When studying abroad for any period of time, you may go through an adjustment process. In your new international or domestic location you will face a new cultural, academic, political, and environmental setting. You may encounter new ways of thinking that excite and inspire you, and you may also encounter situations and ideas that challenge and frustrate you.
Many students will go through what study abroad professionals refer to as the Cultural Adjustment Curve, shown below. As you look at the curve and move through the process, it is important to note that not all students will engage with the process in the same way. You may skip certain stages, experience the process in a different order, or you may encounter shorter or longer adjustment periods than other students.
It’s important for you to identify your feelings—both positive and negative—during your time abroad and to reflect on these feelings. It’s also important to know that you are not alone in these feelings and that you have resources to connect to both on-site and through Lafayette College. Below are resources available to all Lafayette students studying off-campus.
On-site program leaders or administration: Your on-site leaders and program administrators are a good place to start when looking for support during an off-campus or abroad program. They can help point you in the right direction for the resources you need.
Medical Insurance Provider: All students are covered by either their affiliated program’s medical insurance or by Lafayette’s On Call International plan. Your medical insurance provider is a good place to look for referrals to local counseling services and mental health professionals.
The 5 Rs of Culture Change
The 5 Rs of Culture Change is a more recent cultural adjustment model that identifies five key changes (routines, reactions, roles, relationships and reflections about yourself) we face when we move across cultures. It helps us understand why it is normal to experience ups and downs when moving across cultures and why stress is a part of the transition process.
When we first move across cultures many of our routines are disrupted: we eat different foods at different times of the day, we have to navigate a new environment, and we may be without a regular schedule for some time as we get settled. At the same time, even the most basic of routines, from turning on lights, to getting on a bus, to shopping at the grocery store - which we normally do on auto-pilot without much thinking, may suddenly require more (and in some cases our full) focus and energy.
We do things we are accustomed to doing in our own culture - but we get a very different reaction than we expect in our new culture. While we recognize we probably acted out of the norm for the culture we are in, we don't have the "key" to unlock this situation and understand exactly why people reacted the way they did. At the same time, we experience a different way of working, interacting or engaging. We ourselves try to react appropriately but find ourselves lacking the appropriate skills to do so effectively, be it a command of the language or the ability to shift styles.
We often experience changes in our roles and responsibilities when we move across cultures. We may carry out the same role but in another culture. We may take on a new or expanded role. We may lose roles that are important to us. We find some roles do not change, but our ability to fulfill these roles does. Additionally, others may see us as playing a particular role, whether or not we define ourselves in this way (e.g. the role of "a foreigner” or as a representative of your home culture). We are likely to experience many forms of role changes, sometimes simultaneously.
When we move to another culture we discover how to live out our relationships in a new environment and are often challenged not to let the stresses around us enter into these relationships. Our relationships with those we transition with may get stronger, deeper and more profound as a result of going through the change, but they also take work. At the same time, we find other relationships around us changing—we may drift apart from certain friendships back home, be surprised at the newfound sense of closeness and kinship we experience with others despite the distance, and be challenged to recreate relationships in our new environment so we have a sense of community and support.
Reflections About Yourself
As we experience culture change, we may start to notice that we ourselves change in some subtle and not so subtle ways: we may realize we actually really enjoy certain aspects of the lifestyle abroad that we didn't know we would; or, we realize just how important certain values are to us that we might not have articulated before. We may pick up certain habits, gestures, and ways of being that are now natural to us, but also may surprise and disarm family and friends back home who start to wonder what else has changed about us. We are growing, evolving, and developing—trying to become more aware of who we are culturally and individually speaking—which brings many benefits but often also some confusion and uncertainty.
Kate Berardo, “Framework: The 5Rs of Culture Change,” in Building Cultural Competence: Innovative Activities and Models, eds. K. Berardo and D. K. Deardorff (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2012), 193-199.