The Stages of Studying Abroad

Students go through a wide range of emotions once they leave home and begin to adapt to a new location, culture, and possible foreign language.  Every student will experience cross-cultural adjustment differently, have different emotional and physical reactions, and different learning outcomes from their experience. As a parent you can better understand and support your student’s intercultural experience by learning about culture and how it affects our behavior, beliefs, customs, and how we view the world. The following sections provide general information, advice, and resources to help you and your student prepare emotionally for the intercultural learning experience and adjust to life in the new culture.

More Information
1. Preparing to Study Abroad

How to Help Students Help Themselves
Once your student has been accepted to participate in an off-campus program, parents are encouraged to offer emotional support and guidance as your student takes on the responsibility of preparing to study off-campus. Recommend to your student they obtain as much information as they can about their program requirements. Ask your student about required paperwork, health and safety issues, as well as travel arrangements such as visas, payments for the program, and accommodations. Encourage your student to begin to prepare emotionally for their adventure through an awareness of the cross-cultural adjustments that may occur upon arrival in their new community.

Learn About the Host Destination and Stay Informed
Increasing your knowledge about your student’s destination will help answer your questions and address your concerns about their upcoming journey. The CIA World Factbook provides general information about countries around the world including the history, people, government, economy, transportation, political conditions, surrounding area, and foreign and US relations. Guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet, are also a great reference for information on cultural practices. Additional resources, such as online newspapers from the community where your student is studying, are a great way to stay informed about the current events in their host destination.
Suggestions Include:

  • World Travel Tips, http://www.worldtraveltips.net
  • CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
  • Lonely Planet Guidebooks, http://www.lonelyplanet.com/
  • Let’s Go Guidebooks, http://www.letsgo.com/
  • Rough Guide, http://www.roughguides.com

Culture Shock
Traveling and living in a different culture requires adjustment and adaptation. As students integrate into a new and unfamiliar culture they will likely experience some degree of culture shock. Culture shock is natural reaction to spending an extended period of time in a culture very different from your own, and the struggle to become competent in a new environment in which the rules, behaviors, food, language, and systems are all different from home. Normal feelings associated with culture shock include frustration, a sense of helplessness, confusion, homesickness, and depression. Culture shock is often described as an adjustment cycle, with an initial high point upon entry, a low point or the culture shock phase, and a high point near the end of the experience as the student learns to function successfully in their new environment. The process of going through culture shock is a powerful learning tool as students work through the challenges and emotions of cultural adjustment. Moving through the stages of cultural adjustment is a time of tremendous personal and academic growth in which students develop psychologically and socially. It is important to be aware that culture shock is not limited to travel abroad experiences.  Students can experience culture shock throughout their lives, including when they begin a new career, get married, and live with new roommates.

The encouragement and support of family is a powerful tool throughout the adjustment process. The following is a description of the stages of cultural adjustment individuals experience when they enter a new environment. This information will help you recognize the stages of adjustment as well as how to support your student. Most often when a student is experiencing culture shock, no intervention is needed, with time and support, it can become a positive developmental experience. 

2. Stages of Adjustment

(Adapted from Robert L. Kohls, Survival Kit for Overseas Living, chapter on “Culture Shock: Occupational Hazard of Overseas Living”)

What are the stages of cultural adjustment?

1. Arrival/Honeymoon Phase
Upon safe arrival in the new culture the initial pre-departure panic is over. During this phase the new culture is exhilarating and stimulating. There is an eagerness to immerse oneself in the new culture. Similarities between one’s own culture and the new culture are noticed and the differences between the two cultures are minimized. The honeymoon phase is usually brief, but it may last for a month or more.

Suggestions for support: Ask your student specific questions about the new environment, culture, and people in order to clarify what the student is experiencing. It is a good idea to remember the student’s exciting stories when times become more challenging. Remind your student to take time to monitor their physical and mental state as they adapt to the new environment. Also remember your student may not contact home immediately as they are busy getting involved with activities in their new environment, or it may be difficult to access a phone or computer.

2. Irritability and Hostility
During this stage the initial excitement passes as the deeper differences between the new location and home culture are noticed. The frustration of working through everyday issues requiring a solution that is different from the one that worked back home is draining. There may be dislike of the food or struggle understanding the language. It is common to feel like an outsider and isolated. Enthusiasm has drifted away and emotions such as irritability and hostility may arise.

Suggestions for support: It is not uncommon for students to contact home when things are not going well and they are frustrated with the new culture, people, and program. It is important to be supportive, patient, and a good listener. Show support for their new experiences and empathy for difficult challenges. Encourage your student to allow time to become accustomed to the cultural differences and remind them of the stages of cultural adjustment to help validate their feelings and experiences. Recommend participation in community events or involvement in activities unique to their host community. Suggest to your student they record thoughts, experiences, and frustrations in a journal as well as discuss their feelings with an on-site staff member.

3. Gradual Adjustment
When language ability is increased as well as the ability to solve many of the problems that have caused frustration in the early stages, there is a sense of achievement. The initial struggles will disappear with time and a stage of gradual adjustment is experienced. It will become easier to function within the culture - things that seemed strange previously will become familiar. A sense of humor will return along with an increase in confidence.

Suggestions for support: Listen to your student’s stories with interest and congratulate him or her for adapting to new surroundings. Encourage your student to continue to write down experiences and feelings in a journal. Writing about experiences is a useful tool to increase understanding of what is happening as well as the feelings taking place. Journal entries also provide a means of documenting experiences and learning.

4. Adaptation
During this stage there is an understanding and an appreciation of the norms and values of the local culture as well as a better understanding of oneself and one’s personal cultural identity.

3. Re-entry Adjustment and Reverse Culture Shock

Students often go through a phase of “reverse” or “re-entry” culture shock when they return home. This experience differs for every person and can be more challenging than the transition into the new culture.  Students have adapted to a different way of life and may find it difficult to fit back into their former social roles. Their home social network may be unprepared for the changes in the student’s values, attitudes, and lifestyle.  The adjustment back into the home culture is often unexpected and frequently more difficult than the adjustment to the foreign culture.

Suggestions for support: Support your student and encourage integration of their off-campus experience into current activities and future goals. Listen to your student’s stories and ask questions about their experiences. Help your student adjust by encouraging them to think through the many ways in which they have changed as a result of their experiences.

Additional suggestions for your student upon re-entry:

  • Become active in international organizations on-campus
  • Tutor students using the language skills that have been developed
  • Keep up with international news
  • Get involved in community service or internship program
  • Participate in other off-campus study program
4. Suggested Readings

Suggested readings prior to your student’s departure:

  • “Before They Go Abroad.” James McCommons. Better Homes and Gardens magazine, August 2006. Click HERE to read an excerpt.
  • Surviving Re-entry: A Readjustment Manual for Parents (Courtesy of SIT Study Abroad). Click HERE to read and excerpt.
  • “Advice for Parents: Frequently Asked Questions.” Bill Hoffa. Safety Abroad First – Educational Travel Information online newsletter. Click HERE.


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