When Going Away to College Means Culture Shock

Whether you are an international student coming to the U.S. for the first time for college, an American expat who grew up abroad and is coming back for school (so called “third culture kids”), or even a born and bred New Yorker imagining what college will look like in Texas or a Californian planning to attend a small liberal arts school in Maine, going away to college can come with a sense of culture shock.

Living and going to school somewhere culturally different from what you know can be bewildering or disorienting.  Being exposed to unfamiliar ways of doing things can make you feel like an outsider — like everyone else understands the social cues and “rules of the game,” except you.  Culture shock can make us feel more homesick, and make us miss everything we think of as normal.  It can make us want to close ourselves off to new experiences or to only try and seek out other people who are like us.

So how should you plan for and deal with this?

The first step is to just be aware of it.  Prepare yourself for the fact that not everyone does things the same way.  Even things we take for granted and assume are the same everywhere can vary wildly from one place to another.  For example, in much of the south and Midwest of the United States, particularly in smaller towns, people make a lot of small talk, even with perfect strangers.  Having someone you’ve never met genuinely ask you how your day is going can seem very peculiar, both to an international student from Finland and even the native Manhattan resident.

The next step is to do a little research.  Try to learn more about the place where you are planning to live and study for the next four years.  A visit is always a great idea, if money and geography allow it.  But if you’re from a sunnier clime, don’t assume you will love New England in the winter based on your visit in June.  Weather, the size of the community you live in, and the cultural, sporting, and entertainment opportunities will play a huge role in your life during college, so don’t discount these factors.  If there are other students from your area who have gone to school where you’re hoping to attend, see if they are willing to answer your questions about the adjustment.  What did they love?  What did they hate?  What surprised them and what was just downright weird to them?  The more you know about where you are planning to spend years of your life, the more you will be prepared to deal with and mitigate culture shock.

Finally, think long and hard about the difference between your tastes and your values.  What are the things that, no matter how central they seem to your life, are a matter of personal preference?  How willing are you to try new things and expand your horizons?  College is the perfect opportunity to do just that.  At the same time, it’s important to know what isn’t just about tastes or style, but about your core convictions.  Make sure that where you plan on living and studying is a place that meshes well with your convictions.  Regardless of whether that means finding a campus that matches your religious worldview, or that has the same approach to tolerance and diversity that you do, it is important to find a school and a community that will allow you to grow and develop, but will also respect and support who you are as a person.

Many schools have programs and support systems to help international students start to acclimate to a new environment.  Some schools are evening expanding to create unique programs that deal with the challenges of being a third culture kid returning to the U.S. to go to college.

If you want to learn more about how to handle the major transition to college and the culture shock that can come with it, please contact us for a free, no obligations 30 minute consultation to see if we can help you.

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