It is vitally important that you communicate with your family while you are abroad.  Equally important is that you communicate with your fellow participants in the event that you go away, whether for a weekend of  just for a night. Remember that we will come looking for you if you are missing even if you have just spent the night out, so call in and let someone know where you are. Finally, you are expected to open, read, and respond to any messages coming from a staff or faculty member at Norwich University. Check email and phone messages regularly.

Culture Shock

“The process of adapting to a foreign culture is mostly about change, and the change must occur in you.  If you are to function happily and productively in a culture foreign to you, then you have to meet that culture on its own terms, because it’s not going to meet you on yours.”  (from Culture Shock!-Morocco, Orin Hargraves)

Culture shock comes from:

  • Being cut off from cultural cues and known patterns within which you are familiar
  • Living and studying over an extended period time in a situation that is ambiguous
  • Having your own values brought into question
  • Being continually put into situations in which you are expected to function well, but where the rules have not been adequately explained.

Stereotypes work both ways

In adjusting to your study abroad environment, you will have to deal with real as well as perceived cultural differences. Keep in mind that people of other cultures are just as adept at stereotyping the U.S. American as we are at stereotyping them – and the results are not always complimentary.

The following, for example, are a few of the qualities (some positive, some negative) that others frequently associate with the “typical” American:

  • Outgoing and friendly
  • Sure to have all answers
  • Wealthy
  • Informal
  • Lacking in class consciousness
  • Generous
  • Loud, rude, boastful, immature
  • Disrespectful of authority
  • Always in a hurry
  • Hardworking
  • Racially prejudiced
  • Promiscuous
  • Extravagant and wasteful (this goes for energy and resource use too)
  • Ignorant of other countries
  • Politically naïve

While a stereotype might have some grain of truth, it is obvious when we consider individual differences that not every American fits this description.  Keep in mind that this same thing is true about your hosts vis-à-vis your own preconceptions.

Working Through Culture Shock and Homesickness

Going abroad requires that you adjust to the same sorts of things as if you would move to another part of the United States: being away from family and friends, living in an unfamiliar environment, meeting new people, adjusting to a different climate, and so on. These changes alone could cause high stress levels, but you will also be going through cultural adjustments and you may experience “culture shock.” In another cultural context, you will often find that your everyday “normal” behavior becomes “abnormal.” The unspoken rules of social interaction are different, and the attitudes and behavior that characterize life in the United States are not necessarily appropriate in the host country.  These “rules” concern not only language differences, but also wide-ranging matters such as family structure, faculty-student relationships, friendships, gender and personal relations.

One way to handle these social and personal changes is to understand the cycle of adjustment that occurs.

  • Excitement/Honeymoon Phase
    You can expect to go through an initial period of euphoria and excitement as you are overwhelmed by the thrill of being in a totally new and unusual environment. This initial period is filled with details of getting settled into housing, scheduling classes, meeting new friends, and a tendency to spend a great deal of time with other U.S. students, both during orientation activities and free time.
  • Withdrawal Phase
    As this initial sense of “adventure” wears off, you may gradually become aware that your old habits and routine ways of doing things are no longer relevant. A bit of frustration can be expected, and you may find yourself becoming unusually irritable, resentful and even angry. Minor problems suddenly assume the proportions of major crises and you may grow somewhat depressed. Your stress and sense of isolation may affect your eating and sleeping habits. You may write letters, send e-mails, or call home criticizing the new environment and indicating that you are having a terrible time adjusting to the new country.  Symptoms include anxiety, sadness and homesickness.
  • Adjustment Phase
    The human psyche is extremely flexible and most students weather this initial period and make personal and academic adjustments as the months pass. They may begin to spend less time with Americans and more time forming friendships with local people. They often forget to communicate home.
  • Enthusiasm Phase
    Finally, when the adjustment is complete, most students begin to feel enthusiastic, and that they are finally in tune with their surroundings, neither praising nor criticizing the culture, but becoming, to some extent, part of it.

Recognizing the existence of and your vulnerability to culture shock will certainly ease some of the strain, but there are also several short-term strategies you can use beforehand as well as on-site when your recognize culture shock and are faced with the challenge of adjustment.

