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Cultural Adjustment

railway station in Sweden

Photo credit: Bailey Jones '22 (Sweden, DIS, fall 2021)

Culture Shock (when you go)

Your study abroad journey will be full of both new and exciting experiences as well as challenges and adjustments. Ups and downs are completely normal, and most students experience them in some shape or form. These fluctuations are often referred to as culture shock, or cultural negotiation. You may have heard from study abroad alumni that their study abroad semester was the best of their college experience. That they made friends that will last a lifetime. That they visited many different countries. And all these stories may have contributed to a rhetoric about study abroad that is not unlike the one about college experience itself: that it's the best time of your life. While we certainly hope that your study abroad will be a fantastic time, it is good to realize that it may not always be an easy semester. Honor the ways you experience your study abroad semester, and do what you can to maximize it for you, and what is important for you.

Some things that past participants have struggled with have been practical, daily things such as making new friends, eating alone, joining clubs and actually following through with it, managing a complex subway system, and things of that nature. Use the resources that your program offers and remember, even if it seems that everyone else is adjusting seamlessly, you are not the only one who experiences ups and downs while abroad. 

If you find that you are having trouble adjusting over a long period of time, you should seek out professional assistance. Generally, the host program can make recommendations and you can use Talkspace. Finally, the Global Engagement Office (GEO) is always available to try to assist you.

The University of Michigan created a wonderful project called “Resilient traveling: managing stress and enhancing your experience abroad”.  It contains resources, a self assessment, personal narratives of study abroad alumni and helpful, practical tips for coping with things like homesickness, loneliness and group conflict. Be sure to check it out before you go!

While engaging fully in the new environment, it is helpful to think about what kinds of activities you enjoy and how you can pursue them in your new environment. For instance, if you like to work out, will there be a gym available on the new campus or in your neighborhood? Are there clubs or communities that you are part of at Swarthmore that are available to you abroad? Alternatively, you could also try to engage with a culture by trying new things. Perhaps a member of your homestay family can teach you to cook a local dish?  And what things from your own culture might you share with your hosts!

Readjustment (when you come back)

For some students the return from abroad does not represent any major difficulties; however, for others, it may present serious challenges. Saying goodbye to people you were used to seeing on a daily basis; leaving the lifestyle developed abroad; and missing the sights, sounds, foods, etc. of the abroad location may cause a true sense of loss. This is sometimes referred to as a "reverse culture shock". You may feel like you look at situations with other eyes - what once looked so familiar, may now look different and this can cause a real sense of unease. Or you may feel like you went through a life-changing experience, and it may be difficult to share with your friends at family just how and why that was so. 

Just like studying abroad, the return to life in the U.S. and study at Swarthmore might take you through a few ups and downs, and will likely take patience and resilience. When possible, seek out ways to talk about your experiences and express your new interests, with friends old and new. At Global Engagement we are always happy to talk to you about your experience - stop by for a chat! Should you find that your adjustment back to life and studies at Swarthmore is interfering with your studies, personal health, relationships, or other aspects of your well-being, consider consulting with advisors and health professionals at Swarthmore.