities to do after classes are over. Boredom in the form of a lack of familiar entertainment possibilities is often the root cause of the most difficult culture shock experiences.
4. Be available to talk
Students will often need a safe space to talk about their experiences with culture shock while abroad, and faculty members may be seen as an experienced and sympathetic set of ears. Making yourself available to students is a huge factor in this regard — whether through official office hours or sticking around for lunch after class, students will need to see you and know that you are available outside of official program hours.
5. Help students utilize resources effectively
Luckily, we’re not our students’ only resources for coping with culture shock in the study abroad environment, but we may have to help students connect with other available resources. Students’ host families often have experience hosting foreign students, and may be more understanding of students’ experiences than students themselves realize. Faculty members may facilitate this connection via a phone call to the host family or on-site coordinator, or may suggest that students talk to their host families in their culture shock experience. Likewise, students themselves can form a positive support group for their classmates and fellow program participants. After all, who best understands how students are experiencing culture shock than other students in the same uncomfortable study abroad situation? Faculty members and administrators may facilitate students working together to talk about culture shock by organizing small group meetings or support groups.
Helping our students work through the cultural adjustment challenges of studying abroad is essential to the success of our study abroad programs, and leads to a more enriching abroad experience for all parties involved. What strategies have you used to help students deal with culture shock and get the most out of their study abroad experience?
Written by Melissa Whatley
Faculty and administrators may wish to consult Maximizing Study Abroad by R. Michael Paige, Andrew D. Cohen, Barbara Kappler, Julie C. Chi, and James P. Lassegard, for more in-depth information about culture shock and the emotions students may experience while studying abroad in addition to strategies they may use to work through these emotions to get the most out of the study abroad experience.