Posted on: August 11, 2011

Topics in International Education | Culture Shock

Topics in International Education | Culture Shock

With each new academic year, thousands of students at the collegiate level make their way out of their homes and set out on a  new chapter of life in another country. Some leave bustling cities for a rural town, while others leave a dilapidated village with its own sense of community. Some come from places exotic, with monkeys, elephants, tigers, and camels as a typical animal and trek to bustling cities where the animals are merely a dog or house cat, and the ever-populous sewer rat. At VIU, we see the expressions on faces of students entering from the far-reaches of the globe. Some are wonder struck at the difference in landscape or climate from their home, while others are timid, shy, and speak little English. At every new student orientation I find myself thinking the same thought ‘What a wonderful group of new students! We are lucky that they have chosen VIU.  They are SO brave-traveling so many miles from home and immersing themselves in this strange and at times unforgiving land.’ I worry for these new comers.  I worry about what impression they are receiving from our country. Are people being kind to them? Are they treated with respect, or are they shunned because of their ethnic background and unfamiliarity with the country they have dreamed of coming to? I would sure hate to have these bright-eyed, hungry-for-knowledge individuals realize their dream of studying in the United States, only to have the people living here treat them poorly.

When these students travel to, well, anywhere, it is common to go through a bit of culture shock.  They are often a far-cry from the cities and customs they are used to. Family is far, far away – though some are luck to have extended relatives in the area to stay with. Students deal with the hustle of the semester beginning, settling into new homes, beginning classes, growing accustomed to the language barriers, and the list. goes. on. It is easy to understand how someone might feel anxious, scared, apprehensive, excited, nervous, sad, lonely, exhausted, puzzled, and happy all at the same time.  This mixture of emotions, as well as the difficulty in adjusting to a new way of life is, without a doubt, culture shock. I had the opportunity to sit down with a couple of VIU’s students this week and talk about what affected them the most when traveling from their home country to study in the States. Christie is from the Congo and Kola is from Nigeria. From an outsider’s perspective, these two individuals are so well-adjusted to their life in the USA. It is hard for me to even imagine that they were once faced with culture shock at any point.  Both students excel in their courses and hold employment positions on-campus. It would be no stretch to say that their supervisors are more than pleased with the level of their work. As a colleague of theirs, I can tell you, definitively, that these two are professional, smart, and happy people. Every time they pass you in the hall (seriously, it doesn’t matter who you are) they smile, say hello, and sometimes even ask about things going on in your life. But I digress. These students really did prove to be a great resource in my quest to find out more about culture shock. Here is a summary of my interviews with Kola & Christie:

Question #1: I asked the students what they found to be most surprising when arriving in the USA for the first time when compared with the ideals they had before coming.  Christie responded,  “I was impressed by the spirit of solidarity that reigns in this nation and at the same time, surprised at the numerous questions in regards to my background.” I was intrigued by her response.  Our patriotism and solidarity so often seems polarized, especially here in Washington DC, where party politics rule. Kola’s response to the question was that he was consumed with the size of the country. He noted that there are several time zones and weather conditions across the country, which is not something he had experienced on this level in Nigeria.

Question #2:  I was eager to understand what issues were most difficult in making the adjustment to a new country and lifestyle for new students traveling to live in the states for the first time. Kola’s response to this inquiry was really interesting. He noted that we live in a mostly cash-less society, relying on alternative forms of payment such as credit cards. He also noted that the fact that students on an F1 visa cannot work outside of on-campus positions was a difficult adjustment. Many students travel with the intention to work to supplement the payment of their education, but are unable to do so due to these regulations. For Christie, the most difficult part of the transition was the language barrier. She noted that accents were difficult and people often would either misunderstand her, or not understand at all. I felt that this is a pretty common roadblock for international students coming from regions where English is not a primary language.  Luckily, VIU offers a full, multi-tiered ESL program to aid students in these sorts of issues if their English is not where it may need to be.

Question #3: The third question I asked Christie & Kola was about the length of time it took to fully adjust to life in a new country. In retrospect, this question shows my naivety in dealing with culture shock. Christie responded right away that she has not fully adjusted. She noted that there are new challenges that arise every now and then that she must deal with,  but that it took about a year to become familiar with the ways of life here in the states. Kola had a bit of an easier time in making the adjustment, noting that once he began classes and made friends he was able to move on with the issues much easier.

Advice for Others. I asked both Christie and Kola to leave our readers with a piece of advice for other students who are thinking of, or have begun the process of traveling to another country to study. Here are their responses:

Kola encourages others to “Come prepared. Be aware that you will meet challenges along your way, and stay focused no matter what happens.”

Christie left us with the following: “Be courageous! Be focused! Studying in a new country wherever it may be requires courage as you are facing new experiences and probably on your own.  It is crucial to realize that it is time to be strong. This implies not dwelling on the cuddly memories of your life back home as they may weaken your spirit. Be goal-oriented in order to obtain achievements, an unfocused person can easily be blown away by the wind of trials. Remember, we need to go through the valley  in order to stand upon the mountain.”

As we welcome our new students this semester, I try to put myself in the shoes of these individuals. I was never brave enough to even begin to entertain the thought of flying to a foreign country and really learning. Immersing oneself in another culture in the name of scholarly work and education is a noble cause, no doubt. I continue to admire the brevity of those brave enough to take on the challenge, and thoroughly encourage others to follow suit. I can see that challenges will certainly be encountered, but that when the risk is great, so is the reward.

A special, and very large thank-you to Kola & Christie for your input. It will be invaluable to students who are traveling abroad to study. The two of you truly are an inspiration!