Adapting to New Cultures & Setting Expectations

One of the most important things that a student can do prior to studying abroad experience is to think about your goals. What do you hope to take away from your time abroad? Do you want to become fluent in a language, gain new perspectives on your major or future career, become more prepared to work in a global economy? Clarifying these goals in advance may help you to make more strategic decisions to help you achieve those goals while abroad.

It is important to set realistic expectations for yourself and to consider how compatible your goals are with each other. If you have set goals to become fluent in your host country language and make many friends from the host country, is it realistic to expect that you can achieve this if you travel every weekend to a different country? Students studying in English-speaking countries may not expect to experience language barriers or differences in cultures, which can be jarring when students do encounter these differences.

It can also be helpful to reflect about yourself and your past experiences to help you to have a positive time abroad. How well do you adapt to change or uncertainty? Have you ever traveled independently for an extended period of time? What have you learned about your host country and what do you know about your own country (history, politics, culture, etc.)?

Culture Shock and Homesickness

Culture shock is a normal part of the study abroad experience and most students will experience it to some degree during the time abroad. Culture shock is a term used to describe the disorientation experienced when a person moves to a completely new environment. It can express the feeling of not knowing what is appropriate or the frustration of things being different.

You may experience culture shock at different times during your study abroad experience. The four stages of culture shock include:

The initial euphoria and excitement. In this stage, you feel you can handle anything. Your experience may include:

  • Excitement about new sights and surroundings
  • Tourist-like involvement in the host culture
  • Intrigue with similarities and differences between the new and your home culture
  • Interest in learning, open-mindedness

Irritation or hostility. The novelty has worn off. You may find yourself focusing on:

  • Differences between cultures, stereotyping or prejudices
  • Small issues may feel like major catastrophes
  • Homesickness, stress, frustration, lack of motivation, disengagement

Finding humor and perspective. Your experience may be characterized by:

  • Increased familiarity with the new culture
  • Periodic highs and lows as your gradually adjust
  • The return of your sense of humor

Adaptation. Your experience may be characterized by:

  • Feeling at home in your host country
  • Not negatively affected by the differences between the cultures

Remember that it is normal to feel overwhelmed and frustrated at times during your experience abroad. It is all part of the cultural learning process. Utilize the resources available to you if you need assistance. Counseling services are available to you in English both in your host country in addition to at JHU. International SOS, your international health insurance company, and your program provider can assist you with identifying English speaking physical and mental health resources.