What to Expect: The Four Stages of Your Experience Abroad

April 2008
Dear Student,

In many ways your trip is already well on its way; I hope it is also well begun. An extended stay abroad is always, in some way, difficult for everyone concerned. For those who go away as well as for those who stay behind, and the experience for all seems to follow certain patterns.

1. Initial Euphoria
The initial euphoria began earlier this spring when you were accepted into the Study Abroad Program and knew you were off to Program X for the year! It was fed by information, official and informal, about the country and the university, about travel and life abroad, from the Study Abroad Office, from faculty, from brochures, from friends, classmates and returning students, from family members, etc. . . . It has augmented with preparations, official and personal: getting your papers in order, gathering and packing your "stuff", making travel plans. The euphoria will continue to grow and climax through the third or fourth week of your stay when you will find everything new intriguing and exciting, when the new and the strange is wonderful at best, and "quaint" at worst. Your anticipations are full of high and great expectations for yourself, for the people you will encounter, and for the places in which you will be. Upon arrival, this period may last from one to six weeks--four is average--, but the let down is inevitable. You've ended the first stage and have become more aware of the second stage which, really, also began earlier this spring.

2. Anxiety, Irritation and Hostility
The second stage began earlier this spring when you were accepted into the Study Abroad Program and knew you were off to Program X for the year! Anxieties were fed by information, official and informal, about the country and the university, about travel and life abroad, from the Study Abroad Office, from faculty, from brochures, from friends, classmates and returning students, from family members, etc. . . . These have augmented with preparations, official and personal: getting your papers in order, gathering and packing your "stuff", making travel plans. There are concerns legitimate and spurious about whether you are going to make the academic adjustments; about the validity of the academic experience abroad; about missing out on courses at H.C.; about leaving a comfortable environment for an uncertain one; about leaving friends and family and how these might change while you're away and how you might change while you're away; about how much money you will need; about what you must absolutely bring and have; what if "something" happens at home and you can't get back on time; what if . . . . And how are you going to deal with people and institutions (universities, faculties, families, etc., etc.) which really are different?

During the first stage (1) of your stay abroad, you will tend to focus on similarities ("people are basically the same" syndrome), or on differences that, at least at first, don't appear to matter much ("isn't it quaint that people eat their salad at the end of the meal, and cheese for dessert"). Gradually, the focus turns from the similarities to the differences, and these are suddenly everywhere and troubling. You may blow up a little, or insignificant difficulties metamorphose into major catastrophes. You may find that the people you expected to count on, suddenly seem incompetent, or irresponsible, or disinterested--at best! You may even find them lazy, crooked, nasty, dirty, etc. . . .at the worst. The stereotypes of host nationals may appear to you to be absolutely true! You may get angry with yourself and with whoever is in the least bit responsible for you being where you are, and obviously not doing anything to relieve your difficulties. You are now in the full throes of 'culture shock': you don't understand what is going on around you (often that is literally true); your worst fears and anxieties seem actually upon you, and you think you are living (a good deal of the time) a nightmare. On top of this, you may discover you've not been feeling well, or you seem to be always tired, or you are behaving compulsively around one or more habits or around eating. The relationship with the people with whom you are living is often tense. You are not getting enough contact from home and or Holy Cross, or that special "friend"; you fear you are going to run out of money and be indigent in a strange land; you are bored; or you have serious doubts about your academic progress, or its value. You want to come home--damn the consequences! You have a very bad case of culture shock. You probably won’t experience all of this. This is a composite of experiences I have had, and observed colleagues and students go through. Successful experience demands this stage; it is analogous to the physical aches and pains of the serious dancer, or athlete, and their adage ("no pain, no gain") is, alas, true.

All this begins to really be felt a few weeks before Thanksgiving--though these feelings and "facts"--you are sure you are not imagining any of the above--have been around for a month or more: time seems to confirm many of the above difficulties. The family at home has not had it easy either; all the expectations and all of the anxieties, all the "difficulties" have been mutually shared. A year away is a long time for everyone, and perhaps, it is thought both by students abroad, and family and friends at home, that a "break at home, for Christmas and between semester" might do a world of good: it holds out promises of oncoming comforts to students, and makes bearable for them the tough November and December weeks; it holds out the opportunity for family to check out the student in person, to feed son or daughter proper food, to visit a physician if necessary, and to be "a whole family" at an important time of the year.

Whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of responding to the difficulties of culture shock with a remedy trip home: this will prolong your difficulties, postpone the adjustment, and can even shortchange and short-circuit a successful experience.

