Study Abroad - For Parents
Culture Shock and Adjustment
Being able to adjust to the new environment and culture is perhaps one of the most important facets of a student’s experience abroad. “Culture shock” is the term given to the collection of feelings that sometimes arise when travelers are overwhelmed by cultural differences. The symptoms can include feeling lonely, homesick, overwhelmed, fearful, angry, confused or judgmental. The onset, severity, and length of time with which culture shock will affect any one student will vary. Keep in mind that culture shock is a common and a natural part of the study abroad experience. When students first arrive at the host country, they usually feel happy and excited. Everything is new and interesting, and they want to explore it all. This is the “honeymoon” stage when students fall in love with the host country and nothing could possibly get in the way of a fabulous experience. A few days, weeks, or months later, the students start feeling somewhat disillusioned and while things in the environment have remained the same, they now regard everything negatively. This is the next stage of culture shock and the time when some students are apt to feel that they have made a mistake and would like to return home. Fortunately, with effort, time, and support from family and friends, this stage usually passes and the students achieve a state of balance or equilibrium with the host culture and environment. The students are finally able to discern cultural differences and feel less like interlopers in the new culture. The anger and disappointment fade as the students realize that they can function effectively outside the home culture.
We hope you will not become distressed and alarmed if your son or daughter starts complaining about their study abroad program. In all likelihood, the student is going through the second stage of culture shock. Empathize but urge the student to keep their chin up and soldier on. Remind him or her of all the things that can be gained from this experience. Applaud the student’s efforts to become immersed in the host culture. Offer encouragement to interact with fellow students or the host family, participate in local or university activities, and learn from mistakes. In a few weeks, the student is likely to look back at these seemingly dark days and be incredulous that he or she even considered returning home! Thanks to you, the student did not have to miss out on this great experience! However, if you feel that your student’s symptoms of culture shock are particularly severe, please contact the study abroad advisor so that we can direct the student to appropriate support services at the host institution; we can also notify our contacts abroad if necessary.
Staying in touch
Work out a mutually acceptable system regarding how to stay in touch. While some families have gotten used to daily calls while the children are stateside, frequent calls to and from abroad may result in high phone bills and can make it difficult for students to adjust abroad. Many families use video-conferencing software such as Skype. Often, however, time zone differences make it exceedingly difficult to schedule conversations conveniently for both parties. E-mail may be a preferable form of communication, but you may receive spontaneous messages that vent frustration as your student confronts a new culture: take these “with a grain of salt.” Above all, remember that part of the study abroad experience is learning how to maneuver through another system, so don’t panic when the student panics. And don’t try to supply all the answers to your student’s myriad questions. There are professionals on-site who are experienced in assisting American students in navigating their way through their study abroad experience. Encourage them to tap that expertise.
Stay in touch – but not too often! The acculturation process will be slow if the student spends too much time talking on the phone or emailing folks back home. Temper your email updates and phone calls to no more than once a week. Instead, encourage your student to spend more time exploring the city, making new friends, and learning the ways of the host country. Don’t let their real experience become a virtual study abroad.
Visiting your son or daughter abroad can result in a memorable bonding experience. However, it is important to ensure that they don’t skip classes to be tour guides for parents. Find out the vacation schedule before locking in flights and hotels.
“I left who I thought I was, and came back who I am.”
~Nicole Hemingway, Semester at Sea, Summer 2011
The student who returns home is not the student you sent abroad. He or she might dress differently, like new foods, speak differently, express new political perspectives, or even speak disparagingly of the U.S. This is not very unusual. Do expect some changes and be patient. This transition can be a positive experience, but it can have its moments of drama. Read up on reverse culture shock so that you understand the adjustments they need to go through when they return. And be sure to be proud of their exceptional accomplishments. Encourage them to share their experience by becoming mentors to other students interested in study abroad. Adapting to another culture, making new friends, studying in a new system and returning to their previous lives are powerful achievements. And congratulate yourselves that you trusted them enough to let them have this unique and life-changing experience!
- A Readjustment Manual for Parents: A handbook for parents of students returning home from studying abroad