Office of Student Life

Counseling and Consultation Service

International Students

Cultural Transition and Adaptation

Adjusting to a new culture and environment is a normal process and can generate a wide variety of reactions and feelings. Some stages in the adjustment process have been identified and are described below. While presented as “stages”, individuals may experience these more dynamically opposed to a linear manner and take variable amounts of time in each “stage”.

Read more information regarding seeking services at Ohio State as an International Student.

Stages of Cultural Adaptation

  • The Honeymoon Stage
    Typically, this is experienced upon arrival to a new culture when everything seems exciting and new. The focus is on the sense of success in being in the new culture; curiosity and interest in the novelty of the new surroundings; and an appreciation and anticipation of the opportunities to be found in the new culture. Most people feel energetic and enthusiastic during this stage.
  • The Culture Shock Stage
    In this stage, the primary focus is on the differences between one's home culture and the new culture and the conflicts that arise due to these differences. This may include:  
      • Using a foreign language
      • Interacting with people in authority
      • Making friends with people from different cultures
      • Dating people from different cultures
      • Being understood when you express yourself
      • Food and eating customs
      • Religious practices
      • The educational system
      • Impatience of others
      • Prejudice

Conflicts may be internal or interpersonal - in terms of one's own values, habits and preferences when contrasted with the norms and expectations of those from the new culture. As a result, feelings may include confusion, anxiety, homesickness, anger, homesickness, loneliness, low confidence, or feeling out of place.

  • The Recovery Stage
    After having spent some time in the new culture, people begin to resolve some of the above conflicts. Learning more about the new culture provides a better understanding of external and internal resources that help manage conflicts that might arise. Feelings typical of this stage are a mixture of the first two stages.
  • The Adaptation Stage
    This stage consists of people developing a realistic understanding of the similarities and differences between home and the new environment. Many people move in the direction of becoming "bicultural" i.e. being able to value and appreciate the aspects of both cultures that they wish retain or include in their lives. This stage often brings a sense of confidence, maturity, flexibility and tolerance. 
  • Reverse Culture Shock
    Often, an unexpected part of cultural adaptation. Based on the above, people eventually become relatively comfortable with the new culture. However, when this person returns to their home, they may find that changes in themselves and at home may create the need for additional adjustment that can be similar to the process described above. This can be especially confusing so patience with self and others is recommended.

Tips for Successful Cultural Adaptation

Academic Skills

  • Become familiar with expectations of the US academic system.
  • Discuss educational norms with other students, teaching assistants and professors
  • Use resources to improve your reading and study skills.
  • Review old exams and papers
  • Use office hours with Teaching Assistants and Professors. Ask them for suggestions, ideas and assistance

Social Skills

  • Learning about, becoming familiar with the US culture, and understanding the social customs.
  • Spend time listening and talking to fellow students and other people from the US
  • Watch American TV and news.
  • Check with others if you are unsure about language or customs.
  • Identify people who you feel comfortable with, who can help you understand the US culture better.

Emotional Support
Sometimes the lack of familiar support systems - family and friends - can result in feelings of stress and loneliness that can make the entire adaptation process feel burdensome.

  • Find people to talk about your feelings and experiences
  • Develop a support network of people who understand your experience
  • Stay in contact with friends and family back home
  • Make time for both work and relaxation
  • Seek professional help if needed – There are many people here to help!
Adapted from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center