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Crossing Cultures

Studying abroad is a rewarding adventure that reaps many outstanding academic and personal rewards for students. But as exciting as living and studying overseas can be, it also requires work. Students are immersed in a culture very different from what they've been used to in the U.S. And this means they need to make important intellectual, social and emotional adjustments as they learn to navigate their way through life in a foreign country.

Adjusting to Life Abroad

This section of the site is designed to help you understand the adjustments your son or daughter will need to make through the study abroad experience, and to offer suggestions on how you can support him or her in these efforts.

How easily a student will make these adjustments depends on many different factors. For example, a student's personality, level of maturity, travel experience and foreign language skills all can affect how quickly he or she is able to adapt to life overseas. The Center for International Education tries to provide the appropriate level of support for students, while strongly encouraging them to make decisions and take actions on their own.

A Time of Change

Going abroad is an emotional time for students. There is a period of anticipation and concern about leaving family, friends and familiar routines. Once overseas, many students find that they have more freedom than at home. They also may have to cook, clean and do laundry for themselves. In addition, students may have to keep a closer eye on money and take responsibility for their actions in a new environment with different social constraints and expectations. 

Adapting to a different culture is initially filled with uncertainty. Simple tasks such as finding an address, understanding a bus schedule, mailing a letter or making a telephone call can be confusing and frustrating. Students respond to uncertainty in different ways. Some need to understand everything around them and find comfort in predictability, while others flourish in an environment that is in flux, requiring close observation and new responses.

Academics, too, can require major adjustments. The strategies a student used to master academics in the U.S. do not necessarily apply overseas. This can be especially frustrating for students who have worked hard to achieve academic success at home, and then do not immediately attain the same level of achievement abroad. The student has not failed, but is learning a different approach to education. With time and assistance, students overcome these obstacles. Your continued encouragement and patience are very important during this process.

Even if it were possible, removing the differences and uncertainty and their resultant challenges would restrict a student's growth, intercultural understanding, and experience. Instead, it is important that students and those close to them realize that there will be challenges and stresses, ups and downs, and frustrations as they make their way into a new culture. As Maya Lin, the artist who designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the Peace Chapel right here in Huntingdon, said, "To fly, we have to have resistance."e;

The Platinum Rule

In an effort to alleviate some of the confusion experienced when living in a foreign culture, Milton Bennett, an acclaimed cross-cultural researcher, created the Platinum Rule, which states:
"Treat others the way they want to be treated (or at least be aware of what that is)". 

People are different and hold different values and expectations; we encourage our students to try to empathize with host cultural values. By making the initial social leap of recognizing difference, and then looking to understand how those differences are manifested, crossing cultures is simplified and enriched. Furthermore, being aware of how a person expects to be treated from a service standpoint, e.g. at a store, restaurant, or an educational institution, can make these experiences more understandable and less trying.

Understanding Your Student's Experience

As stated earlier, everyone responds to new situations in different ways. There are, however, many similarities and stages that students go through as they prepare to leave the U.S., adjust to life abroad and return home. These stages, adapted in part from the works of Margaret Pusch and other leaders in the study abroad field, are on the next page. Reading through this information should help you understand your student's experiences. In addition, we have included suggestions on how you can help your son or daughter through each stage. 

Don't be surprised if your student passes through these stages in a different order or skips some stage altogether. People adjust to new situations at their own speed and in their own manner. The Center for International Education encourages students to make the effort to learn, understand and integrate into the new culture as much as possible, from day one and throughout their time abroad.

Although it may not be immediately apparent, students gain important skills as they adjust to life in a different culture. They're developing what we call intercultural competence, the ability to recognize and respect differences among cultures, and to live and work effectively in a culture other than one's own.