Living in a different culture gives students the opportunity to develop a set of intangible skills that are often required in entry-level jobs and post-baccalaureate academic programs. However, to get the most out of a cultural exchange, it is important to understand the challenges faced when transitioning to the new culture and prepare effectively for them. Consider the following differences you may encounter as well as tips for fully immersing yourself in your new environment.
Studying abroad is a complex academic experience in the sense that you will do just as much learning outside of the classroom as you will inside. Even when you are in class, you will be exposed to a different style of instruction and new perspectives on various topics. When you participate in group projects, you will be collaborating with students from other cultures who might have a much different approach to expressing their thoughts than you do. These moments may push you out of your comfort zone, leading personal and professional growth.
Technological advancements in transportation and communication have enabled people around the world to be more connected than ever before. However, even with tools like Google Translate, navigating daily life in your new culture will inevitably bring about instances of miscommunication. Initially, you may find these situations to be frustrating, but eventually you will experience that transcendental feeling of interconnectedness that will make you realize people of every culture are just doing the same things in different ways. Even though someone may look, walk, talk, and think differently than you, odds are you both want the same things at a basic level. You will discover for yourself that the world really is a small place.
Immersing yourself in a culture different from your own will undoubtedly expose you to new values, beliefs, and ways of thinking. This exposure may or may not change your personal beliefs, but it will certainly train you to view a situation from multiple perspectives. When returning home to your native culture, you may find yourself more attune to the major issues that threaten a large segment of the world population, such as poverty, war, famine, and disease. You may have an unquenchable desire to learn more about these issues and how we can find viable solutions to help the individuals affected. This transformation of your mind and the epiphany of interconnectedness are foundational pieces in perhaps the most important part your study abroad experience: becoming a world citizen. With the skills acquired during your program abroad, you are well-positioned to make a difference in the world and leave it a better place for future generations.
Reading up on your host country before you arrive will help you get the most out of your experience. Learn key phrases in the host language (even if you are studying in another English-speaking country), familiarize yourself with common cultural faux pas, and review basic information about politics. Undoubtedly, the locals you meet will want to discuss the United States with you, and having some knowledge of their history and culture will make these exchanges more enriching for you. Additionally, you should expect a period of initial adjustment to your new environment. Many people experience varying degrees of culture shock, which simply means the process of transitioning to a different culture. The best way to push through this adjustment is to find ways to get involved in your new city. Be sure to document your experiences as well! This can help facilitate your transition and will allow you to look back on your experience once you return home.