10 Steps of Culture Shock for Study Abroad Students

I'm not going to lie to you--going abroad is one of the most challenging things I have ever done. I'm sure you've heard all the corny phrases like "Broadens your horizons!" and "Changes who you are!" and "Wouldn't trade it for the world!" And yes, they're all true. But that doesn't mean studying abroad is easy. Why? For me, it was culture shock.

What is culture shock? It was being unable to grocery shop with wanting to cry. It was being unable to figure out the washing machine and wearing dirty clothes instead. It was being so upset and homesick that I didn't eat for three days. It's laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering "What am I even doing here?"

Everyone has a different experience with culture shock. Some say that never experienced it, while others never overcome it. Having been abroad twice, I've seen culture shock in many forms for many people. Everyone handles it differently, but I truly believe that if I had known more about culture shock before going abroad, I would've been better suited to handle how hard it was. So with that being said, here is my 10 step guide to culture shock.


A timeline of culture shock when studying abroad

1 Pre-departure ups and downs

It's the months leading up to going abroad. You're so, so, so excited to finally get on the plane and fly to your new study abroad destination. But you're also so, so, so nervous to leave your family, friends, and college campus. Maybe you're like me, where I was so nervous that I avoided all conversations geared towards my going abroad altogether. Or you'll be like my friend, who spent everyday researching things about Florence, weekend trips we'll do, and more.

As the departure date comes closer, these feelings will become more intense. You'll wake up one day and realize it's a few weeks away. Then a few days. Then tomorrow. And then...

Here it is. You're heading to the airport, and you're nervous. Your parents say goodbye to you at the security gate. You might be crying, and they might be crying. Despite being so nervous, I actually reached a calm at this time. I accepted that I was going abroad, and was ready to get on that plane. That didn't stop my mom from making me teary-eyed as she cried and hugged me goodbye.

Despite the nerves, it's an exciting time. You're actually doing it. You're finally going abroad. You board the plane, plug in some headphones, and get ready to go to your new home for the next few months.

Finally, made it to the study abroad destination!

2 Honeymoon phase

Welcome abroad! You've landed in the airport. Things are already different. Perhaps its the foreign language on the signs, perhaps its the accents of the people around you, perhaps its the candy and snacks in the shops.

You roll your suitcases into your apartment/hotel room, and finally get a second to sit down. You did it. The stress of traveling is over, and now you're here. Now it's just the nerves of being somewhere new.

The honeymoon phases differs from person to person. For me, it lasted about 24 hours. For others, its two weeks. It really depends on the person. (And honestly, some people even skip this phase.) But while it does last, it's great. You're still feeling the nerves, but they're accompanied by the excitement and awe of being abroad. Everything is so different, and you can't wait to see it all. It's a whole new place with all new opportunities. The honeymoon phase feels great!

The honeymoon phase in front of the Ponte Vecchio

3 Culture shock

But the culture shock phase feels awful. Worse than awful. Absolutely debilitating, sometimes. Suddenly, you realize how hard it is being in a place that speaks a foreign language, has a different culture, eats different foods, sells different goods, and more.

When I was in Italy, it hit me hard, far harder than I ever could have imagined. I cried a lot, and often without reason. I was so upset that I barely slept. I couldn't eat, socialize, or bring myself to feel happy to be abroad. I was crippled by my anxiety of being in a new environment.

If you'e feeling like how I felt, do not be afraid to reach out for help. At the time, I was on track to flying home. If it weren't for my program's director in Florence and my school's counselor, I wouldn't be writing this right now. But I got help, worked through the culture shock, and eventually came out of it.

Not everyone overcomes culture shock. Sometimes you hit rock bottom and choose to go home. Sometimes, the culture shock lingers all semester. But trust me when I say this: you can overcome it. You might have to work for it, but you can do it. Believe in yourself and get the help you need to adjust to this new place.

4 Adjustment

You did it. You got over the culture shock. The city is no longer as exciting or magical as it had seemed during the honeymoon phase, but you've come to accept that this is where you'll be staying for the next few months.

This is when I realized how much I truly enjoyed being in Italy. I was refueled by the architecture, people, food, and culture. I went on weekend trips to places like Croatia, France, the Amalfi Coast, and more. If you're feeling bored in your study abroad city, book a trip. Get out and explore somewhere new. Try that museum you've thought about going to for the past month. Keep yourself busy, because, after all, you're only here for a few months. Don't waste it, because it will be gone before you know it.

