Study Abroad

Study Abroad: How to Prepare for Life in Another Country

Studying abroad is a chance to get out in the world, discover new things, and experience new cultures. While more students than ever are seeking out these travel opportunities, many aren’t prepared to be immersed in another culture and can have negative emotional reactions toward the host country and community once they are there.

If studying abroad is more to you than a chance to party in another part of the world, then you should prepare yourself before you go. Here are some steps you can take in advance to help make your experience overseas a positive one.

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Understand culture shock

Culture is something that is taught to us from the day we are born. It’s so ingrained in our everyday activities that we don’t have to give it much thought within the context of own country or hometown. However, when we travel to another part of the world where cultural norms are very different, it’s common and almost inevitable to go through stages of what social scientists refer to as “culture shock.”

Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation, and sometimes discomfort, a person feels when immersed in an unfamiliar culture or way of life. Anticipating culture shock can help you plan for studying abroad in the sense that you can identify these emotions when they arise and deal with them head-on.

Social scientists have determined that there are typically four stages of culture shock:

  1. The “euphoria” or “honeymoon” stage begins with a person’s arrival in a new country and is associated with overwhelmingly positive impressions and fascination with the new culture or environment.
  2. Next, the “withdrawal” or “irritability” stage begins when the initial excitement of being in a new country wears off. In this stage, it is common for people to feel irritated and critical of the local culture, to be hyper-focused on differences between the local culture and home, and to feel isolated or withdrawn.
  3. The “adjustment” phase is a gradual phase in which an individual becomes accepting of and accustomed to, the new local cultural norms and is able to interpret subtle cultural clues in everyday interactions. In this stage, an individual will be more involved and engaged in the local society.
  4. In the final “enthusiasm” or “biculturalism” phase, an individual will perceive the local culture to be less foreign and much more like home. In this stage, an individual not only will understand the local culture, they will greatly enjoy it and actually prefer some of these cultural practices over those of their home.

Now that we have a broad overview of the emotional journey you can expect to have once you arrive in your destination, let’s take a look at some more specific ways you can prepare and get the most out of your time abroad.

Learn the language

Learning the language of the country where you’ll be studying ahead of time will be invaluable in terms of acclimating to the new culture, and in reducing some of the effects of culture shock, particularly in the second “withdrawal” or “irritability” stage.

When students don’t speak the language of the host country, they may feel excited about being in a foreign country at first, but eventually they will become frustrated or angry if they find communication barriers difficult to overcome when trying to accomplish daily tasks.

During this phase of negative emotions and frustration, many students will actively seek and exclusively interact with native speakers of their own language, forming “cliques” that aren’t necessarily involved with members of the host country and speakers of the local language.

By limiting your interactions to speakers of your language, your ability to immerse yourself in the host country and culture will be severely limited. Learning as much of the language as you can before you leave your home country is the best way to get the most out of your time abroad, and luckily there are many free language-learning resources out there! In the end, you’ll be glad you were prepared ahead of time.

Do your research

Take time to do as much research as you possibly can about the host country.

More than likely, you already know a little about the country where you’ll be studying – after all, you probably chose that location for a reason. Aside from having a broad perception of the country, however, try to develop more specific knowledge of that country and its cultural practices.

Start your research by stopping by your local bookstore or library. Pick up a guidebook on the host country – they often include a section on cultural norms and practices, and will serve as a great introduction to your research. Also, keep your eye open for travel memoirs and other books – both non-fictional and fictional – written about that country. Reading material written from many perspectives will help you understand every day life and culture in that country.

Once you’ve read through the material you’ve picked out from the bookstore or library, take your research online and search out websites, blogs, forums, videos, podcasts, or any other resource pertaining to travel and life in the host country. Many travelers are sharing their experiences online or offering advice to others. You’ll be surprised at how much useful information you will find by spending a little bit of time searching on Google.

Try search phrases such as “[country] travel advice,” “[country] travel blogs,” and “[country] culture.”

Connect with others

Aside from sorting through information online, you should try to connect with others who are from or have traveled to the country where you’ll be studying.

If you know someone who is from that country, offer to buy them lunch in exchange for sharing information with you about what life is like in their home country. Ask questions about cultural norms, customs, and overall what to expect on a daily basis.

On the same note, if you know someone who has traveled or studied abroad in that country, arrange a time to meet up with them and have them share their experiences traveling or living that country. More than likely, you will learn how they dealt with culture shock in that country and how they adjusted to the local cultural norms.

Get in the right mindset

As discussed in the article “Career Benefits of Study Abroad: It’s Not Just a Vacation,” there are many opportunities for personal growth while studying abroad. A huge component of being prepared to get the most out of your time overseas, however, is by getting in the right mindset before you leave home.

There’s no denying the excitement or fun involved in going to another country for an extended period of time. Don’t forget to think ahead to the big picture, and what you hope to get out of the experience by the end of your travels. For example, think about how much fun it will be to learn about local cultural customs and a different way of life, or what it will be like to use a foreign language daily and make new friends while doing so.

Keeping your mindset and intentions on being immersed and actively engaged in the host community will translate to a positive experience, one in which you will come home with new perspectives that will change the way you understand the world.

Stay positive!

It can be scary to leave home, and there’s no way to completely know what being in a new culture will be like until you are actually there. The important thing is to stay positive ahead of time, and to know that the experience you are about to have will be great – it will be one you look back on for the rest of your life.

Planning ahead of time will only make your time abroad that much better, but don’t let the amount of information out there weigh you down. In the end, it’s important to have fun while doing your research – the planning phase can be one of the most exciting parts about traveling!

Consider recording your thoughts and impressions during your research in a journal. When you return from your trip, you might find it interesting to reflect on your personal journey throughout the entire experience starting from this moment right now.

Have any questions about preparing to study abroad or want to share your study abroad advice with others? Feel free to post a comment below.

Photo credit: David Marcu / Unsplash

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.

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