Studying in a foreign country can be a valuable, exciting and rewarding experience, but also challenging at a number of levels. When a person moves to a new country even with the same first language, the process of assimilating the new culture can be a time of great emotional turbulence and can feel overwhelming. This can apply to international students and it is helpful to realise that is quite normal to feel this way. For most people, getting to grips with the practicalities of life is the first important step in beginning to feel at home. Learning about how transport, money, shopping, accommodation and medical services work is a good start. Getting to grips with the norms of social interaction such as ways of greeting, personal space, time keeping, gender roles and humour can be difficult to navigate, but does become easier as you acclimatise.
What is “culture shock”?
You may find yourself experiencing “culture shock”. It is a term used to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves from a familiar culture to an entirely different cultural or social environment. Coming to University in a new country can induce this phenomenon. Familiar sights, sounds and smells are no longer around and small things can easily upset a person and can feel out of proportion.
- Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
- Anger, irritability, resentment
- Loss of identity or lack of confidence
- Longing for family
- A feeling of being lost or overlooked
Stages of culture shock
Most people experience culture shock in stages. Many people go through different phases of this process a number of times. Some stages may only apply partially to you.
- The Honeymoon Stage
Everything about the new culture will delight and stimulate the new arrival. The language will be studied with enthusiasm and great progress will be made. Memories of home are still close to mind and this has a protective value on the individual.
- The Disintegration Stage
This stage can arrive without warning and can be triggered by a small incident or without any cause. Cultural differences will no longer be celebrated but be viewed as a source of conflict. A person may feel confused, isolated and depressed whilst missing familiar supports.
- The Reintegration Stage
At this stage, a person may begin to compare the new culture unfavourably with home. He/she begins to reject the differences encountered. Feelings of anger, frustration and hostility to the new culture begin to surface. Comfort food from the person’s home country may be sought and consumed with delight. This is quite a healthy reaction. The person is reconnecting with what he/she valued about themselves and their own culture.
- The Acceptance Stage
A kind of equilibrium is attained in this stage where the person learns to accept both difference and similarity. The individual becomes more relaxed and confident as he/she becomes more familiar with situations and is able to cope well. Most experiences become enjoyable and one is able to make choices according to their own values and preferences.
Things You Can Do
How to help yourself
- Stay in touch with home by email, text or telephone.
- Have familiar things with personal meaning around you, such as photos or ornaments.
- Try to find familiar food if you can. Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
- Find natural ways of meeting people and forming friendships. Joining student clubs and societies is often a good way of doing this. Think about hobbies, sports or activities that you enjoy doing back home and try and do the same thing in your host country.
- Check out what is on at the Students’ Union and its societies
- Have photos and special items from home in your room and meet up with others from your country occasionally for meals, celebrating festivals and taking trips.
- Remember the basics: Get plenty of rest, eat well and exercise.
- Plan ahead. Speak the host language as much as possible and try and find a ‘language partner’ to practice with. This could be set up as a cultural exchange where both people benefit from learning about a new culture.
- Talk to people even if it takes an effort. Try not to worry about making language mistakes, and learn to laugh at yourself when you make cultural and linguistic blunders.
- Familiarise yourself with the concept of ‘culture shock’. Try and identify which stage you are in and remember that it is a normal process that many other people go through too.
- Use a ‘doing and reflecting’ approach where you take time to think about an incident or social interaction and make a note of what you would do differently next time in the same situation.
- If you are feeling overwhelmed by the challenges, try and talk things through with your new friends or a course tutor. You may find that taking an active problem solving approach useful.
- Tell yourself that what you are experiencing is normal and it will pass.
- Learn to include a regular form of physical activity into your routine.
- Links with a faith community is helpful to some students. The chaplaincy welcomes students of all faiths and none for pastoral or social activities.
- Be prepared to take the first step and find activities which will give you a common interest with other students.
- Take time to find out what services the University offers,
- Maintain confidence in yourself. Try to make the most of your time abroad; follow your ambitions and continue your plans for the future. For example are you going home in the holidays or will you explore more of the UK?
- If you feel stressed, look for help. There is always someone or some service available to help you. Check out the resources below.
At the University of Warwick
For students at the University of Warwick
Gives advice and support to students from overseas
UKCISA has a website offering advice for international students with a link to download Guidance Notes for students. See:
Open to all students at Warwick
A programme of events to help you settle in to life at Warwick
Academic and career support
For students of all faiths and none
Advice, information and support for international students at colleges and universities in the UK
arranges opportunities for international students to meet local families
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Get in touch
Students, please contact us via the Wellbeing Portal
024 7657 5570
We are here (Senate House, ground floor)
Monday to Friday 8.30am-5pm (Friday until 4pm)
Brief consultations - Monday to Friday 10am-3pm