An understanding of a culture can be generated in a couple of different ways - formally (through the reading of books, newspapers, periodicals etc. from that culture) and informally (through immersing oneself in the culture). The pre-departure orientation session will introduce students to the culture, but ultimately, success is dependent on a students’ ability to adjust to the culture visited. Adjustments may both be social (norms and value systems) and physical (food, dress, educational system etc.). True learning occurs when students subject themselves to their way of living and start behaving as a member of the society visited as exemplified through the learning of their language. The best advice here is to challenge yourself to learn and see their culture using their perspective.
No matter the duration of the program, at some point, most participants will experience some form of culture shock. Depending on the individual, some students will experience culture shock immediately, while others not at all. The “W” Theory of Culture Shock states four (4) stages of culture shock including initial euphoria, irritation and hostility, gradual adjustment and adaptation. Symptoms of culture shock may include:
- home sickness and loneliness
- irritability or feeling angry about small things
- sleeping a lot
- overeating or lack of appetite
- inability to study or focus effectively
- stereotyping of host country/culture
- increase in physical ailments or pains
- unexplainable crying
- Engaging in the culture
Students with little experience in overseas travel may lack confidence to explore or try new things, and they may attempt to seek out people and activities that will help them feel comfortable and which seem familiar. If students are permitted to engage in familiar experiences (food, music, or language), they may feel ready to continue with the unfamiliar experiences offered in the new culture, language, and country.
Many times, students will get in the habit of frequenting US fast food restaurants or “American” style establishments and speaking English with their peers (to the exclusion of any language contact with local individuals). If students are travelling in groups or with faculty members, they may want to consider going to a local restaurant, museum or attraction to better engage themselves in the culture. A journaling exercise may also be suggested to give students extra incentive to reflect on the culture.
Combining actual experience with reflection is an important part of an abroad experience. Students may want to talk to their peers about what they are seeing, so they are not overwhelmed by new experiences and/or culture shock. Students want and need to process their experiences. When travelling with faculty, the faculty member should consider planning an informal session with the group at least once each week to discuss questions, assignments, site visits or any concerns and to encourage students to start to understand their experiences. Examining the contrast students are feeling and linking the experience with reflection often leads to extremely successful student learning.
It is important that all students feel comfortable speaking during reflection sessions. Faculty members should pay attention to students’ ability to contribute to the conversation (more talkative students should be reminded to share the time with other group members). When students disagree, differences should be treated as differing perspectives, not as a debate. Faculty members should discuss and deal with strong feelings that may emerge instead of avoiding the discussion, even if the feelings are negative. They may ask questions of the individual or the group and offer different ways the student may interpret the situation. Some of the most culturally enriching experiences will not be planned. They will emerge as a natural course of events throughout the program.