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Adjusting to Life in The United States

There are many feelings you may have as you transition to life studying at a university in a new country. It is perfectly normal to go through a number of phases of adjustment to living in an unfamiliar place. Just about everyone will experience some form of "culture shock," the stress experienced when transitioning from one cultural environment to another. This is a normal part of adjusting to a new environment and it is very likely that many of your peers are going through the same thing.

Changes in housing, transportation, shopping, language, food, and many other areas require constant adjustment.  This can push the human body into a state of alertness, which takes a huge amount of energy and can result in physical and mental exhaustion and greater vulnerability to illness. Even the relatively mild impacts of jet lag and changes in heat and humidity levels can impact your ability to function effectively.

Feelings that you may have during this time:

Physical Symptoms

  • Fatigue, exhaustion
  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Generalized aches and pains
  • Increase in illness or accidents
  • Increased need for sleep, or inability to sleep

Emotional/Social Symptoms

  • Homesickness
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Feeling vulnerable, helpless, and/or dependent on others
  • Crying
  • Irritability, anger
  • Negative feelings about the host country and its culture and people
  • Idealization of home country and culture
  • Questioning of the decision to study abroad
  • Abuse of alcohol and/or other drugs

These are all common experiences during the adjustment process and are normal feelings to have. If they become overwhelming feelings become overwhelming or last a very long time, seeking support through counseling is one way to help yourself to feel better.

Phases of Adjustment

  1. Honeymoon Phase: You may feel happy and excited and be fascinated with your new environment and with the experiences you are having.
  2. Culture Shock Phase: In this phase, the honeymoon has ended. The reality of academic and social demands is starting to become clear. This can be a lot to handle. You may begin to feel sad, confused, overwhelmed, or isolated by cultural differences. Many students seek out other international students who can share in or understand this experience in order to try to deal with these feelings. Feeling angry or unable to "resolve" cultural issues is also common in this phase.
  3. Recovery / Negotiation Phase: In this phase, it is beginning to get easier to understand cultural cues, to communicate in English, and to handle academic assignments. In this phase, your attitude towards the students and culture you have become immersed in may also become a bit more positive.
  4. Autonomy / Acceptance Phase: In this phase, serious dilemmas and anxieties about settling in to university life have pretty much passed. You are likely able to find your way around more easily, and to be feeling more comfortable with US culture.

Suggestions to help you adjust to life in the US:

  • Stay active, exercise
  • Take care of yourself physically (get enough sleep, eat healthfully, limit alcohol intake, etc.)
  • Make time for relaxation or meditation
  • Join in community activities
  • Listen and observe--be open and curious
  • Increase your comfort level with English by practicing and using it, even if it is only for a few minutes a day at first. Go to English Language Learners Services for help.
  • Find out information--don’t be afraid to ask questions
  • Be honest with yourself
  • Try not to judge US culture against your own culture--instead acknowledge the differences you experience without judgment
  • Try to reach out to the other people around you
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or laugh at yourself
  • Try to accept frustration--some days will be easier than others
  • Get involved in activities and organizations
  • Most importantly, be patient with yourself! Adjustment takes time, and it will get easier!