Thursday, May 24, 2012

Study Abroad Programs: Adjusting to a New Culture When Studying Abroad

If you are planning to study abroad in the near future, either for a semester or full academic year, you are probably experiencing a variety of emotions, ranging from excitement and anticipation to trepidation and even a bit of fear.  These are all perfectly normal feelings, and as anyone who has ever studied abroad will tell you, adjusting to a new way of life in another country will certainly have its ups and downs. 

According to experts in the field of cultural identity and adjustment, transitioning into a new culture can be one of the most difficult parts of study abroad programs.  The reasons for this are many, but perhaps the largest obstacle people face is their own cultural perspective.  Think of it like this:  For your entire life you have been surrounded by elements of a single country’s culture, your own, including all the traditions, customs, language and cuisine.  But now, as an upcoming participant in one of the many study abroad programs, you are about to be “thrown in” to another way of life, with different people, places, attitudes and perspectives.  This is bound to cause some internal conflicts.  However, by learning to recognize the various stages associated with cultural adjustment, you will be better equipped to overcome these conflicts as they arise. 

There are essentially four stages of cultural adjustment that many students will pass through when participating in study abroad programs, albeit not necessarily in the same order presented below: bummer

·         “Flying High” or Fascination Stage.  Most participants in study abroad programs arrive in their host country with a feeling of excitement, anticipation and adventure.  They are spellbound by the newness of the experience and they can’t wait to see what’s around every corner.  Food tastes delicious, people seem friendly and the novelty of the experience makes them wonder why they didn’t try this sooner.

·         Let-Down or Discouragement Stage.  Once the novelty wears off, many students in study abroad programs are faced with the reality of trying to fit into a culture that’s very different from their own.  They may face obstacles in their studies; have awkward interactions with the locals; and/or struggle with the new language, complete with all of its colloquialisms.   They judge everything they see and every person they meet in terms of how very “different” they are, and naturally, a feeling of discouragement and homesickness usually creeps in.  This stage can be a difficult one to maneuver, but if you find yourself feeling let-down or “bummed out,” it’s important that you remain positive and keep an open mind, because the very best part of your study abroad program is yet to come.

·         The “Ah-Hah” or Transitional Stage.  As time goes on during the course of study abroad programs, most students acquire a stronger command of the language and a deeper appreciation of the culture.  Instead of comparing things to their homeland, they essentially wake up to the beauty of the experience and begin to examine the cultural differences for what they are, as well as the attitudes and behaviors of the people.  Instead of being discouraged they begin to relish the experience as one that is broadening their cultural horizons.

·         The Assimilation or “I Finally Fit In” Stage.  With a renewed appreciation for the opportunities and adventures afforded them by study abroad programs, most participants will gradually begin to feel as if they are assimilating or blending in with the people and culture, rather than feeling like a square peg in a round hole.  New language skills are mastered, helping them to communicate, and with a deeper understanding of the culture, making friends, which initially seemed improbable if not impossible, becomes a happy reality at every turn.

Although many participants in study abroad programs will face difficulties as they try to adjust to a new culture and a fresh way of life, in the end most former participants feel as if they are much better off for the experience.  Some even become so immersed in the culture of their host country that they encounter many of the same adjustment stages in their re-entry phase, as they transition back to the culture and the ways of their homeland.


Mike Jefferson Dismaya said...

This study abroad programs help the student fostering appreciation for the diversity of other cultures.

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