Previous risk factors that increase the cultural shock

"Why do some foreign college students have difficulty adjusting when they study abroad?"

There is no magic recipe to prevent the difficulties that a student who is studying abroad temporarily will suffer. However, ​​after more than 450 conversations with foreign university students, I have observed that they share some common previous factors that hinder them for adjusting properly to an unexpected reality. Among them:

  • In the past, they have had difficulty adapting to new contexts (eg has find it hard to adjust to a new school, to a change of residence, to high school, to college, etc.).
  • They have experienced anxiety when being exposed to changes
  • It is the first time they are so far from their families and usually struggle when they are away from them.
  • In social situations they usually feel mighty anxious and can't avoid be continuously self-centred. Such anxiety tends to increase especially if they are new social situations.
  • They fear big cities.
  • They suffer anxiety when things are not under control.

How can we take these factors into account to help students in their adaptation?

While these previous factors do not act as a universal law, which always take place, they are actually patterns of the past. This implies that they are highly likely to be repeated again during their stay. So if the universities that host foreign students, Study Abroad Programs, teachers and students themselves are aware of them, they may be alert, act quicker and offer sooner the support needed to successfully adapt to this adventure that entails studying abroad.

I came to Spain to study, but I don't adjust to it

Once upon a time there was a foreign student who had chosen Barcelona to continue his Degree. He has now been three weeks and so far the experience has turn out to be totally different as he expected: he has little in common with his American fellows and he is not enjoying the experience as he had imagined. The days are long, but the nights when he stays in, are never ending. He wonders what to do with his life and and why he does feel so reckless. "Why have I failed?"He asks himself.

He is confused, unable to think clearly, overwhelmed by anxiety, homesick and starts to consider going back home. But he would walk off with his tail between his legs and one more failure under his belt.

At this point, consulting a psychologist is always a wise decision, why?:

  1. A psychologist specialist in this type of situations (cultural adjustment and associated feelings), has a particular knowledge that can help you make up your mind and provides the necessary dose of reality needed in this cases.
  2. Achieving a pursued job, starting a relationship, living abroad... are unique experiences which unfortunately also produce a lot of anxiety. The brain is not used to newness and therefore puts on its guard, triggering a stress response similar to the one our predecessors felt in front of a threatening a lion.
    The therapist will help you identify those situations (external and internal) that are generating more stress than necessary and hindering the adjustment process.
  3. Sometimes you carry on difficulties that are awaken by this new adjusting experience. Surely it is not the first time ypu have issues adapting to new places and people.
    The therapist helps you detecting repeating patterns, to see where they come from and how to change them.
  4. While this experience is not as easy as expected, it can be a great opportunity to know and reflect on yourselves. Probably, you will not have the chance to do this "inner journey" once you get back to the U.S. and to your busy life.

Study abroad can be a great chance to experience another culture, but above all, to travel to the most important place imaginable... to travel to your inner world. A trip that, by no means, you should not miss.

The American nightmare: Studying Abroad

Beach, paella, bullfights, parties, alcohol ... are some of the siren songs that attract American students when choosing Barcelona as a destination to complete their studies.

They expect to have fun as ever, start from scratch, grow as a person and some even reinvent themselves. " Become a self made man" as the American dream.

However, they find a very different reality: they do not know the country, culture, language, future fellows ... So instead of the imagined paradise, they are confronted with highly stressful situations which produce uncertainty and above all, a lot of anxiety.

Some of the worries they share with me in my office are:

  1. "I feel I do not fit. I thought I would make new friends here but I feel different from them. Some go out and drink too much. I wish I could also do other things, but I feel dragged by them otherwise I feel very lonely. "
  2. "I've been here for three weeks and feel more and more nervous and anxious. I overthink and have trouble sleeping. "
  3. "I doubt whether I can finish my studies here, sometimes I am looking forward to going back home, I miss my family and my friends."
  4. "I'm reflecting on what to do with my life,I thought I had it all figured out but now I begin to doubt it."
  5. "I had wised to come to Barcelona for a long time. Before coming, I did not feel totally accomplished and thought that by coming to Barcelona I would feel better, but I feel much worse. "

The solution to all these concerns depends on each case and person.

The first step is to always check the personal and family expectations associated with the studying abroad experience. Once they are detected we can take off some unreal excess load ("become a great person in three months", "become what I never was before," "leave my problems behind ") and adjust them to the external and internal current reality.

Once the expectations are adjusted , the future begins to look in a different colour, and you will feel more capable and start to relate others in a more adapted way.

Although it seems unbelievable, these doubts are an opportunity to develop self-awareness, strengthen self-confidence and to get off this experience with an helpful luggage.