Culture shock is rarely recognized as such and is often misconstrued as "frustration" traceable to a specific action or cause which would go away were the situation remedied or the cause removed. Commonly, such "frustrations" are identified as:

1) the ambiguity of a particular situation
2) the actual situation not matching preconceived ideas of what it would be like
3) unrealistic goals
4) not being able to see results (because of the enormity of the need, because of the nature of the work and experience, because of the shortness of time of one's involvement)
5) using wrong methods to achieve objectives

While real frustration is uncomfortable, it is, relative to culture shock, short-lived. Culture shock has distinctive elements.

1) It does not result from a specific event or series of events, even if such events seem obvious and identifiable. It comes from the experience of encountering different ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing things which are different from yours and which threaten your basic, most often unconscious, enculturated customs, assumptions, values, behavior, expectations, etc... The structure of education, the organization of universities and departments, registering for courses, classroom routines, and levels and areas of expectations, the very arena where you expect to be on most familiar ground, is likely to be where you will first really feel the disorienting tremors of cultural plates moving against each other--these matters are further complicated when there is an additional and actual language difference. Universities abroad are not Holy Cross, education abroad is not American education. They are not better, they are not poorer; they are different and your experiences in them will permanently enlarge and enrich your education--that is why, remember, you are going.

2) Culture shock is cumulative, the result of mounting pressures of being cut off from the cultural cues and known patterns with which you are familiar, the thousands of ways you orient yourself to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands, when to use formal forms of address, what to say when you meet people, when to accept and refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. Culture shock is the result of being continually put into positions in which you are expected to function with maximum skill and speed, but where the rules have not been adequately explained. Well, no one is holding out on you, there is no way anyone can prepare you adequately, explain all the "rules" to you. It takes a lot of experience to earn them and to learn to cope when you know you don't know. That is all part of the learning experience. What I can do, have done, and am again doing, is to remind you that you will go through this stage, that it will be difficult, very difficult for you and all who are concerned about you, and that you will survive, adjust and thrive.

Christmas time in your host country and/or in close neighboring countries can be a wonderful time; a perfect time to learn and experience the customs of your host country. Family is important too, and you can achieve most of the goals of a "remedy trip home" if you reverse the idea, and have a family member go abroad and meet the student. Why should the student have all the fun, and family get only a T-shirt memento? Now you know the joyful reason for having a family member have a valid passport on hand. The new arrival(s) has the advantage of having a personal experienced guide on hand; the student gets an incontrovertible confirmation that more expertise has been learned and earned than had been evident (including facility in the foreign language). The student guide/translator has an opportunity to practice and consolidate, with comforting people and in pleasant circumstances, the hard cultural and linguistic lessons learned the previous three or four months.

There is no sure fire Rx for culture shock, but a sense of humor, realistic goals and expectations, tolerance for differences and ambiguities, flexibility, adaptability, a strong sense of self, curiosity, empathy, self-reliance, and last, but not least, an ability to fail, to make mistakes (small and larger) and learn from these mishaps are what will make possible the next phase. Have faith in your abilities and strength.

3. Gradual Adjustment
The crisis does pass, but not suddenly. This stage comes on so gradually that you may not be, at first, aware that it is even happening. Once you begin to orient yourself and be able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues that passed by unnoticed earlier, the culture seems more familiar. You will be working more effectively, and personally functioning better. You'll feel more comfortable, feel less isolated. Little by little you realize the situation is not hopeless after all, and that indeed there are already things which occur daily that are a joy, and that you would not want to miss, things that you wonder how you'll ever do without. You are on your way to the last stage.

4. Adaptation and Biculturalism
You know you have fully recovered and are enjoying the "pay-off" of your hard won experience, not only when you can understand and speak your host country's language with some facility, but when you have the ability to function in two cultures with confidence. Acculturation has occurred when previously called "foreign" ways of doing things, saying things, and even newly acquired personal habits or routines, which you enjoy, have become "your" ways. In fact you can expect to experience "reverse culture shock" upon your return to the U.S. The last four or five months will be the time of your most evident growth, and is likely to be one of your education's and life's "very best of times" Enjoy.

I've devoted most of the space of this section to stage 2, not because it is the most important, indeed it will recede and fade by the time you get to stage 4 which will last the longest. I have done so to prepare you and your family and friends for what will necessarily be a rough ride for a while. Know it will come, and know it will pass.

Finally, please read over carefully all of the material given you about your program: all of the information you need should be there. Check and recheck dates. If you have any further question, or if you "misplaced" your materials, fess up and don't hesitate to call the Study Abroad office.


Maurice A. Géracht
Former Director, Study Abroad Program