University culture shock

November 22, 2020

Sarka Kadlecova

Studying is a change – how to deal with the feelings it brings?

Studying at university is one of the choices people make to give direction to their lives. The general decision to study further, the selection of a certain field of study, or the particular choice of an institution can influence the person’s life experience. The student may enjoy acquiring knowledge and feel passionate about being immersed in learning. They may become a specialist in a subject and establish himself or herself in a specific area of work. Becoming an educated professional may secure a higher salary in the future.

Additionally, studying may be the first step on the way to fulfilling one’s career dreams, like being a doctor, lawyer, or architect. Whatever the motivation, higher education does not simply happen to us, it is always a choice. Inevitably, such choice brings about a change. The initial change is that of a new environment when beginning life on campus. Students who have moved to a bigger city refer to the hectic pace, to the necessity to manage their time efficiently, to the importance of establishing new friendships, and to the new responsibilities associated with higher education.

Culture shock is the term used to describe the feelings experienced when one enters a new and unknown culture.

University students of various cultural backgrounds are introduced to new spaces, people, habits, language, and values. By presenting universities as cultures, this article discusses how many students experience culture shock when they enter university life. It explains what culture shock is and what the responses to it may be. As culture shock is typically accompanied with distress, we finally suggest some strategies which may be helpful in coping with disturbing emotions.

University means whole world

If we look up the English word university, we will find that the Online Etymology Dictionary traces it back to the thirteen century as an “institution of higher learning”. It was derived from the old French word universite which stands for academic community. However, the origin is the Latin word universus meaning whole, entire, or whole world. In fact, a university is a world of its own, a world of knowledge, of curiosity, of learning, of growing and maturing, a world full of diverse people united for the purpose of education.

University is culture

We have mentioned that university symbolizes the world, linguistically and metaphorically. We may also perceive university as a culture. According to Bhawuk, Landis and Munusamy (In Moodian, 2009), the essential elements of culture are people, time, space and language as “culture is what is passed on from generation to generation in a certain geographic area of the world in a certain time period through a common language” (ibid, p. 13).

People in their environment are the core of any culture. We may detect all the above-mentioned elements at universities. There are people —all students, faculty, and staff— present at certain time on campus, a certain environment, who share a common language. If we compare a university culture with a national culture, we may speak of a micro-culture, a smaller group of people who share more specific characteristics different from the bigger culture they are also members of.

Culture shock

Culture shock is the term used to describe the feelings experienced when one enters a new and unknown culture. These feelings often include confusion, uncertainty, and distress. Becoming a student and engaging in the world of higher education often involves such states. Lysgaard’s model of culture shock (1955) proposes 4 stages illustrated by a U-curve oscillating between positive and negative feelings towards the new culture, in relation to the months spent in it.

They are 1) honeymoon, a rush of excitement about something new, 2) culture shock, the distress caused by the emerging differences between the old and new cultures, 3) adjustment, subdued frustrations caused by learning more about the culture and effective habits and 4) acceptance, the final stage in which cultural differences are not as challenging as they were in the beginning. Intuitively, such an outline seems credible. However, further investigation of real-life situations (Brown and Holloway, 2008, Tange, 2005, Church, 1982 cited in Ward, Bochner & Furnham, 2001) has shown that the above mentioned stages overlap, have blurred boundaries, or might not be experienced at all.

One of the main criticisms is aimed at the “entry euphoria” in contrast to the fact that “most severe adjustment problems” have been reported “at the initial stages of transition” into a different culture “when the number of life changes is the highest and coping resources are likely to be at the lowest” (Ward, Bochner Ward, Bochner & Furnham, 2001 Furnham, 2005, p. 81). Indeed, it has been acknowledged that entering a new culture is likely to create distress, sooner or later.

Dealing with the stressful experience

Individuals respond differently to stressful experiences, depending on their personalities, knowledge, skills, and other sources. Marx (1999, p. 32-33) suggests paying attention to the following points when you feel the pressure mounting.

Has your eating, sleeping, or working pattern changed significantly? Do you exhibit behaviors or symptoms that interfere with your enjoyment of life or your work? If you can identify any specific symptoms, how long have they been present, and have you tried to do something about them? Please note: if you have been experiencing stress symptoms over an extended period, and have been unable to reduce these symptoms, consider seeking the help of a professional, like your doctor or therapist.

