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Study Abroad: Defeating Cultural Shock

Culture shock can prevent you from fully enjoying and exploiting this incredible opportunity, and can even hinder you in meeting the school’s academic expectations

Jack Milgram

Join local clubs and explore regional cultural events and festivals to get a fair idea on the differences in culture between your native country and your current place of residence.

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Studying abroad is a major challenge, academically, socially, and emotionally.  Culture shock can prevent you from fully enjoying and exploiting this incredible opportunity, and can even hinder you in meeting the school’s academic expectations (this, after all, is why you are here!).  Consider the following ideas for buffering yourself against the inevitable blast of new and alien sensations and the equally inevitable sense of isolation from all that is familiar: 
You will be facing higher level academic expectations, you will be away from family and friends, and you will be an outsider in an alien environment.  Expect to be overwhelmed by all this at first, but don’t let the sensory overload interfere with your academic success.
Begin by getting faculty on your side. 
• Hover considerately but persistently,
• Introduce yourself clearly,
• Express appreciation
• Mention office hours
• Step aside. 
• Do the same with the underpaid, and under-appreciated teaching assistants, making them your allies
• Complete initial readings; identify one item to discuss with the instructor intelligently. 
• At office hours, pose this question or comment - briefly
• Attend and contribute at least minimally at any proffered recitations or study sessions,
Your swift initiatives at distinguishing yourself from rest of the faceless horde will pay off. 
Now you can turn to the rest of college life!
Spend as much time as possible with ‘native’ students.
• Eat at least some meals in the college eating hall
• Sit with folks who are not from your home country. 
• Study in the library lounge or dorm common areas rather than your room or a carrel
• Attend ice-breaker parties at the start of term
• Invite your neighbors to walk with you to meals or classes
• Go to college games and cheer
• Ask dorm-mates to go food shopping with you
• Accept invitations to visit schoolmates’ homes
Avoid sabotaging all this brave cross-cultural outreach through unconscious olfactory alarm signals.  Varied diets (for example, regional spices, oils, and flavorings, meat versus non-meat proteins) and unfamiliar toiletries all can make people smell surprisingly different.  The hindbrain (the most primitive segment) interprets any such difference as negative, unfortunately.  How to avert this? 
• A local diet is inevitable,
• You can readily modify your personal hygiene rituals. 
• Discreetly observe what soaps, toothpaste, underarm deodorant/antiperspirant, and shaving creams/lotions other students pull out of their kits.
If you see the same brand more than once, obtain the same stuff at the campus bookstore or nearby chemist or drugstore, and use judiciously. 
Thus prepared, you can consider other, more in-depth commitments to groups and organizations. 
On some campuses, you may have the choice of joining a fraternity/sorority. 
• One joins these groups by invitation and for life
• The process of getting to mutually know one another is often called ‘rush’.  Because it usually occurs only at the outset of freshman year, you should jump right in and participate, even if you have doubts about the idea. 
• Such Greek letter organizations carry far-reaching potential for beneficial contacts and mutual assistance.  Although many fraternities/sororities function primarily as auxiliary dorms with a built-in social schedule, many also demand continued academic achievement and provide support.  The support may consist merely of study groups and a grubby file cabinet full of past years’ exams, or it could be as substantive as emergency scholarship grants.
• Joining a fraternity/sorority ensures a core of friends for the college years and beyond.
• Some professional fraternities (accounting or dentistry, for example) include graduate students.
Pick campus activities (based on your inquiries of upperclassmen, examination of social media, or attendance at a campus activities showcase/fair) that seem to offer maximal opportunities to meet many people, for example;
• Student government
• Newspaper/campus radio/campus television
• Service organization
• Band
• Theatrical/musical groups
• Student union/event planning committee
• Whichever club/council/committee has the largest membership
• Consider a sport, whether intramural or intercollegiate. 
If you were recruited for a team - lucky you - this is not a debatable question, but the rest of us need to decide whether to try out.
Commit only if you are confident you can attend all practices and matches
Choose uncommon sports to increase your chances of success
Offer to be manager/time-keeper if you are not a talented practitioner – you will still get all the social benefits of being part of the group, both during college and in your alumni/ae years
Find ways to be in touch with the local community:
• Obtain a decent map of the area – immediately!
• Devote some time to orienting yourself to the campus and its environs – and beyond if at all safe or feasible
Explore regional cultural events, no matter how intellectually elevated or locally idiosyncratic.  Many college towns offer student discounts for ticket purchase.  Most communities have something going on, often for free, on many weekends of the year, or perhaps at lunch time, for example:
• Orchestra
• Barbecue contests
• Opera
• Pie-eating competitions
• Dance/ballet
• Ethnic festivals/fairs
• Eisteddfodau (Welsh song festivals)
• Rodeos
• Ceilidh (Gaelic/Irish musical gathering)
• Dog/cat/horse shows
• Dedication of new buildings
• Attend worship services near campus or even further afield, and even outside your own religious background:
• Introduce yourself to nearby congregants afterwards
• Don’t be surprised if you are invited to someone’s home!
• Tour local historical or other sites/sights
• Eat at a typically local eatery
• Find out where the professors dine out
• Take a group of schoolmates
• Visit the local shopping center or district
• Check out farmers markets or equivalents
• Use the local public transportation to see the whole region – if assured of its safety by campus authorities
• Join local branches of national/international organizations such as Toastmasters International, Lions Club International, or the English-Speaking Union
Your increasing familiarity with the area will make conversation and orienting yourself easier.
Get a job, paid or volunteer, that will place you in contact with many folks, for example:
• Campus recycling
• Bookstore
• Campus information center
• Peer tutoring
• Dorm security
• Leading campus tours for applicants
What is common to all these efforts is that they provide multiple ways of getting comfortable with the people, the place, the culture, and the atmosphere of the community in which you are studying.  The more you know, the less you will fear, and what was once strange will swiftly become familiar and feel welcoming.  Assume that the vast majority of folks you meet will be happy to know you and ready to be helpful.
One last bit of advice – keep hold of something – no matter how small - that reminds you of home.
Article by Jack Milgram: “I have been interested in writing since I made the acquaintance of pen and paper. As soon as I learned how to write words, I started forming them into sentences. And do you know what my first sentence said? “I love my words”.
Later I started writing, but often left unfinished, many of my essays at school, as well as my researches at college, where I studied psychology and education. I started freelance writing when I was a student. I currently work for Be sure to check out my writing tips and tricks! Good luck with your education abroad!

Want to know more about studying abroad?

Lavanya Madhanraj Lavanya Madhanraj,
Study abroad expert.
Our advisors can guide you through the complete study abroad process and help you with your admission process. Request a call back now! Or call 1800 103 2581 / 1800 103 9634 (toll-free) today!