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Culture Shock

Posted By Administration, Monday, November 19, 2012
Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2016

“All Americans are superficial and I can’t wait to go home.” This is a popular statement made by international students during their first semester of studying in the U.S. Initially students can develop a euphoria with America and the experience may meet or even surpass their previous expectations. However, when that wears off and homesickness starts to brew it is no surprise that students who have come to the U.S. to earn degrees experience some sort of shock. They may even develop disdain and seriously contemplate going back home. The language barrier alone can drive someone crazy, not to mention the learning curve to use American slang, greetings and common phrases. Culture shock just might be the most pressing issue for international students studying in the U.S., driving students to quit their studies and give up on earning the degree of their dreams.

There are multiple facets to experiencing this shock. Some symptoms below could be the initial phase of culture shock:

  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • Asking: “Why am I here?"
  • Extreme homesickness

These symptoms are all very real and could be in result of the student comparing their culture and the value system in their home country to that in the U.S. Naturally new students make comparisons, but while in culture shock most comparisons will end with negative conclusions. What is an international student to do? There are many tips and tricks that revolve around an altered perspective to help ensure that the culture shock phase doesn’t last long.

Tip #1: Try not to compare and be open-minded. There are an immense number of differences between the U.S. and any other country. Trying to embrace those differences by opening oneself up to new experiences will guarantee an awesome international experience.

Tip #2: Reach out. As an international student it is very difficult to make new friends in the U.S. without introducing oneself or making attempts at consistent social interaction. There are numerous student organizations, clubs and groups on campus with like-minded domestic students eager to socialize around a cause or interest.

Tip #3: Use the resources provided to you. Academic counselors, the international student office, admissions office and new friends will all contribute to and support the transition into the U.S. and keep culture shock to a minimum. Consistently using these resources will serve the student well.

The expectations of international students usually exclude the reality of culture shock. But in order to excel academically an international student will most definitely need to feel comfortable in their new home. Helping students overcome these inevitable obstacles will ensure a smooth transition, adding great value to any U.S. campus. With a combined effort this issue can be minimized helping international students take away an unparalleled and invaluable college experience.

The Diversity Network sends its sincere thanks and appreciation to Kala Garner for sharing her thoughts on the most pressing issue facing international students in the U.S. today.  If you would like to share your thoughts, email us at members@diversitynetwork.org

Tags:  culture shock  International Students  Outreach  resources 

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Keys to Success as an International Student in the United States

Posted By Administration, Monday, August 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2016

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been a longtime advocate of international student exchange, a proponent of international student–friendly visa policies, and has made a push to emphasize the importance of diversity within America’s higher education institutions. But with rising homeland security tensions following September 11th, it has been increasingly more difficult for international students to pursue an education in this country. Not only are there external obstacles inhibiting the success of foreign students in our universities, there are also internal challenges that inherently impede these students as they attempt to assimilate to the North American culture of education. 

Just as American students face adversity when traveling and studying in foreign countries, there are many difficulties that must be overcome by international students in the United States. The language barrier may be the most intimidating and difficult to conquer, but basic communication skills that many American students take for granted can be a cause for concern, and it is imperative that international students learn to vanquish these barriers in order to be successful.

In one case, a twenty-five-year old graduate student who has the English skills of an eighteen-year-old freshman may feel downtrodden by his inability to communicate with American students at the level that he would in his own country. Although it may be frustratingly difficult to make friends, persistence is the key to success. The more that international students can teach Americans about their own culture, American students, in turn, will be more open and willing to exchange the same.

International students are sometimes less likely to ask for help when in need, and tend to be more reserved or modest due to the communication divide. In most American universities, assistance and academic guidance are available, but a student that is unfamiliar with the accessibility of these resources may not be able to capitalize. 

Other subtle nuances such as the way in which Americans say hello can be alienating to some foreign students. Simply asking, “How are you doing?” to a stranger is unorthodox in some East Asian cultures for example. The sooner an international student can master the basic etiquette of day-to-day interaction, the easier it will be for that student to feel comfortable and blossom in the American higher education system.

