Cultural Adjustment - a Guide for International Students

Cultural adjustment
Most people who live in a foreign country for an extended period of time experience cultural stress. It is normal to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. This is all part of the cultural learning process! Living in a culture that is different from your own can be both an exciting adventure and a challenging process. Regardless of what country you are from, it is common for all international students to go through a period of cultural adjustment. Understanding this adjustment process and getting support through this transition will help you to have a more fulfilling experience, both personally and academically.

Culture shock
The values, social norms, and traditions in Iceland may be quite different from believes about "how things should be" in the country where you grew up. When individuals move to another culture, they naturally carry their own background and life experiences with them, which shape how they perceive and adjust to their new environment. For example, some of you may find Icelandic classroom culture easy to adjust to, while others may struggle significantly in this area. "Culture shock" is a common experience that describes the feelings of confusion, stress and disorientation that occur when entering an unfamiliar culture. Keep in mind that not everyone has the same reactions to cultural adjustment and may experience the symptoms of culture shock in varying degrees, and at different times. Common reactions to culture shock include:

  • extreme homesickness
  • avoiding social situations
  • physical complaints and sleep difficulties
  • difficulty with coursework and inability to concentrate
  • overreacting
  • significant nervousness or exhaustion

Strategies to help you cope with the adjustment process:

- Culture is relative
Culture is relative. As an international student, you will be exposed to many new customs, habits and ideas. Try to avoid labeling them as "good" or "bad" according to the culture you are from. Remember that there may be parts of a culture you dislike or disapprove of, but these are part of a broader social system, and therefore make more sense inside that system.

- Be open-minded and curious 
Adjusting to a new culture does not mean that you have to change your own values, but it is important to respect those of other people. When you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, try to think of it as a new adventure. Allow yourself to be curious about the way things are perceived and done in this new environment.

- Use your observation skills 
Since you will encounter unfamiliar rules and norms, observing how others are acting in situations can help you understand what behavior is expected of you. Pay attention to both the verbal and nonverbal communication of others in order to get a more complete picture of what is going on.

- Ask questions 
Ask for help when you need it. Asking for assistance or an explanation does not have to be considered a sign of weakness. Understanding others and making yourself understood in a new language (or context) requires lots of rephrasing, repeating and clarification. It may be helpful to ask questions like "as I understand it you are saying... Is that correct?"

- It's ok to experience anxiety 
Learning to function in a new environment is not easy. It is natural to feel anxious or frustrated sometimes. The key is to remind yourself that these feelings are normal and are likely to be situational and temporary.

- Give yourself (and others) permission to make mistakes 
You will inevitably make mistakes as you explore a new culture. If you can find the humor in these situations and laugh at them, others will likely respond to you with friendliness and support. Keep in mind that others will probably make mistakes, too; when someone makes an inaccurate assumption or a generalized statement about your culture, it may be due to a lack of information. If you're comfortable with doing so, this can be an opportunity to share information with others about yourself and your culture.

- Take care of your physical health 
Be mindful about keeping a healthy diet and getting enough exercise and rest. Try to find an activity that you enjoy and make it part of your routine. Being physically active can help reduce your stress level.

- Make plans for keeping in touch
While abroad, you’ll want to be in touch with the people back home to share your experiences. However, study abroad is also a time for personal and cultural exploration. Past students have suggested arranging a schedule with family and friends to determine when they will be in touch and to manage expectations for how frequently you’ll be contacting them.

- Find a cultural ally 
An Icelandic friend (or another international student who has been in Iceland for several years) can be a great consultant on cultural expectations. When you have questions or need a second opinion on something, this person can help clarify confusions and provide support as you adjust to your new environment.

- Seek out support from other international students 
Many international students find it helpful to discuss their concerns with others who are going through similar transitions. Talking with others about their adjustment to the new culture can provide ideas and insights about your own experience. Seek out friends and groups who share your interests and encourage you to participate in social circles. 

- Be patient - don't try to understand everything immediately 
The process of adjusting to a new culture requires time. It may also require a different amount of time for different areas of adjustment. Try to encourage yourself to be patient with this experience and not be overly critical of yourself.

Adapting to a new culture is an ongoing process. It may be challenging at times, but most students who experience culture shock agree that going through this transition helped them to learn more about themselves and to develop greater confidence in their ability to navigate in new situations. It can also lead to a renewed appreciation of one's own culture. There are many people in the university community who are available to provide you with support. Keep in mind that you do not have to struggle alone.

Here are resources that you can utilize:
The University Student Counselling and Career Center
The International Office

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