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How to Deal with Culture Shock: A Guide for International Students

culture shock
campus life
By Matt Killorin
Last updated on October 1, 2021

Do not let culture shock stand in the way of your international student experience.

Man and a surpirsed-looking woman eating snacks sitting on an outside bench.

Culture shock is often described as feeling disoriented, confused, or anxious in an unfamiliar place that has customs different from your own. 

International students often feel culture shock when they experience something new or extraordinary, such as seeing how large the cars are in America or being served a big plate of food at an American restaurant for the first time. 

When I first came to America [from China], it was hard for me to understand that Americans drink ice water all year round. I can’t understand why drinking ice water all year round doesn’t make you cold.” – Jessica, Auburn Global

While most feelings of culture shock do not last very long, in some cases, culture shock can lead to loneliness, homesickness, or even depression. So, if you are struggling with culture shock while studying in the USA, it is important to remember that there are gradual adjustment strategies to try and resources available if you need help finding your place. 

Learn more about your feelings, find tips for coping, and know where to get help by reading our guide to dealing with culture shock for international students.

What Is Culture Shock?

At first, the idea of studying abroad in the USA is an exciting adventure, especially when you are still planning where and what to study. But after arriving on campus, many international students have a period of culture adjustment that challenges them and forces them to grow. Sometimes, that is not easy. 

“The hardest thing was pushing myself to figure things out on my own. When I lived with my parents, I had the same set of problems, but I usually relied on them to assist me,” said Chau, a University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Global student from Vietnam. “If I had to go somewhere, they would drive me. If I forgot something, they would get it to me … The hardest thing for me was realizing that I am capable of handling my problems and that I just really have to get over myself in order to help myself.”

Cultural shock that foreign students face can happen in different ways: Many international students struggle with the responsibilities that come with independence, especially in a different country. Other students have problems answering difficult questions in English during class or are not used to group work with vocal classmates. Some international students cannot find food they like or are afraid of saying the wrong thing to their classmates. 

For many students, culture shock describes the anxiety they experience when everything is new and different. Dealing with culture shock starts with being aware of how it makes you feel.  

Here Are Some Common Symptoms of Culture Shock: 

  • Always needing help

  • Homesickness that does not go away

  • Always preferring to be alone

  • Feeling lost

  • Sleeping and eating disorders

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Anger toward Americans

International students can feel culture shock in many different situations when they first arrive in the US. Jasmine, an Indian 2016 graduate of Florida International University (FIU), said at first “there was an explosion of questions … I was lost.” Then she found her community through the FIU Career Accelerator Program, which also helped her meet her career goals. “It helped me in developing my professional skills, like working on my resume, cover letters, elevator speeches, [and] personal branding,” she said.  

In addition to remembering your goals and knowing that you are not alone, it is important to understand the symptoms and stages of culture shock, so it does not lead to more serious problems, such as depression or addiction. The more you understand your feelings, the better prepared you are to get through the culture shock symptoms. 

What Are the Stages of Culture Shock?

In 1954, Kalervo Oberg, a Canadian anthropologist, first defined the term “culture shock.” Here are its four phases and how each may impact international students:

  1. Honeymoon phase: Everything is still new and exciting. International students feel enthusiastic and pay little or no attention to their negative emotions.

  2. Crisis phase: All this newness starts to feel overwhelming. International students feel like they may never fit in.

  3. Recovery phase: After meeting a few people, settling into classes, and creating a routine, international students start to feel better.

  4. Adjustment phase: In this stage, international students begin to understand and accept the cultural differences they are experiencing, and things start to feel normal.

Remember, these are phases and one might not lead to the next. For many international students, it may take a few crisis phases before reaching the adjustment phase. 

To understand why you are feeling culture shock, it is helpful to consider where and when its symptoms can affect you and the helpful strategies you can try. 

Where Do International Students Feel Culture Shock in the US?

International students can feel culture shock at school or with friends. You may feel it in a conference with a teacher’s assistant, or speaking with a cashier at the supermarket. 

Culture Shock in the Classroom

Experiencing culture shock in the classroom can be harder to manage because there is the added stress of getting good grades. When how well you do academically depends on your ability to speak English or adapt to a different style of learning, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. 

In my country [Vietnam], I am used to having a class where your grade is your grade and it cannot be negotiated.” – Chau, University of Illinois at Chicago

“At first, I thought it was disrespectful to the professor to question their grading, but I soon realized that it is actually a fair way for students and professors to be on the same page when it comes to grades,” Chau said. “The relationship between students and staff in US colleges is much more personal than in my country.”

Here are some classroom situations that may trigger culture shock for international students:

  • Openly discussing your grade on a big test when other students think that it is personal information

  • Feeling nervous about your ability to communicate in English, but having an important question to ask your professor during office hours 

  • Taking a discussion-based class after only experiencing lecture-based classes in your home country 

Social Culture Shock

Many international students report feeling OK with the occasional embarrassing mistake at a restaurant or convenience store, but start to feel the symptoms of culture shock when they often face uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations on a regular basis. 

“Americans are very vocal about everything,” said Chau. “I had a hard time adapting because sometimes I do not speak up about how I feel … I started dealing with it by preparing what I could possibly ask before I attend any sort of organization meeting or class. Soon I was able to reflect my thoughts in real-time … and develop my own opinions about many issues.”

