The Culture Shock Of Being An International Student

Wave Learning Festival
5 min readAug 14, 2023


by Puja Sarkar, Press & Written Media Team

For students who come to America to pursue their studies, the biggest obstacle in their fruitful endeavors is cultural adjustment. The culture they come from, the environment, the weather, and overall social setting is worlds different from what they see and begin to experience in America. So, they end up facing challenges in their adjustments and socialization, which eventually help them grow.

However, overcoming these challenges and shocks isn’t that easy. Homesickness is one of the symptoms of culture shock and while most people can overcome homesickness with a few adjustments, it’s not always easy. When homesickness lingers, it can lead to loneliness, depression, insomnia, feelings of disorientation, isolation, and anger.

How do students experience culture shock?

Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg coined the phrase ‘culture shock’ in 1954. He defines it as the anxiety which one experiences when completely removed from all social and personal familiarity. He also divides culture shock into four stages that foreign/international students go through.

Foreign students may experience cultural shock in a variety of ways. When studying abroad they struggle with many responsibilities that come with freedom i.e., doing your own laundry, buying your own goods, managing your finances and such. Some struggle to respond to challenging questions in class in English or struggle to work in groups with classmates, be that due to a language barrier or failing to understand the flow. Some international students struggle with the local cuisine and find it difficult to find food they enjoy (or food that reminds them of home). And lastly, many international students are concerned about offending their classmates and often monitor everything they say and do to avoid making insensitive comments without realizing it.

If you yourself are currently an international student studying in America or some other country, you might be missing home; this feeling might come and go or might be persistent. It might even be that you just can’t seem to settle into your new abode, you hate the weather, and everything tastes weird.

The more conscious you are of your emotions, the better equipped you’ll be and the more likely you are to be able to prevent any major problems that get in the way of your studies, like depression and anxiety, falling behind in class, opting for unhealthy coping mechanisms. The more aware you are of your emotions, the more equipped you will be to deal with the symptoms of culture shock.

While you try to figure this out and get yourself back on track, it’s wise to know the stages of culture shock:

Honeymoon Phase

For international students, the adjustment to American culture is quite smooth during this time. When you arrive, everything is still novel and thrilling. The beginning of the journey is enjoyable because you get to experience new surroundings, try new foods, and meet new people. It’s likely that you’ll be enthused with every new encounter, including figuring out how to get to class, experiencing the new classroom environment etc. You pay little to no attention to unpleasant feelings. This period typically lasts a few days to a few months.

Crisis Phase

After a certain point, everything starts to feel mundane and boring — the same routes, routine. This is when you begin to experience the effects of American culture shock. After the honeymoon period has passed, students could experience moodiness, melancholy, or homesickness. Miscommunication results from language barriers, lack of knowledge surrounding local dialect, and not knowing what particular signs and gestures mean. These instances of culture shock might be anything as simple as misreading a menu, losing things, forgetting to do class readings, getting into fights with your roommates, being irritated at the weather or getting off at the wrong bus stop or train station.

This all sounds frustrating and chaotic, especially when every little thing disorients you. But it is possible to get through these feelings by remaining composed. It can be beneficial to try and understand your emotions and control them using the following techniques:

  • Journal your thoughts, emotions, and frustrations
  • Make a goal to learn a new skill every day or week and to write everything down you learn
  • Talk to a friend back home
  • Remind yourself why you’re here in the first place and what you hope to accomplish
  • Acknowledging that your feelings are valid
  • Ask for help i.e. take up counselling at your school, if you need a ride some place far take a chance ask one of your peers, be frank about your struggles in the classroom with your faculties and advisor

Recovery Phase

Eventually, you start to accept the changes around you and find yourself adapting. You become accustomed to your surroundings, campus paths, pick up on social gestures, and also learn some American lingo which helps you interact with others.

Students are able to fully integrate into university life by settling into their studies, developing a routine, making friends, and participating in university and community events. Your academic journey will still test you in a variety of ways, and you’ll feel overwhelmed at times. However, you’ll not be completely lost and you’ll know how to regulate yourself in healthy ways.

Adjustment Phase

At this point, things start to feel normal and you learn to accept, if not embrace, the cultural differences you encounter. You start to feel at ease with your routine and way of life and realize that you have conquered the difficulties posed by American culture shock.

There might be times when you feel unseen and unheard. You might be the last one to be picked for group projects. However, in this phase you learn to not let these things affect you intensely. When you take a few steps and remind yourself of the emotions you felt previously and the hurdles you overcame, you might stop feeling so alone and start to feel a part of the community. Instead of seeking acceptance in social groups, you find groups where you fit in and help you in your journey.

So, why did you need to know about these phases? We often don’t know what we’re feeling and going through, especially in a new environment when we’re left to fend for ourselves. It can be an emotionally and physically straining time with a lot to lose. However, if you have some awareness of what could happen, what you might feel and experience, it’s easier to not let yourself fall into a dark pit.

To deal with whatever the future offers, you’ll probably have a better awareness of your environment, emotions, triggers, healthy coping mechanisms and resources which can help you. Keep in mind that these are just phases, and not everyone goes through them sequentially or even in the same way. Regardless, being prepared never hurts and can only benefit you.

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