Let’s add an example to illustrate this situation by introducing Melissa, who has enrolled in a bachelor program in human rights. Although the list of lectures on offer is extensive, Melissa immediately made her choices, signed up for the classes and began reading recommended literature. It was all new and very exciting. She marked all deadlines for papers in her calendar and looked forward to midterm achievements. One day something changed. Melissa woke up at 11a.m. feeling very tired. She had coffee and instead of reviewing the notes for her essay, she spent 3 hours browsing social media. Then she sat alone in her room and could not find the motivation to do anything, not even to prepare a meal for herself or to go for a walk. At the end of the day she went to bed anxious about all the tasks she had left incomplete. This happened every day for 2 weeks.

In general, looking after one’s health by ensuring a nutritious diet, physical exercise and adequate rest increases the ability to cope with stress. Marx further argues that general practical advice for dealing with culture shock may lower the stress level, however, it is insufficient. Instead, she suggests applying some of the 3 main strategies of problem solving.

1. Anticipation of a culture shock and possible negative emotions, including “a review of your own reactions in difficult situations and an evaluation of your emotional vulnerability” (ibid.)

You are going to experience many new and different things. What do you imagine? What do you know about the culture – the space, people, values, and habits of the particular university? How is this culture different to what you are used to? Can you remember the last time you underwent something trying? How did you feel? What did you do?

2. Emotion-focused coping: identifying challenges and changing the pessimistic assumptions behind the negative emotions you are experiencing.

This approach deals with the emotions that you are experiencing rather than with the cause. To target negative emotions individually, you may want to try breathing exercises, mediation, or writing in a journal which offers you a safe space to let out these emotions. Another possibility is to talk with a person you trust, like a relative, a friend or a professional.

3. Problem-focused coping, an active attempt to solve problems.

Identify the problem. For example, you feel lost and can’t plan your schedule because you do not know which courses are obligatory and which are optional. You can solve this problem easily with specific information. Where can you find the information you need about obligatory courses? Who can you ask?

In addition, here are some strategies (ibid., p. 38) which may help students cope with the emotional and physical demands of the intercultural encounter experienced at the start of their university life. Again, we are going to illustrate them with the story of Melissa.

Check your self-perception and self-image: list positives and negatives and areas for self-development.

Melissa sat down, took out a piece of paper and focused inwards on herself and on how she saw herself. She realized, and wrote down, that she was enthusiastic about learning new things and that she could clearly communicate her opinion on the ideas she had read about. On the other hand, she admitted that she was sometimes lazy. Also, she noted that she felt nervous speaking in front of people, which is something she would like to change.

Concentrate on the positive aspects and use your social support system effectively. Try to talk about your problems with close friends, mentors, and professional contacts.

Eventually, Melissa decided to talk to her friend who was in the second year of the same program. She described her current feelings of being stuck and unmotivated, even though she had been very happy to start her studies. The friend told her about a website where the university offered counseling services to students in need. Melissa decided to contact the service to speak with someone about her difficult times.

Look at the way you perceive and interpret situations. Are these realistic, or do you suffer from unrealistic assumptions, excessive standards, and negative expectations? Get rid of the assumption that life must be perfect.

Melissa understood that she had not believed she would manage meeting all the deadlines and writing papers which would be graded with an A. She decided to do her best; to read, learn and write what she could without thinking about the grades.

Differentiate between those situations you can control and those you cannot. Try to do something about the first group and take a pragmatic approach to the second. Do not worry unnecessarily about situations you can not change.

When she focused on the disturbing emotions she had experienced, Melissa discovered that she had been afraid that the professor who taught her favorite course would think that she was not smart enough. Finally, she understood that she was able to influence her own input in her learning process, but that she could not control what others would think about it.

Watch your diet and exercise level and develop a healthy lifestyle.

After having spoken to a professional, Melissa made sure that everyday she ate regularly to have enough energy. She also experienced feeling joy from even a short walk, something she had been previously unaware of.

Finally, social support, which may be found in family, friends and acquaintances, has been viewed as a major resource for coping strategies and “as a significant factor in predicting both psychological adjustment and physical health during cross-cultural transitions” (Ward, Bochner & Furnham, 2001, p. 86). Although it may be difficult to maintain regular face-to-face meetings due to the remoteness of a chosen university or the current policies of social-distancing, speaking to a close person who is willing to listen on the phone or online is likely to contribute to overall well-being and create a smoother immersion into the university world.

  1. Bhawuk, D. P. S., Landis D. & Munusamy, V. P. (2009). Understanding the Basic of Culture. In M. Moodian.  Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 7-15.
  2. Lysgaard, S. (1955). Adjustment in a foreign society: Norwegian Fulbright grantees visiting the United States. International Social Science Bulletin, 7, 45-51.
  3. Marx, E. (1999). Breaking through Culture Shock. What You Need to Succeed in International Business. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing Limited.
  4. Ward, C., Bochner,S. & Furnham, A. (2001). The Psychology of Culture Shock. Hove: Routledge.

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