Taking the shock out of culture shock: helping international students navigate transitions, part two

Inga Ackermann shares advice on helping students manage and overcome culture shock after their arrival at a university overseas or far from home

Inga Ackermann 's avatar
5 Nov 2021
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Advice on supporting students to manage and overcome culture shock after arriving at university

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Edinburgh

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Culture shock is deeply personal; its effects on body and mind vary. Some might feel lonely and homesick, while others feel frustration over how things work in the new place. These feelings might challenge a student’s confidence and cause psychosomatic symptoms such as a headache, or sleep or eating disorders, all of which will have a detrimental impact on a student’s life and learning while at university. Culture shock is real and so are its effects.

I have written before about the steps that institutions should take to prepare students for this big life change ahead of their arrival at university, with a particular focus on international students. This resource will explore what support should be in place for students once they are in situ, to ensure they get the most out of their university experience.

Preparing staff to support international students

Culture shock does not always occur immediately on arrival. Many students experience it halfway through their first semester when the excitement and novelty have worn off and academic expectations begin to take a toll. We want our students to get the most of their time and feel comfortable in new environment, so it is important for academic and support staff to develop awareness of the cultural adjustment process that many students go through so they can offer appropriate help. Steps to help prepare staff include:

• Use culture shock videos during staff induction and preparation for welcome week to make them aware of the potential challenges faced by their students. You can pre-record short interviews in which current and former students share their main concerns about coming to study at your institution, identify different factors that can contribute to culture shock and recommend strategies that can help someone adjust quickly. It is more compelling when staff learn this directly from students.

• Make all staff aware that the end of October to November and the end of January to February are the most common times for first semester culture shock.

• Highlight to staff, as well as students, that it is typical to experience culture shock and feel homesick. It is also temporary.

Actions to help students suffering culture shock

Feeling welcomed and part of a community is fundamental to positive learning experience. It affects students’ well-being and increases study motivation and therefore academic success. Fostering a sense of community and ensuring that all students, local and international, are made welcome should be a priority for staff, especially during student transition. 

Steps that university staff can take to support and reassure students regarding culture shock include:

•  Do not be judgemental about students’ communication style or behaviour. Clearly explain to students about the way things are done in your institution. Explain, but do not tell them that they are wrong. Their behaviour might be absolutely right in their cultural context. Encourage students to share how certain things are normally done in their culture. It will help build trust and address the differences in a friendly way right from the beginning.

•  Be patient if a student is experiencing language difficulties. Language proficiency will improve over time and it takes a while to feel comfortable speaking in a foreign language, especially with native speakers. Avoid using idioms or abbreviations the students might not be familiar with. 

•  Encourage and facilitate initiatives that help students engage in cultural exchange with each other. Integrate social elements into academic calendar where local and international students get an opportunity to socialise with each other as part of the curriculum, such as peer mentoring, pair work, field trips.

• Remind students to focus on their personal goals and not compare themselves to others. Everyone is different and takes their own time to adjust to the new environment. This can be highlighted in conversations with personal tutors, programme directors and student support staff.

• Encourage international students to share their experiences in institutional blogs or vlogs or on the website. Help them to see the adventure and progress in a transition that is not always easy.

• Set up a social media campaign around November where students can share insights such as what they miss from home or what they have found surprising about their new location as well as photos of things that helped them create a home away from home.

• In your mid-semester communication with students include information about support services available, cultural societies, and sport, exercise and well-being offers.

•  Regularly gather information about students’ transition experiences and feedback on what you can do better to make students feel part of the community. Reflect on and use these findings in developing or refining student support initiatives.

The transition to university involves changes and challenges for all students. Students arriving from another country may face additional difficulties when navigating cultural differences. But with the support of networks of well-informed staff and students, alongside a wealth of easily accessible resources, most students will overcome their culture shock and see it as a valuable learning experience.


Inga Ackermann is global community coordinator at Edinburgh Global at the University of Edinburgh.


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