How can I help support my student with their study abroad experience before, during and after their time abroad?
Students should learn about the country where they will be studying and living in order to minimize culture shock and understand the context of their experiences.
The U.S. Department of State is a great resource for international travel. They provide free of charge updated information on the country, travel warnings, health and safety, overseas emergency advice, etc. They also have international travel safety information specifically for students.
There are many sources of information about the student’s host country: books, movies, embassies, magazines etc. Travel guidebooks are an excellent resource for obtaining information on the host country. The Study Abroad Office strongly suggests purchasing a guidebook such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, or Let’s Go before departure.
Visiting Your Student Overseas
It can be a wonderful opportunity to visit your son or daughter overseas and gain insight into their experience studying abroad. Please respect the academic calendar of your student’s host institution and do not plan visits that jeopardize any academic responsibilities your student may have. Instead, visiting during vacation periods or after the program has ended will allow your student maximum freedom to demonstrate their mastery of their new hometown and to show you around without constraints.
Cultural Adjustment Cycle
The following outlines the stages of adjustment that characterize culture shock and suggests how friends and parents can offer support. For more information on culture shock and what to expect, go to the resources section on our website.
Honeymoon Period: Your student arrives overseas with great expectations and a positive mind-set. If anything, their expectations are too high and attitudes toward the host country and their upcoming experiences are unrealistic. Anything new is exciting at this stage but they mostly notice similarities between cultures. This state of 'euphoria' may last from a week or two to a month, but the letdown is inevitable.
How to help: Listen and remember these stories for future reference. Asking specific questions can make the experience come alive for you as well.
Irritation and Hostility: The focus turns from similarities to differences. Your student begins to see differences everywhere and the differences noticed are troubling and unsettling. Insignificant difficulties turn into major catastrophes. This stage is identified as "culture shock" – your student may experience any or all of the symptoms associated with this stage.
How to help: At this point, you will be hearing about what is wrong and your student may be contacting you only during their low points. Try to remember that they are also experiencing periods of happiness, so do not automatically conclude that your student must return home immediately. Encourage your student to be specific about what is going wrong and to seek help with local representatives for solutions to concrete problems. You can recommend that your student get involved with local clubs or groups to make connections with people with similar interests – it’s important to stay busy and set realistic goals during this period. Everyone goes through some level of culture shock – help your student to realize that there is no shame in admitting they are experiencing culture shock and that many others have survived it.
Suggest some of the following activities that can aid in adjusting to a new culture and way of life:
Share feelings with other foreign students or advisers.
Write in a journal or read a letter from family or friends.
Improve language abilities through talking to people, going to the movies, reading local papers and magazines.
Learn about the new school and the new neighborhood.
Pursue or develop a hobby.
Join a club or athletic team.
Volunteer for a cause you believe in.
Maintain a sense of humor.
Speak with people in the International Office at your host university or your Program Director or TU Study Abroad Adviser.
Adjustment: The crisis is now over and your student is on their way to recovery. This step may come gradually at first. They begin to orient themselves and are able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues which went unnoticed earlier - the culture will seem more familiar. Your student becomes more comfortable and feel less isolated.
How to help: Recognize that your student is making it through the storm, and revel in the stories of successes, new friendships, experiences, travel, etc.! Their survival seems assured, and they may even find success!
Acceptance (biculturalism): Your students can now function in two cultures with confidence. They can maintain your own culture and recognize that members of other cultures rightfully want to do the same. They find many new ways of doing and saying things. Personal attitudes in their host culture have become enjoyable and they will miss them when they return home. You can expect your student to experience "reverse culture shock" upon their return to the US. In some cases reverse culture shock can cause greater distress than the original culture shock.
How to help: Don’t judge the student who adopts new habits or outlooks on life. Maintaining some customs and habits fondly reminds the student of their home away from home. Listen to stories and look at photos from the time abroad.
Re-entry Issues: Remember that culture shock can happen upon return to the United States as well. Upon returning home, you may find that your student experiences disorientation and a yearning for the host culture. The steps they took to adjust to the host environment will be useful in readjustment to the home environment: keep busy and set goals. Remind your student to give it time to readjust and to keep an open mind.
Some students who did not experience culture shock while abroad will instead suffer from it upon their return home. Parents can use the same tools outlined above for culture shock overseas to help the student adjust to reverse culture shock at home.
Please remember that the Study Abroad Office is also available for help, and that we are interested in talking with your student about their experiences, seeing their photographs, and helping them readjust to life back on campus. We offer a reentry program to meet the students’ needs, and will advertise activities on our website, as well as informing the student directly.