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Stages of Adjustment

Listed below are 13 different stages of adjustment that most students pass through before, during, and after their time overseas. We also have included suggestions on how parents can support their students during each stage. In general, encourage your student to keep an analytical notebook. You may also use your student's emails and letters to help the growth process. Please remember that all young people adjust to new situations in their own unique way, and that the stages and suggestions listed here serve only as a guide. As John Steinbeck wrote, "A person is a journey in itself. No two are alike." 

Stage 1: Anticipating Departure

Preparing to go abroad is an exciting time. With this excitement comes the formation of expectations and goals. However, it is important that students remain realistic in their expectations so they will not face disappointments when they settle in while abroad.

Suggestions for Support:
Your son or daughter can benefit from researching the country, reading its important works of literature, and consulting local newspapers on the internet. It is also beneficial for the student to start a journal that defines goals and expectations for their time abroad. These activities will help give your student a sense of understanding and attachment to the new country.

Stage 2: Arrival Confusion

The first few days can be very trying and disorienting for some students. They will be recovering from jetlag, meeting new friends, adjusting to new languages, living styles, food and customs. For many young people this is very exciting, but for some it can be intimidating. However, most students recover, adjust, and do very well.

Suggestions for Support:
Particularly during the first few days, it is not uncommon for a student to call home, upset about housing, the city, jetlag, or local people. It is important that you instruct your student to speak with the Center for International Education staff. They have dealt with hundreds of students in these situations, and are ready and able to help your student during this initial adjustment period.

Stage 3: The Honeymoon

When a student arrives in the host country, everything is typically new, different, and fascinating. Many students respond by being on a cultural high and feel that everything is wonderful. This stage can last from one to several weeks.

Suggestions for Support:
Sharing your student's enthusiasm, exploration, and new experience is fun. Stockpile some of the good experiences to use when times become more challenging. This is a good time to begin inquiring about the difference in food, people, and other cultural variances.

Stage 4: The Plunge

When the novelty of the new country wears off, students can become frustrated and confused. This is when reality sets in. They need to begin adjusting to new ways of communicating and differences in the culture. Although this is difficult, this stage prepares the student to engage in a new culture at a deeper level.

Suggestions for Support:
Listen carefully. Ask about what is frustrating your son our daughter. Avoid making value judgments on cultural differences. Instead, work together to understand these differences.

Stage 5: Initial Adjustment

As students develop their language and social skills, they become more confident. They feel at home with local transportation, communication and social customs. Novelty items become more commonplace and many of the initially confusing differences begin to make sense. This period can last a long time as they begin to balance the negatives and positives within the culture.

Suggestions for Support:
Cultural differences are not problems to be solved. Understanding these cultural differences and responding appropriately are important accomplishments for students. Praise theses accomplishments, however mundane they may seem.

Stage 6: Confronting the Deeper Issues

As students confront cultural differences and personal issues at a deeper level, they begin to see a multitude of approaches to their life abroad. They learn through experience what is socially acceptable and question deeper assumptions about the world. Students may feel isolated at times.

Suggestions for Support:
This important and very challenging stage is the pathway to profound growth. Students may have strong negative feelings toward the host country or their own culture. Encourage your student to explore his or her own values and beliefs. Avoid rushing to judgment as your students' values appear to change.

Stage 7: Adapting and Assimilating

The sense of isolation subsides as students begin to feel more at home in their host country. They begin to identify with new ways of thinking and doing. They may have established a strong friendship with a local student, or may accept that they will not have time to develop deep friendships. At this point, students are comfortable with their home identities as well as the adapted identities they have developed in the new culture.

Suggestions for Support:
Not all students will reach this stage, so don't be disappointed if son or daughter doesn't. Many expatriates do not reach this stage even after several years of living in another culture. You may well sense a greater maturity in your student. Share in your student's clearer understanding of both American and other cultures.

Stage 8: Going Home

The program is winding down and students want to take a few more pictures, visit places they still haven't seen, say farewell to friends, and pack for home. Students have to prepare for departure while at the same time complete an academically rigorous semester. They are also reflecting on what they've accomplished and where they've been.

Suggestions for Support:
Prepare yourself for your student's return home and the challenges to be faced. Help your son or daughter make the psychological adjustments to prepare for the return home.

Stage 9: Initial Excitement

Students are thrilled to be home, eat their favorite food, see their friends, and be with their families. They may talk endlessly about their many experiences and discoveries while abroad.

Suggestions for Support:
Listen. Enjoy their experiences with them. Try to accept their enthusiasm for the host culture and their experiences without brushing them off (even though it seems you have heard the story a hundred times.) Encourage them to reflect on how they have grown and developed in preparation for returning to their U.S. college or university.

Stage 10: Judgmental Period

What was once familiar and commonplace at home becomes strange, uncomfortable, or boring. Students may find fault in everything and believe it was better overseas.

Suggestions for Support:
Avoid ignoring your student's concerns or debating the relative value of U.S. culture versus the culture of their host country. Instead, help your son or daughter further explore the positive and negative aspects of each culture.

Stage 11: Realization Stage

At this point, students are noticing significant changes at home and in themselves. This stage can be compared to the Confronting Deeper Issues stage previously described. This is an important link between the students' adapted selves and their original self-perceptions.

Suggestions for Support:
Encourage your student to forge his or her own identity and self-confidence. Help him or her build upon his or her experiences to set future academic, professional, and personal goals.

Stage 12: Reverse Culture Shock

Students often experience frustration at not being able to use the skills acquired overseas that are now second nature to them. This may cause them to feel isolated and misunderstood by family or friends. Students may feel that important new perceptions and values acquired abroad have been lost.

Suggestions for Support:
Encourage your student to get involved with activities that will enable them to use their cross-cultural skills. Examples of these activities include international student organizations on campus, volunteer activities with foreign students or immigrant workers, and working with prospective study abroad students.

Stage 13: Balanced Re-Adaptation

During this stage, students begin to integrate their experiences abroad into their life in the U.S. They find a niche at home and are comfortable expressing their new viewpoints and values. They integrate their identities developed overseas with their identities in their home culture, resulting in a more complete appreciation of both the home and overseas culture.

Suggestions for Support:
Enjoy the observations and take pride in your student's development.

Returning Home

It is important that parents understand that an overseas experience does not end when students have their passports stamped and board the plane for home. There is a period of remembering, analyzing, and interpreting the overseas experience. Students are working hard to reconcile two very different cultures. This task can take some time, but completing it is important and of great personal and social benefit to students. 

It can be a challenging time, in part because it is unexpected. Students go home to what they believe are familiar, unchanged family and friends. You most likely haven't changed a great deal, but from your son or daughter's point of view, you may seem very different. This is because students bring home new perspectives from their experiences abroad, and have new frames of reference to form opinions, ideas, and relationships. It is not uncommon for students to feel temporarily homesick for their overseas friends and lifestyles. They may also find that life at home is more demanding than they expected, while at the same time they are no longer as unique and special as they were when abroad. Although each day at home may bring new challenges, they most likely are not as exciting or exotic as the challenges overseas.

Eventually a balance between the new and the old, the foreign and the familiar, will be reached. Your son or daughter will fully integrate life overseas with life at home, appreciating both cultures for their own inherent worth. And in so doing, your student will be well on his or her way to the development of intercultural competence, one of the greatest rewards of studying abroad.