International Studies & Programs

Survival Strategies

Living abroad comes with the same challenges as moving to a new city in the U.S., but can also be coupled with culture shock. Here are some tips to adjust more quickly to your life abroad!


Education Abroad Phases

When you go abroad, you have to adjust to the same sorts of things that you would if you moved to another part of the U.S.: being away from family and friends, living in an unfamiliar place, meeting new people, adjusting to the local climate, and more.

These changes alone could stress you out, but you may also be dealing with culture shock. In another culture, your everyday "normal" behavior may become abnormal.

Social rules are different around the globe, and your regular way of speaking and acting in the U.S. may not be accepted in your host country. This could include family structure, faculty-student relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, and gender.

You can prepare yourself for these differences by understanding the cycle of adjustment that students abroad go through when they arrive in their host country.

Phase 1: Euphoria

You’re excited by the thrill of being in a totally new and unusual environment. You’ll get settled into housing, schedule classes, meet new friends, and spend a lot of time with other U.S. students during orientation.

Phase 2: Frustration

You realize your old habits and routines are no longer relevant. You may be irritable, resentful, and maybe a little angry. Minor problems suddenly become major crises, and you may feel overwhelmed or isolated, and your eating and sleeping habits may change. You may feel like you’re having a terrible time adjusting to your new country. You may be anxious, sad, or homesick, and communicate as much in texts, emails, video chats, and letters home.

Phase 3: Integration

The social norms in your new country start to feel more familiar. You get to know your neighborhood, meet local people, and start to feel in tune with your environment, and a natural part of the surrounding culture. You may even forget to communicate home.


Strategies

There are a few strategies you can use before you leave and after you arrive that will help you through Phase 2.

Become familiar with the local language

Rent and watch foreign movies to become accustomed to the rhythm and sounds of the language of your new home. Don’t be so concerned with the grammar and technicalities of a language that you’re afraid to speak it once you’re abroad.

Know your own country

You’ll find that people around the world often know far more about the U.S. and its policies than you do. Start preparing now by reading newspapers and news magazines. Whether or not you’re familiar with current events, especially foreign policy, expect to be asked about your opinions and to hear the opinions of others.

Examine your motives for going abroad

Although you’ll certainly do some traveling while you're abroad, remember that your program isn’t an extended vacation. Set realistic academic goals, particularly if you’re studying in another language. 

Recognize the value of culture shock

Culture shock is uncomfortable, but it’s also a way of expanding your worldview and thinking critically about your own culture that goes beyond facts and figures. Connecting emotionally with another culture and the people in it will help you become a better version of yourself.

Expect to feel depressed sometimes

Homesickness is natural, especially if you’ve never been away from home. Remember that your family and friends wouldn’t have encouraged you to go if they didn’t think you could do it. Instead of letting thoughts of home stop you from diving headfirst into your new environment, think of all the stories you’ll share with your family and friends when you come home.

Expect to feel frustrated and angry at times

You’re bound to have communication problems when you’re not using your native language, even if most people speak English in your host country! People will do things differently in your new home and you may think your way is better than theirs. But remember that you’re the foreigner, and nothing you do is going to radically change local cultural practices.

Expect to hear criticism of the United States

If you educate yourself on U.S. politics and foreign policies, you’ll be more prepared to handle these conversations. Criticism of U.S. policies isn’t personal; don't be afraid to argue if you feel so inclined. Most foreign nationals are very interested in the U.S. and will want to know your opinions.

Don’t expect local people to come and find you

When was the last time you approached a lonely-looking foreign student with an offer of friendship? Things aren’t any different where you’re going. If you aren’t meeting people through your classes, make other efforts to meet them. Join clubs, play sports, attend worship services, and volunteer. 

Keep your sense of humor and stay positive

If you have a terrible, frustrating day (or week) abroad, remember that it will pass. Almost all returned study abroad students have wonderful stories about how much fun they had during their time abroad. Time has a way of helping us remember the good times and turning those horrible times into great stories!

Write a journal or blog

Writing a blog can help you deal with cultural adjustments and reflect on the differences between the U.S. and other cultures. As you write, you'll think your way out of negative reactions to unfamiliar sights, sounds, languages and cultural practices. And when you return home, you'll have a written record of your journey.

Find coping strategies that work for you

It may be exercise, or cooking, or reading books, talking to friends and family back home, or staying busy: everyone has a different strategy to take care of themselves abroad. Find what works for you, and helps you fully experience your time in your host country.

Talk to someone if you have a serious problem

The resident director, program leader, or an MSU staff member is a phone call away to counsel students with serious problems. They have firsthand experience with making adjustments abroad and can be a real friend in times of need. Lean on your fellow students with day-to-day problems; they’re going through the same process you are and can be a great resource.

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