Here are some social situations that may trigger feelings of culture shock: 

  • Getting places without a car 

  • Finding your way around a giant American supermarket

  • Knowing when and how much to tip

“It’s hard for me to get used to the fact that many banks and offices are closed on weekends,” said Jessica from Auburn Global. “This is sometimes inconvenient for me, and sometimes I don’t have time to deal with things during the working day.”

Getting adjusted to social customs is just one part of adapting to life in America. If you are planning to get an internship when you are studying in the USA, there is also the possibility for culture shock at work, too.

Professional Culture Shock

Understanding behavioral cues and speaking proper English at your internship or job can have higher stakes because you are in the workplace. Now, you have to understand company culture as well as country culture, which may be very different. 

Here are some professional scenarios that may trigger culture shock in international students

  • Knowing the professional dress code is different from back home 

  • Communicating in English via email 

  • Working with different types of people 

If you have questions about the workplace culture or customs, you can speak with your supervisor or go to the company’s human resources department for advice. They can serve as your guides as you learn what is appropriate at your co-op or internship.

No matter the situation causing culture shock, there are many strategies international students can use to help them feel better and get over culture shock. 

How Can I Deal With Culture Shock?

First, remind yourself that it is perfectly normal to experience culture shock. Just about everyone who moves somewhere new feels a little out of place, and it does not matter how old they are or what country they call home. If you are having trouble adjusting, here are some tips for adapting to a new culture: 

Stay Positive

Step back and remember why you came to the US to study and all the hard work you put into getting here. Filling out the school paperwork, completing your visa requirements, and figuring out travel logistics takes a lot of effort and determination. Be proud of yourself for making it happen. Take a moment and remember that you got through the application process, and you can do this, too.

Tip: If you find yourself feeling sad, sign up for some non-academic activities that look fun, or go to the gym and exercise. Self-care is important, and exercise or physical activity can help improve your mood. As a bonus, any activity that makes you feel connected to your new home—like joining a soccer club or visiting a museum—will help you in the long run.

Remember, Culture Shock Passes

Most cases of American culture shock for international students go away within a few months. It may not take very long for you to find your way around the dining hall, discover a good place for tea or coffee, or even begin to build lifelong friendships. You may feel lost at first, but each new experience is a gradual adjustment.

Tip: Make a game out of your experience by setting daily or weekly goals. Try new foods, learn new expressions, explore the neighborhoods and attractions near your university. Make a list and check things off. If you focus on what is in front of you, you will have less time to focus on your feelings of homesickness or isolation.

Be Social 

Things will get easier. Many international students look for other students from home when studying abroad, and this can be a good strategy when you first arrive. But do not stop there. American friends will answer your questions, help you get through social situations in real time, and explain things that may be unfamiliar to you. 

“I think I am able to handle living alone in a different country because I surround myself with supportive friends that I consider my second family,” said Chau. “They are the friends who go grocery shopping with me, cook with me, pull an all-nighter with me, laugh with me, and cry with me. Without the support of my friends and my effort to reach out, I wouldn’t have [been] able to handle this.”

In addition to American friends, other international students from different home countries will help you expand your cultural understanding, and they can relate to many of the culture shock-related feelings you have.

Tip: American students are nervous, too! Do not be afraid to take the first step and reach out to a classmate or someone in your dorm. 

Understand Your Academic Requirements and Know Where to Turn for Help

Schedule a meeting with your professor to get answers to any questions you may have and to discuss any issues or language barriers that make you feel self-conscious. Make sure you completely understand what is being asked of you in each class, so there are no surprises when big papers are due or when it is time for final exams.

Tip: Know how to find the academic counselors’ offices, and when study group sessions are held. If you think you may need a tutor for English or any other subject, start looking for someone on campus. The sooner you start, the less anxiety you will feel.

Know Yourself and Give Yourself a Break

It is important to recognize that you are on a life-changing path as an international student. Try to take in change at a pace you can handle, so you do not lose your sense of identity. 

On the flip side, it is OK to feel homesick. After all, learning to deal with being away is part of the study-abroad experience. Do not feel embarrassed because you want to Skype with your parents or chat with friends back home. And finally, do not compare yourself to other international students when it comes to how long it takes to feel settled. Everyone has a different situation, and everyone learns at their own pace. Adjusting well is not a competition.

Tip: It is hard to maintain a balance between who you were back home and who you are at school, but it is important to try. Stick to a schedule when calling or Skyping home. Come up with strategies to get you through the tough times, like watching a movie to take your mind off your homesickness.

When to Ask for Help

If you are really struggling to overcome culture shock, you may be experiencing something more serious. Feelings of depression, overwhelming homesickness, or engaging in risky behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse are signs that it is time to reach out for help. Your Shorelight student advisors, international student services departments, peer mentors, and campus mental health workers are all here to get you through what you are feeling. 

Schedule an appointment to go and speak with an advisor you trust. Sometimes just having someone to talk to can make a world of difference. 

Remember, for the vast majority of international students, culture shock is normal and you will adjust. Keep an open mind, try new things, and your culture shock will pass, just like it has for thousands of other students like you.

Learn how Shorelight can make the transition to life on campus easy for international students >