Education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. For students who love the idea of traveling while they study, the whole world can be their classroom. One great way to explore the world after your secondary education is to become an international student while you work toward your college degree.
As exciting as being an international student can be, it’s also possible to experience a bit of culture shock. What is culture shock and how can you cope with it? Learn more about the phenomenon here, including examples of international student culture shock, and get some actionable tips on dealing with it.
In This Article:
- What Is Culture Shock?
- Common Examples of Culture Shock for International Students in the U.S.
- Could You Be Experiencing Culture Shock?
- Tips for Handling International Student Culture Shock
- Resources for International Students at GCU
What Is Culture Shock?
The term “culture shock” might seem a little intimidating, but it simply refers to the adjustment process that you might go through as you immerse yourself in a brand new culture. It’s important to note that culture shock isn’t always a negative feeling. For example, you might feel excited about the opportunity to try American food and learn about the various social customs.
However, it’s also quite normal to feel a bit disoriented, especially during the first couple of weeks. In some cases, international students may feel stressed out, confused and lonely while struggling to adjust. It can be helpful to remember that, as an international student, you typically have on-campus resources available to help you adjust to life in the U.S.
Common Examples of Culture Shock for International Students in the U.S.
Every culture has its own unique set of norms, traditions and expectations, as well as their common foods, languages and social customs. What seems perfectly normal to a person from one culture might be perceived as outlandish for someone from another culture. If you’re an international student who plans on studying in the U.S., here are a few things that could trigger culture shock for you:
- Informality: American culture is generally quite informal compared to many other countries. For example, it’s not uncommon for a younger person to be on a first-name basis with an older person. However, in American culture you should still address your professors as “Professor” or “Doctor” as a sign of respect.
- Conversation: Compared to other cultures, Americans generally have a more open, direct style of communication. It is also common for Americans to engage in small talk, whether you’re meeting someone for the first time or greeting a good friend. Expect to be asked, “How are you?” multiple times per day. A common answer for this question is something like “I’m doing well, thanks, and how are you?”
- U.S. Customary System: Many other countries use the metric system, but the U.S. uses the U.S. Customary System for measurements. It can take some getting used to for international students who are accustomed to measuring distance in kilometers, rather than miles.
Even the most inconsequential, everyday things can sometimes trigger culture shock. For instance, an international student arriving in the U.S. might be surprised to learn that Americans tip for services whereas some countries do not, or that U.S. drivers prefer to drive everywhere, while in other countries people wouldn’t think twice about walking half a mile to an eatery.1 The typically large size of American cars and the legal requirement to stop at all stop signs can also be shockers.
Could You Be Experiencing Culture Shock?
Sometimes, immersion in a completely different culture can cause stress, anxiety and confusion. You might also be experiencing homesickness, which can add to the problem. To get through such challenging times, it can be helpful to gain a better understanding of common issues when experiencing international student culture shock.
Nearly all international students will experience culture shock in one way or another. However, it’s not uncommon to progress through a few different phases of culture shock, such as:
- Honeymoon phase: The honeymoon phase involves the initial feelings of excitement and even euphoria upon finally arriving on your new campus in the U.S. You’re eager to try new things, meet new people and explore your new community.
- Culture shock phase: Once the initial feelings of excitement wear off, you might start to feel a little overwhelmed by all of the cultural differences. You may struggle with the language, have trouble with local transportation, struggle to adjust to the new climate or miss your favorite foods. This phase can be frustrating and upsetting, but it’s important to remember that it will pass and that you will indeed conquer the adjustment.
- Adapted phase: This may take some time, but you will eventually become adjusted to your new home away from home. You’ll learn how to navigate your new community with ease, you’ll enjoy spending time with your new friends and you’ll enjoy ordering your new favorite foods at the campus cafeteria or local restaurants.
Tips for Handling International Student Culture Shock
There are many strategies you can use to handle culture shock as an international student in the U.S. You can start before you even step off the plane.
First, it’s important to temper your expectations a bit. For example, an American who imagines that Paris is nothing but romantic might be shocked to see litter in the street. It’s best to minimize your expectations so that you can explore your new surroundings with an open mind.
It can also be helpful to do some background research on American social customs and etiquette. You might also read some guides for travelers on the differences between American culture and your own culture. For example, in your country, sales tax might be included in the price of an item, but in America, it depends on the state you live in. Being prepared for these changes may help you avoid culture shock.
Next, remind yourself that culture shock is indeed normal and that it will pass. Resist the urge to run back home immediately, because you’ll be navigating your new world with ease soon enough. To help you adjust more quickly, try the following tips:
- Attend all orientation programs: Your school may offer a number of orientation programs for new students, and it might even offer orientation programs specifically for international students. Attending these programs can help you get a better sense of the new world around you and how to navigate it. You’ll also get more opportunities to meet new friends.
- Stay connected with your loved ones: Take the time to communicate regularly with your family and friends back home. A quick phone call or a nice, long video chat can help you feel better about your new surroundings and combat feelings of homesickness.
- Become engaged on campus: American universities offer numerous opportunities for on-campus student engagement, such as clubs, sports and extracurricular activities. These are a great way to make new friends, and new friendships can help you feel more at home. You’ll also be able to turn to your friends for help navigating your new community.
- Start a positivity journal: When you’re feeling lost in a new culture, it’s all too easy to focus on the negative aspects. Instead, start a positivity journal. Each evening, write down new discoveries or fun activities you did that day.
- Take care of your body, mind and spirit: Your physical, mental and spiritual health and wellness are interconnected. It’s important to nurture your total body health.
Resources for International Students at GCU
Grand Canyon University (GCU) welcomes a diverse student body from all regions of the world. We’ve developed a number of programs and resources designed to help our international students feel at home. It’s our mission to help prevent or ease international student culture shock by supporting our international students as they adjust to life in the U.S.
Your first step should be to contact one of our dedicated university counselors to discuss what you can expect and the next steps to take as an aspiring international student. When you fill out the form on this page, a university counselor can help walk you through the process of providing the necessary documentation.
Next, it’s recommended that you apply for our International Student Scholarships, which can help make your educational pursuits more accessible. When you’re here at our vibrant campus in Phoenix, Arizona, you can take advantage of many more on-campus resources and programs. Overcoming culture shock can be easier if you forge new friendships.
Consider becoming more engaged on campus by joining one of our many clubs, including clubs specifically for international students and students of various cultural heritages. These include the Latino Student Union (LSU) and the African Student Association.
GCU is a diverse, Christian-based community of learners from all backgrounds and walks of life. Our thriving international student community includes individuals from Sri Lanka, China, Denmark, the United Kingdom and many other countries. GCU enrolls nonimmigrant students via the F-1 Student Visa program. Complete the form in this page to learn more about the comprehensive range of degree options available.
1Bloom, L.B. or Group or Organization. (2020, July 8). Foreigners Reveal: 17 Weird Things Americans Do (That We Think Are Normal). Forbes.com. Retrieved March 23, 2023.
Approved by the manager of the Multicultural Office on April 3, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.