Cultural Adjustment

Adjusting to a New Country and Culture

When coming to a new country to study, most students anticipate making some adjustments to differences in climate, food, culture and general lifestyle. Adjustment is a complicated and often difficult process for many. It does not happen overnight, in one week, in one month, or even in one year. It may take many months just to establish a reasonable degree of regularity in your life. The process of adjustment, though difficult, can also be an extremely productive and rewarding time. Many people attain new levels of self-awareness, personal growth and a new understanding of and insight into their own country or home culture, in addition to knowledge of the new place, customs and people.
The adjustment to different cultural norms is usually the hardest to make. Culture has been defined as the product of all learning that shapes thoughts, habits, beliefs, language, and social patterns of behavior and expectations, which integrate individuals into groups. When moving from one country to another, many things that you have taken for granted, and may not even be aware of, are either absent or different. Familiar social cues and expectations of how others will behave are no longer adequate. Others may have expectations of you that are quite different from those you have previously experienced.

The period of adjustment to a new culture is also sometimes referred to as "culture shock." The chart below shows the stages of adjustment or culture shock that one may expect to experience. Although the experience is not identical for each individual, there are four general stages in adjustment, each with a high and low point.


Stage Curve



In Stage 1, many people experience general anxiety accompanied by lots of excitement. There are numerous details and arrangements to attend to. Individuals may feel ecstatically happy at certain times and totally overwhelmed at others. Many people find they have little time to sit and think during their first few weeks in a new place. They may find it tiring to speak and listen to English all day and experience "information overload." On the other hand, everything is so new and exciting; no one wants to miss a thing. Finding the energy for all this activity can be challenging. Typically, between three to six weeks after arrival, the first rush of excitement has worn off, and you enter Stage 2. Missing friends and family at home, feeling "out of sorts" or depressed or experiencing changes in sleeping and eating patterns are common. It is not unusual to catch a cold or develop some other illness during this time.

In part, mind and body have begun to work overtime to accomplish simple things that ordinarily are taken for granted. If you feel this happening to you, it is very important to remind yourself that it is a normal and expected part of adjustment. Try modifying your standards of self-evaluation. Rest and retreat are effective cures for fatigue and exhaustion. Talking to others who are experiencing or have experienced the same thing is also helpful to understanding this phenomenon.

Some things you can do to make the adjustment process easier:

  • Listen and observe.
  • Ask lots of questions about correct behavior, customs, phrases and slang. People will appreciate your interest.
  • Try not to evaluate or judge new things.
  • Ask for help when you think you might need it, but do not demand things from others when frustrated.
  • Do not be afraid to make mistakes; try to maintain your sense of humor. Anyone who has traveled would probably agree. A lot of cultural adjustment happens through trial and error. Even people who have been in a "new" environment for years continue learning new things.
  • Try to keep a regular eating and sleeping schedule. Include some form of regular exercise such as walking, swimming or jogging in your activities. Establishing a daily routine is extremely helpful in new situations to combat the feeling of being overwhelmed. Exercise helps you to relax and maintain a sleep schedule.

At home, you have an established "support network" of people with whom you share good and bad news, people who visit and care for you when you are ill or feeling down. That network may be composed of family, friends, neighbors, classmates and/or teachers. Although your support network still exists, the distance between you and these significant people makes communication difficult now, when you may need it the most.

It is important that you try to establish a "support network" or group of people with whom you feel comfortable here at Rollins. You need people with whom you can discuss good and bad times and share companionship.

Developing a support network requires some work. Because of the distance from home, you most likely will need to seek out people who are not part of your family group. During International Orientation and your first academic year at Rollins, it is recommended to find other individuals who are from your home country, or who may share your language or interests. You may also meet other students in clubs or organizations on campus, through religious groups, and in your classes and residence hall. In addition to the people mentioned above, there are also professors, academic advisers, and the administrative staff.

In Stage 3 of the adjustment process, a greater sense of regularity becomes noticeable; it may take a full academic year or longer to reach this stage. During this time, you may find that you more readily absorb information about your new home. You begin to accept the fact that there are good and bad things about both your home culture and this new culture; neither is "better" or "worse,” they are just different.

A sense of anxiety may return in Stage 4, which generally occurs close to the end of your degree program. The need to disengage from the environment of Rollins and prepare for the return home can be difficult and confusing. Many of the things to which you have become accustomed in the U.S. will take on a new meaning and significance at home. In addition, it may be difficult to anticipate what changes have happened at home while you were away. Those who will be continuing their schooling or moving on to jobs in the U.S. may undergo some of these same feelings when leaving the familiar Rollins community.

Studying in the U.S. will permanently change you -- in more ways than you can imagine. You are likely to become "bicultural," meaning that you are fully adjusted to living in both your home country and the U .S. There will be some aspects of one country and culture that you prefer over the other, and vice versa. Your experience in the U.S. will undoubtedly further the process of becoming a true "global citizen."

Note: Some of the information in this section is adapted from the International Student Handbook, Howard University.