5 Post-midterm homesickness

It's halfway through the semester. You've made friends, learned your way around the city, and been working hard in your classes. You went on mid-semester trip, or perhaps took a week off to relax.

When school starts up again, though, there tends to be a collective sigh of disappointment from students. Being abroad is great, but a part of you is thinking about how far away your return date is. You're certainly not ready to leave, but perhaps you wish for just a few days home to become revitalized and eat all the food you missed.

Sometimes, this phase can evolve into Culture Shock 2.0. If it does, do not be afraid to reach out for help from friends, counselors, or program directors. I met with my school's counselor after fall break because I was feeling homesick. Even now in my second semester, I felt that dip in energy after spring break.

I got to explore Greece for my spring break

6 Acceptance

Once out of that rut of homesickness, you're back to "neutral." You're no longer adjusting, but rather you've accepted the study abroad semester for what it is. Perhaps you love your study abroad destination, and maybe you don't. But you've accepted that you have a few weeks left here. You get back into the groove of classes and continue onward with the semester.

Feeling restless? Try river rafting in Croatia

7 Pre-return ups and downs

It's the end of the semester. You can't believe it's finally here, and you've probably said that close to a hundred times. You're excited to go home, but you're also really sad that it's over. You might cry a lot. You might be devastated that you're leaving all your new study abroad friends who will be relocating back to their different corners of the world. Perhaps you're sad to be leaving your school and new professors. You can't believe your time abroad has come to an end. Or perhaps you'll be sighing with relief, and be excited to be heading back to the comforts of home. Most likely, you'll be experiencing a mixture of the two.

In Italy, I was heartbroken to leave. One of my professors told me how happy he was to have me as a student, so naturally I cried the entire walk home. I had come to love my study abroad city. If someone had offered me to spend another month in Florence, I would have accepted it in a heartbeat. Now that I'm in my second semester abroad, I am definitely ready to spend an extended period in my home country.

Finally, the day has come to go home. You've packed your bags, said your goodbyes, and are lugging your luggage out the door. Suddenly, you're at the airport and boarding your plane. It's time to go home.

8 Happy to be home

You're home! Finally! Look, there's a 24 hour McDonald's! And look, there's your parents! And your siblings! And your dog! Being home feels great, but also strange. Everything is so familiar, but it feels different. You're suddenly looking at your home through a new perspective and realizing what you had taken for granted. You're also probably exhausted from traveling and can't wait to finally sleep in your own bed.

This is the honeymoon phase of being home. You finally get to eat all those meals you missed. Friends and family are excited to see you again and want to hear all about your semester. You finally get to shop American brands. I especially loved driving my car again. You can't imagine anything better than this.

9 Reverse culture shock

But that joy doesn't last forever. Your parents head back to work, your friends are busy and can't hang out, and suddenly you're missing your home abroad. The novelty of eating food from home has worn off, and you're suddenly craving going back. You miss walking the streets, the people, the culture. Home is great, but it feels far less fantastical than an international semester. People stop asking you about what it was like being abroad, but all you can do is wish it was back.

I've been told that coming back to school after a semester abroad is the hardest part. I have yet to experience this, as I'll be returning to my campus in the fall. When I came home from Italy, it was Christmas and I was quickly washing and repacking my stuff so that I could fly back to Europe for the spring. Even in those short three weeks, I was ready to go back abroad. I missed the business of it and the limitless options of things to do. I do know that that desire to go back abroad can be just as hard as culture shock the first time around. You might find yourself, yet again, laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and thinking, "What am I even doing here?" Again, take advantage of the resources you have to help you through this time, whether its friends, family, counselors, or something else if you need them.

Looking back on my semester abroad and wishing I was back there

10 Adjustment

You've adjusted to being home. The desire to be abroad has subdued, and you've gotten used to your new routine. Perhaps you're back on campus or are starting your summer job. You still look back on abroad with fond memories, but are content to spend some time home. Life has resumed.

One thing I think study abroad students collectively take back from being abroad is a new appreciation for home. I am from the United States, but I have never left the east coast of the country to go west. Being abroad has made me realize how much I desire to see more of my own country. I am looking forward to my next adventure, which will hopefully be seeing and learning more about my own country.

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