Cultural Adjustment & Engagement | Study Abroad | Yale University
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Cultural Adjustment & Engagement

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Two local women from Santa Barbara, Honduras, conversing animatedly

Making the most out of your time abroad requires some preparatory work on your part, including managing your expectations before, during, and after your experience. 

TOC: Strategies for Cultural Adjustment & Engagement

Do your research

After identifying your goals for your experience, it is helpful to do more research about your study abroad destination. While it may seem obvious, past study abroad students have indicated it is useful to have a basic understanding of local history, politics, cultural celebrations, and climate. 

Link: 10 things to Know about the UK

Cultivate humility

Listening to what people have to say, and assuming that there are logical reasons why people do things the way they do, can go a long way towards creating positive relationships across cultures. Being willing to concede that your way of operating in the world is just one of many valid ways can make your encounters with different ideas and people richer.

Stay in the moment

Spending time in a new culture can be uncomfortable and disconcerting. Instead of rushing to what is most familiar, take the opportunity to stretch your capacities by simply being present in the moment and approaching the environment around you with curiosity. You might be surprised at what you learn about yourself and others when you give the experience your full attention.

Engage where you are

Along with staying present is actually being in the moment where you are. The more you are on the internet, the less you are part of the local community. The more your thoughts are with people and events back home, the less you will understand the nuances of your immediate environment. Past students recommend blogging as a way to document your experience abroad and keep family and friends up-to-date.

Recognize the adjustment process

Students encounter a wide range of adjustment processes abroad. As you develop a routine abroad and accomplish the goals you set out for yourself, see if you recognize yourself in one or more of the common phases of cultural adjustment. You might cycle through these phases at different times, not necessarily in linear fashion. If you have no feelings of discomfort whatsoever, you might consider whether you are actually making an effort to interact with people in your new environment or trying things beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. 

Common Phases of Adju​stment
Honeymoon Period Excitement about being in a new culture.
Culture Shock Feeling a sense of unease or unfamiliarity with how or why things “work” the way they do.
Initial Adjustment Becoming more familiar with daily life in the new culture; if studying language, feeling more confident about your communication skills.
Isolation Feelings of homesickness; experiencing frustration with accomplishing everyday tasks; missing social cues.
Acceptance and Adaptation Greater ability to navigate the new culture; understanding habits, customs, food, and establishing ties within the community.

Suspend judgment

Keeping an open mind is one of the best strategies for a productive and enjoyable time abroad. One of the characteristics of moving from one culture to another is irritation with what appears to be the absurdities of local practice, from sorting out bus fares to deciphering gender relations. Of course, these are not absurdities, but cultural differences – to be observed, examined, understood, and ultimately even appreciated. Our experience with travel may not prevent an initial sense of annoyance, but it is useful to conscientiously and systematically consider how our judgments are, in fact, quite often attached to our own “absurd” cultural values.

Reassess your viewpoint

Regardless of where you call home, as a Yale student, you have had the experience of studying in a privileged institution within the U.S. – one with significant financial resources, academic freedoms, civic involvement, and prestige. While abroad, you may encounter communities which appear to have less in the way of these resources, and it can be tempting to equate such differences with cultural “lack” or poverty. However, time abroad can be an opportunity to rethink your own understanding of privilege and power. Even the least-advantaged among us in the U.S. are extraordinarily privileged materially (and politically) by global standards, and understanding this dynamic can inform how you understand attitudes towards Americans abroad.

Embrace unfamiliar opportunities

A principle that has served many students abroad over the years is that of accepting sincere and trusted invitations, of going to improbable events, and of making an effort to become interested in absolutely everything. Street music, local team sports, family visits, religious services, fish markets, political rallies, and impromptu dance parties are all potentially fascinating experiences, but ones you will certainly miss by not actively participating in your community abroad.

Learn to be alone

It often seems that there is a stigma attached in our contemporary society to being alone – that the ideal is always to be the center of a group of peers. While we encourage you to interact with local students, it is also beneficial to take time by yourself – walking around the city, using public transportation, sitting quietly in a cafe – to observe and appreciate your surroundings.

Be an ethnographer

Cultivating the habit of observing the ordinary is surely one of the most useful ways to affect our own behavior when abroad and recognize how much we take for granted in our own local and national culture. It can be extremely useful to write down a brief account of interactions or behaviors you find puzzling and then ask someone local for help in decoding what you’ve seen, as it can spark really enlightening conversations. Done in the context of journal writing, it can also form a record that you can revisit in the future when the details of your experience are beginning to blur.

Reflect on your experience 

Reflection on time spent abroad is one of the most important elements in making the experience worthwhile. It is possible to spend months abroad without breaking out of an expatriate community or gaining intercultural competence. Think about your goals before you go and spend time each week either writing privately, talking with a new friend, or documenting in creative ways what you’ve been experiencing. No matter the approach, take the time to step back and reflect.