Study Abroad

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Author: Katherine Young

You’ve decided to study abroad – what to be aware of as you head off

As with the last post,  I want to straight away acknowledge that your choice to study abroad right now was likely a complicated one. Given the pandemic, you probably had to wait to confirm which programs were being offered, whether your family supported your desire to go abroad, and of course, most significantly, whether you wanted to seek out a new country and culture yourself at this time.

If you are reading this, then I’m guessing you have made the choice (or are considering it down the road). Firstly, congratulations – within the provocative, challenging, and exhilarating experience of university, you are stretching yourself even further. This is tremendous! When faced with differences in the form of culture, language, traditions, ways of being – we often gain deep insight into ourselves in addition to expanding our understanding and vision of the world. Your time abroad may well turn out to be one of those pivotal periods in life that opens you into different ways of seeing the world and yourself in it.

Just like when you headed off to uni, studying abroad is exciting and exhilarating AND you may experience some bumpy periods as you acclimate. Here is a framework to help you think specifically about your adjustment to the new culture you are moving towards.

There are three phases to this cultural adjustment process that I want to tell you about. The word phase makes it sound like you pass through one to get to the other in a linear orderly manner. It’s much more unique than that though. Hopefully, these phases will be both a roadmap to what you might experience and serve as a relief knowing that each of the phases is both likely and normal.  Keep this in mind as you pack and get ready to head off.

Most people, upon arrival, enter the honeymoon phase of cultural adjustment. Think about it. After so much time imagining and planning, you’ve set foot on foreign soil. There may be even greater anticipation this year given the cancellation of many study abroad programs last year. Perhaps you even deferred your plans last year. So, after the effort and determination to go abroad, now you are walking the streets, hearing the language around you, sampling local foods, and orienting yourself to a new city. In the honeymoon period, everything feels good; everything is exciting, and new, and you’re fascinated and delighted by all that you experience. As you look out at the world and take in what you see, it’s as if the colors are more intense. This feels like the greatest thing you’ve ever done, a real adventure that is going to provide substance and depth to you and your life. This exhilaration and sweetened sense of things could last for days or weeks, or even longer. Honestly, for a few, it might even last the entire time you are away.

Usually, for most, at some point the honeymoon period gives way to the frustration phase (also known as the “oh shit” phase). You wake up one morning, and something feels different. Or perhaps you misunderstand some communication from someone and a little voice inside you chimes in that you don’t actually understand anything about this language you are studying, despite all your efforts. This is a difficult stage of culture adjustment. You may feel like you don’t fit in, or that everyone’s talking about you. Perhaps you offend someone but don’t understand why. You may begin to feel irritated by the very things that you came to this country to experience and learn more about. This irritation leads to a sense of being stuck and maybe homesickness. There are a number of behaviors that could indicate you are in the frustration phase – see the tip sheet for more info – but for now, recognize that in this phase, as you look out at this new world you are in, things feel more dull, and in fact, they may seem downright annoying.  In this phase, you focus on all the rubbish on the street rather than the exquisite architecture that had your attention before. The man at the local market seems annoying when he strikes up conversation rather than before when it seemed like a chance to connect with someone local. Again, for now, simply be aware that there will likely be a shift from the highs and excitement of the honeymoon period to the bumpy questioning and oh shit, what have I done of the frustration period.

You will find a middle ground and settle into what is known as acceptance, the third phase. At this point, things are neither all good nor all bad. You have settled into the new culture to the degree that you can both appreciate much about it and also see the challenges the country faces (just as all do) . It’s a more realistic and settled place.

Adjusting to a new culture is not linear. Rather it is a continuous process. You may cycle through some of the reactions detailed above numerous times in a day, or you might be full into the joyful honeymoon for a while, and then spend equal time in the frustration phase before things level out into acceptance.

Our focus at mindhamok is supporting you, more specifically supporting you in thinking about how you create your own “hamok” for yourself on this new adventure abroad. Here are 3 rememberings that can create a smoother journey.

  1. Remember to….reassure yourself that these phases are normal, healthy and expected reactions that can happen to many of us when we’re in a new and different cultural context. It’s normal and it will pass as you pass through to the next phase.
  2. Remember that… it’s not a sign of weakness to feel uncomfortable or confused – it’s perfectly normal
  3. Remember that…adjusting is hard work. Try to view it as a challenge not a threat. Don’t expect things to all fall into place immediately. It will take time to settle and find your rhythm and routines.

For more practicalities, both on how to identify the frustration phase and tips on how to support yourself in the midst of your adjustment, see our tip sheet.

We here at mindhamok are with you on your journey, supporting you as you cultivate your own unique “hamok” of well-being and growth on your study abroad experience. Put your mind in a hammock with us.

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Study Abroad

Studying abroad may well turn out to be one of those pivotal periods in life that opens you into different ways of seeing the world and yourself in it. And it has its challenges. Familiarize yourself here with the phases of cultural adjustment, a framework to help you think specifically about your adjustment to the new culture you are moving towards.