Studying abroad can be an exciting time for students.  Intercultural experiences are exciting, sometimes frightening, transformative, and often life-changing.  You are now living in a new culture, with norms that are entirely different from what you’re used to at home. Maybe gender roles are different in your new culture, or food, or transportation, or you miss being away from your family (and possibly adapting to a new host family).  You’re also studying and learning a new subject, in a place that is probably integral to that subject! But you’ve got all kinds of feelings about cultural differences and adapting to living in this new country.

My students ponder Raphael at the Vatican
My students ponder Raphael at the Vatican

A natural response to these cross-cultural differences is termed cross-cultural adjustment (also known as culture learning or culture shock). Cross-cultural adjustment encompasses both learning about your new culture, and of learning your home culture in a new way. Things that seemed normal at home can take on a greater importance when you are in a new culture.  You miss your friends and family at home, and homesickness can set in.

Before leaving, predeparture orientation and language programs can be an extremely important tool for preparing students for an intercultural experience. The orientations can provide both culture-specific knowledge, as well as culture-general knowledge that serves to educate learners about cross-cultural issues and generally reduce uncertainty about the upcoming intercultural experience. You can prepare by learning the language, exploring your new home through travel guides and the internet, and finding new friends overseas before you go. However, what a student brings into the experience can affect their time studying abroad and intercultural adjustment.  Being flexible, open-minded, eager to learn, self-aware, curious, and possessing communication skills can do much to facilitate a great intercultural experience.

Once you’re there, one of the best ways to both adapt to a new culture and push through homesickness is to immerse yourself into your new culture. Learning another culture is a long and complex process, requiring a constant shifting of one’s frames of reference and learning from one’s companions and surroundings.  Learn more about where you are. Experience more of the culture – through restaurants, language, new friends, art, music, and time spent enjoying important attractions or parks.  You’ll become more excited about your new home and eager to share it with your loved ones.

The nature of life for an intercultural being is joyful – but also difficult at times. You must challenge yourself to grow, experience new things, travel, and continue to learn. Once you’ve started down that path, it is impossible to reverse course. But once you’ve started down that path, you also won’t want to. Curiosity and the desire to learn about others – people, cultures, languages, food, differences – is now within your very self.

Jessie Voigts has a PhD in international education and is the Publisher of Wandering Educators.

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