When individuals leave their own culture and move to another, they naturally carry their own background and life experience with them. People’s reactions to the new culture, and how well they adjust to living in it, are often a reflection of their own background and expectations.

Most international students go through a common and very normal set of four adjustment phases during their sojourn in the United States. It may help to describe these phases, but keep in mind that everyone is different and may experience some of the symptoms of “culture shock” in varying degrees and at different times.

“Culture shock” is not at all “shocking,” it is a perfectly normal part of learning to live in a new cultural environment. Nearly everyone goes through it; different people experience some of the phases more intensely than others do. The anxiety, stress and discomfort you might experience during your stages of adaptation to the Carleton College and American cultures may appear in the following symptoms:

  • Extreme homesickness
  • Desire to avoid social settings which seem threatening or unpleasant
  • Physical complaints and sleep disturbances
  • Depression and feelings of helplessness
  • Difficulty with coursework and concentration
  • Loss of your sense of humor
  • Boredom or fatigue

The four phases of adjustment:

  1. Generally many students feel euphoric (after jetlag has passed!) for some time after their arrival. This is the “honeymoon phase” when you are excited and fascinated by your new experiences and the new environment.
  2. When you reach stage #2 you are actually experiencing “culture shock.” The “honeymoon” is over and the realities of academic, social and everyday life might seem overwhelming. You might feel alienated, confused and depressed by the cultural differences between your home and the United States. In order to “survive” or negotiate this phase many students associate mainly with fellow international students. Often you may feel hostile and angry because you might think you are unable to solve the cultural dilemmas.*
  3. The third stage is marked by “recovery.” You find you can “read” cultural clues better, just as your English might have improved and you are “reading” your academic assignments better. Your attitude towards fellow American students and life in general improves, you might even find yourself laughing about stage two and the perceived “cultural dilemmas.”
  4. This is the “autonomy” phase. Your anxiety is largely in the past and you find yourself in a stage of equilibrium. You feel comfortable enough to assess your host country objectively and you feel free to express both negative and positive opinions. You move more freely and confidently through the “cultural maze.” It is during this stage that many students acknowledge that surviving “culture shock” proved to be both a source of insight and growth. It also may lead to a renewed acceptance and appreciation of their own culture.

*Remember that these are normal feelings; it is helpful to talk to your peer mentors and the ISL staff during that stage.