Most students, after being away from home for a long time, can begin to feel homesick. However, activities and on-campus exposure to other students will aid by increasing morale and self confidence, and will eventually lead to the international student finding his or her own niche in the student population.

Integration, assimilation, self-pride, and a general sense of belonging on campus can be the most beneficial ways to succeed as an international student. As globalization and diversification are key to growing a strong and stable economy, it is imperative that our universities continue to empower international students to succeed alongside their American counterparts.

The Diversity Network sends its sincere thanks and appreciation to Riley Sklar for sharing his thoughts on the challenges facing international students in the US.  If you would like to share your thoughts, email us at members(at)diversitynetwork.org.

Tags:  culture shock  International Students  language 

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International Exchange: Stepping Away from Cultural Tourism

Posted By Lily Lopez-McGee, Thursday, December 9, 2010
Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2016

Stepping out of a long tour bus, a group of American students work their way into the common area of a small non-profit in San Lucas, Nicaragua. After hearing the organization’s director speak about its work with the local community and the challenges facing Nicaraguan youth, the students ask a few questions and are hurried back out to the bus to make their next stop. The dialogue stops there. The students go on with their courses and are unlikely to discuss the organization or their experience again.

In preparing for international study, students are generally advised into setting academic and professional goals for what they would like to gain from their experience. Though these are worthwhile goals, rarely do you find that emphasis is placed on true immersion into the local culture.Instead what is often the case is that students are conditioned to act as cultural tourists.This means that though they live near local students, they interact primarily with other foreigners.This is in part due to the pre-departure readiness of students, but it is also a result of program design and implementation. In an ideal scenario, a program provider would integrate true immersion through activities that allow study abroad students to peer into the real lives of their local peers.

A relatively new documentary titled Crossing Borders demonstrates one director’s attempt to create such an environment for American students.The goal of the film is to “support the development of intercultural empathy and critical thinking skills, and initiate dialogue between students of different cultures” outside of the classroom. Director Arnd Wächter’s Crossing Borders documentary challenges the traditional approach of study abroad programs that place American students with other American students, a method that rarely results in students engaging young people from the host country. International exchange should be more than simply taking classes in a different country; it should be an opportunity to truly exchange ideas, experiences and beliefs to better understand our differences, and more importantly, share our similarities.

Through the documentary, Wachter tries “to overcome the artificial separation between ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’” In a system where economic, diplomatic, and military exchanges require a deeper cultural understanding of one another, international programs should work to expose participants to other cultures and ways of thinking not only through academic training but also through personal interactions with the local community. Homestays and cultural site visits alone cannot take the place of thoughtful conversations between study abroad students and their peers in the host country.

In addition to offering students on both sides the opportunity to explore other perspectives, students are able to reflect on their own beliefs, experiences, and ideas - something Karen Rodriguez describes as “an awareness of how one is informed by one’s own culture and makes sense of cultural differences subjectively.” These skills - empathy and critical reflection - though hard to measure, are imperative to a student’s successful entry into a global job market.

As educators, program providers, advisers, and mentors, we must encourage young people to have these conversations. There is a great opportunity to change the way young people see the world and communicate with those who think differently. Moving away from cultural tourism and stepping toward models of true cultural immersion will have a positive long-term impact on the next generation of international leaders.

Lily Lopez-McGee currently serves as Program Manager with the UNCF Special Programs Corporation in the Institute for International Public Policy division. Among her many duties, Ms. Lopez-McGee manages student internships, language institutes and social media outreach.  She is fluent in Spanish and has traveled through parts of Latin America and Western Europe. She is a graduate of the University of Washington Evans School for Public Affairs, where she earned her Master's of Public Administration.

Tags:  100000 Strong Initiative  AID Roadmap  career  China  culture shock  Diversity  International Exchange  International Students 

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