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Coping with Culture Shock: The Importance of "Sticking it Out"

August 20, 2015

If you are currently studying or preparing to study abroad, I am sure you’ve grown tired of hearing about culture shock. There are many varieties of culture shock, and it’s impossible to pinpoint just when the period of culture shock will occur.

Before I left for my semester abroad in South Africa, I was told that the first few weeks were going to be incredible! I was going to be so busy meeting friends and taking in the new setting, that I would not have time to experience loneliness, anxiety, depression, or annoyance. I was told that culture shock would set in a few weeks into my journey…but I was never really told what that meant.

Culture Shock

Imagine my fear and confusion when what we call “culture shock” set in on day one. After being told that I was going to fall in love with the country the first few weeks, I was exceptionally worried when this wasn’t the case. My worry only added to my frustrations, and I found myself calling home and asking my mother to look into return flights by day 3.

These feelings began the first night. I was surrounded by American students who were so excited! They went out the first night and partied until the early hours of the morning. I stayed in – exhausted from 20 hours of travel. I felt lonely, tired, and uncomfortable.

The next day was better. I was busy with orientation and met a few girls who were really welcoming. Night time set in though, and once again I was alone in my single dorm with no flat mates yet, as we arrived about 2 weeks before the local students. My emotions were heightened. I experienced anxiety like never before, and every little issue was multiplied…I was every study abroad coordinator and advisor’s worst nightmare!

My most embarrassing memory: I called my university coordinator to complain about the “mold” in my room. What really was a few black spots on the ceiling of the bathroom (completely normal), turned into an infestation in my entire flat! (in my mind, not reality). I searched for any excuse to find a new environment, to go home…anything to get me away from where I was emotionally and physically. I couldn’t understand why I was so unhappy while everyone else was enjoying themselves.

My mom kept telling me that I was jet lagged and tired. She continued to say “Stick it out, Lindsay. You are just tired”. She was so right.

The truth is, my culture shock came early, and I wasn’t aware of it or it’s different forms. I was prepared for a completely different version – and was taken aback by my reality.

My intention is not scare students away, but to share to my experience and show that you shouldn’t fear or be overly swayed by negative emotions associated with culture shock during any period of your journey. You will most likely experience them, but you cannot expect when or where. Just be prepared and stick it out, because it will pass and you will find yourself laughing at your journal entries written during that time. I know I sure do!

I’ve just begun my career as a study abroad advisor, and I’ve already seen two students return due to the emotional and physical discomfort from culture shock. I’ve read many student blogs describing their frustrations a negative feelings, similar to my own. Students should know that they are not alone. My best advice is the same advice my mom told me: “stick it out…it will pass”. Build real and lasting relationships with your fellow American students, stay busy, make new local friends, and EXPLORE as much as you can! Your time is so short, and it will be over before you know it, so don’t give it up and take full advantage of it, because you may never have it again!


If you have questions about studying abroad with ISEP, feel free to tweet me @ISEPLindsay or email me lmoats@isep.org. For more tips, check out my personal blog, Africa Abroad.

Or if you’re just starting out in your study abroad search, let us know what you’re looking for in our quick survey.  We’ll follow up with you and try to match you with programs based on your selections.

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