Culture Shock and Adjustment

Culture shock refers to that feeling of excitement and disorientation that often occurs when a person moves to the "unfamiliar." International students new to the United States have to exert a tremendous amount of time and energy learning how the new environment works. For non-native speakers of English there is the additional exhaustion of trying to understand new accents of English. Students encounter a multitude of new and often unfamiliar things: foods, customs, accents, roles of professors, grading, classroom behavior, and roommates – all of which require adjustment. People who move to another country typically experience four phases of adjustment: honeymoon/excitement, depression/hostility, humor and understanding/acceptance. These phases are not necessarily linear in that the challenges students face do not all occur in the beginning of one’s stay.

In phase one – honeymoon/excitement – it is common to embrace all that is new and different. People seem friendly and helpful. "This place is great!"

In phase two – depression/hostility – it is common to be frustrated with the new and different. These frustrations add up and often result in either depression ("I want to stay in my room") or feeling hostile toward the new environment ("I can’t stand this place"). During this phase it is common to have sleep disrupted, to feel homesick, and to reject the behavior of the people in the new country. It is important to remind yourself that you are not alone during times of depression, frustration, disappointment or anxiety. We assure you that these phases are temporary and we welcome you to the Office of International Education particularly during these times.

In phase three – humor – the student has mastered many aspects of the new culture and is functioning well. She is able to laugh at many of the things that had previously caused frustration.

In phase four – understanding/acceptance – the student has a more developed understanding of and comfort within the new culture. She might feel bi-cultural in many ways.

The following are things to keep in mind while getting used to life at Agnes Scott College, or in any new cultural environment:

Common Symptoms of Culture Shock
  • Extreme homesickness
  • Desire to avoid social settings
  • Physical complaints and sleep disturbances
  • Depression and feelings of helplessness
  • Difficulty with course work and concentration
  • Loss of your sense of humor
  • Boredom or fatigue
  • Hostility toward the host culture
  • Crying
Taking Action: Helpful Tips for Coping with Culture Shock
  • Talk with a trusted person (student, staff, or faculty). Talk to other international students. They may have experienced the same problems and know ways of dealing with them.
  • Keep a journal.  Write regularly about your experiences and reactions. This will help you identify reactions and measure your adjustment to life in America.
  • Make yourself get out of your room, even when you feel like staying in it.
  • Be gentle and patient with yourself (and others).
  • Try to remain calm in stressful situations; take time to understand what is going on.
  • Maintain a strong sense of humor: look at yourself and the situations around you humorously; try not to take anything too seriously.
  • Be flexible: examine and analyze confusing situations and comments without passing judgment.
  • Remember that many international students have adjusted and had successful experiences at Agnes Scott College. You can too!

Returning Home
Returning home requires a period of re-adjustment that can be as difficult, or even more difficult, than was the adjustment to the new culture. The problems of re-adjustment are sometimes referred to as "reverse culture shock" or "re-entry shock." You will go through very similar stages of adjustment just as you did when coming to the United States. Remember many changes have occurred within yourself as well as at home during your course of study in the United States.

Before you go home, make sure you get any letters of recommendations from professors or employers as well as official copies of transcripts and any other important contact information or official documents which you may later need.