  • Become Familiar with the Local Language
    Independent study in the local language should facilitate your transition.  Continue your study of the foreign language before and throughout your program.  Rent and watch foreign films to become accustomed to the rhythm and sounds of the language of your new home.  Do not become so concerned with the grammar and technicalities of a language that you are afraid to speak once you are abroad.
  • Know your own Country
    You will find that people around the world often know far more about the United States and its policies than you do.  Whether or not you are familiar with current events, particularly foreign policy, expect to be asked about your opinions and to hear the opinions of others.  Start preparing now by reading newspapers and news magazines.
  • Examine your Motives for Going
    Although you will certainly do some traveling while you’re abroad, remember that your program is not an extended vacation.  Set realistic academic goals, particularly if you are studying in another language.  Reduce your expectations or simplify your goals in order to avoid disappointment or disillusions, but don’t forget to study!
  • Recognize the Value of Culture Shock
    Culture shock is a way of sensitizing you to another culture at a level that goes beyond the intellectual and the rational.  Just as an athlete cannot get in shape without going through the uncomfortable conditioning stage, so you cannot fully appreciate the cultural differences that exist without first going through the uncomfortable stages of psychological adjustment.
  • Expect to feel Depressed Sometimes
    Homesickness is natural, especially if you have never been away from home.  Remember that your family and friends would not have encouraged you to go if they did not want you to gain the most from this experience.  Don’t let thoughts of home occupy you to the point that you are incapable of enjoying the exciting new culture that surrounds you.  Think of all you will share with your family and friends when you return home.
  • Expect to Feel Frustrated and Angry at Times
    You are bound to have communication problems when you are not using your native language or dialect.  Even if they speak English in your host country, communication may be difficult!  Moreover, people will do things differently in your new home, and you will not always think their way is as good as yours. Once you accept that nothing you do is going to radically change the different cultural practices, you will save yourself real frustration. Remember that you are the foreigner and a guest in the other culture.
  • Expect to Hear Criticism of the United States
    If you educate yourself on U.S. politics and foreign policies, you will be more prepared to handle these discussions as they occur.  Remember that such criticism of U.S. policies is not personal.  Don’t be afraid to argue if you feel so inclined.  Most foreign nationals are very interested in the U.S. and will want to know your opinions.
  • Do Not Expect Local People to Come and Find You
    When was the last time you approached a lonely-looking foreign student with an offer of friendship?  Things are not necessarily any different where you are going.  If you are not meeting people through your classes, make other efforts to meet them.  Take advantage of the university structure and join clubs, participate in sports, attend worship services, participate in volunteer and service-learning projects, and attend other university-sponsored functions.  Maintain a sense of meaning to your life and allow time for leisure activities.
  • Keep Your Sense of Humor and Positive Outlook
    Almost all returned study abroad students have wonderful stories about how much fun they had during their time abroad.  If you have a terrible, frustrating day (or week) abroad, remember that it will pass.  Time has a way of helping us remember the good times and turning those horrible times into fascinating stories!
  • Write a Journal
    One of the best ways to deal with cultural adjustments and to reflect thoughtfully on the differences between U.S. and the other cultures is to regularly write a journal.   As you write, you’ll think your way out of the negative reactions that may result from your unfamiliarity with language and cultural behavior.  Journaling will force you to make meaningful comparisons between your own culture and the host country.  When you return home you’ll have more than just memories, souvenirs, and photos of your time abroad; you’ll have a written record of your changing attitudes and process of learning about the foreign culture.
  • Adopt Coping Strategies that Work for You
    Keep in touch with friends and family but not to the point you are consumed with calling and e-mailing that you miss out on the study abroad experience.  Exercising can also contribute to improved mood and better sleep.
  • Talk to Someone if you have a Serious Problem
    The faculty director and USF EA staff  are here to counsel students with serious problems.  He/she has first-hand experience with adjustment abroad and can be a real friend in times of need.  Share smaller problems with other students since they are going through the same process and can provide a day-to-day support group.

Adjusting to a Different Educational System

It is difficult to generalize about different educational systems around the world. Most undergraduate instruction will include lectures, seminars, laboratory sessions, papers and examinations, but that may be the end of the similarities.  Although it may not be explicitly stated in the syllabus, attendance is important. Adjusting to a new system may be compared to the feeling you have in Norwich courses prior to taking the first exam. You usually understand the discussion and lectures, but not until you take the first exam do you really understand what you are being asked to retain. You may feel this way throughout your semester abroad.

For instance, you may attend lectures, but a larger share of the classroom time may be spent in small tutorial and seminar groups. You may be asked to be an equal contributor to these discussions.  Generally speaking, emphasis is put on reading and making use of what you have read in essays and during seminars. Your reading will not usually be based on a textbook or directed in the detailed way that is common at Norwich. If you are told: “You may wish to have a look at these specific titles,” that implies strong advice that these books should be read!  Do not rely on being told exactly what to do or when to do it.

In many cases, the professor may be expecting you to be reading on your own and ask you for original research and thought in the exam essays.  You will be expected to provide your own motivation and to assume responsibility for your own education and learning, and not to simply wait to be taught the course material.

It is likely exams will be essay-type.  Before you take your first exam, ask for clarification of the grading system.  This will help alleviate any surprises when you receive your results!   We also recommend speaking to students of the host institution, so as to get a feel for the type of exams, and how to study.

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