I had been anxiously awaiting my semester abroad so much that I didn’t sleep the night before my 7 a.m. flight to London. I’ll admit I was too tired to do my normal fidgeting on the plane but once I touched down in the U.K. I felt a wash of relief and assurance that the semester would go my way.
During IFSA orientation, we discussed topics involving academics and diversity (check and check). When we had begun the section on culture shock I felt as if I were going through the motions. I’d been abroad before, knew the stages and my home university covered it as well. I thought “these slides are for everyone else, not me”. I’ve been on the move ever since I learned to walk at 9 months old. You could say that I’m a “textbook extrovert”. I knew that I was supposed to ask for help, always check-in and so on; but something I didn’t account for was the social transition.
Culture Shock is Different for Everyone
For me, culture shock didn’t come from getting my first choices of modules denied or not being able to use my phone for a week because of miscommunications with my U.S network provider.
It came when I had been living in my accommodation for a few days and still hadn’t had full conversations with my peers. It came when I saw students that arrived with IFSA bonding with the locals faster than me. Things that came second nature at home suddenly turned into hassles. What was wrong with me? I knew what to do. I worked as an RA for two whole years- making connections was my job. Turns out, theory and practice don’t always get along.
It took me a while to get into the “Fresher’s” spirit. A lot of the people I met initially were in their first year of Uni: eighteen, eager, not a care in the world. I, on the other hand, was a fresher on paper but was entering the first half of my senior year of college. I had done all this before; the awkward get to know you convos and questions. I wanted to skip all that and get right into friendship.
Slow Down Young Grasshopper!
I was so used to how things were, I assumed I resume business as usual. There are things I’d suggest doing now that could better prepare you for the social transition.
Pay Attention to the Signs of Culture Shock
Honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance. IFSA does a whole section of this during orientation but it will be helpful to familiarize yourself with the four stages before you leave to know what to look for. If your frustration sticks around so long that it turns into a mental health problem, seek support.
Self-reflect Before You Depart
Think about the stuff you do well but also think about the unhealthy behaviors you don’t want to carry abroad with you. In my case, I spent the summer in therapy working on managing anxiety that had gone long unchecked. Pre-departure is a good time to form healthy habits. Start journaling. Create a routine. Seek counseling. Spend time on yourself.
Get to Know Your New University
Look beyond the module catalog and IFSA partnership pages. I started following my university on Instagram. I watch their YouTube videos and regularly checked the clubs and society webpages. This made me feel a part of the student body before I arrived. I was even able to connect with some members of clubs I wanted to join on social media before I arrived. This can also reduce anxiety about the unknown.
Social transitions can be tough, but it’s nothing that can’t be overcome. Your experience abroad won’t always mirror your home life. This should be considered in all aspects of the spectrum.
If you’re quiet and reserved, being abroad may afford you an environment to take risks and branch out. If you’re someone who has always made friends easily, being thrown out of your element can get you out of sorts. Just know that it’s all temporary. You’ll be in a new place with new people. Things won’t always be smooth sailing but it’s a ride to enjoy.
Chioma Uwagwu is a double major in Communication and Cultural Studies at the University of St.Thomas and is studying abroad with IFSA at University of Leeds in England in Fall 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.