Culture Shock: Surviving the Chaos


There is a very predictable pattern in the lives of all first-year and transfer students domestic or international. When you first hit your new campus, everything is so new, exciting, charming, and fun. There are orientation activities, mixers, parties, events, and activities meant to get students out, meeting each other, and getting to know the campus. We call this the “honeymoon stage” of culture shock. You feel very much like the tourist, enjoying all your new environs have to offer. But then one day you wake up with a mind shift.

Suddenly everything and everybody seems so materialistic, shallow, ethnocentric, bigoted, and the list goes on and on. You may find yourself being extremely judgmental and critical of your host country, the culture, and the people around you. You may think your domestic peers eat too much of all the wrong foods, are too loud, or are too nosey. You are missing your home, your country, your culture, your friends and family, and your lifestyle in general. This is the crisis stage of culture shock. You are feeling overwhelmed by all the changes you have to deal with and your minority status may be making you feel marginalized.

Common reactions to this crisis stage are what give it the nickname of the “Fight or Flight” stage. This is when students resist adjustment and want to return to their home country and old friends. Many students begin to feel they have made a mistake and start thinking about leaving or transferring. You may become angry and start mocking your host country culture, something which can be very dangerous. You may become terribly unhappy – even depressed – and as a result, you just want to escape and withdraw from it all. You may end up self-isolating, avoiding others, or refusing invitations, all of which can lead to loneliness and despair.


Other signs and symptoms of culture shock can include paranoia, anxiety, fatigue, feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt, boredom, or confusion. It is not uncommon to have frequent complaints of physical ailments or sleep disturbances. Sometimes the student health services will take notice of frequent visits for health complaints and suggest students make an appointment with the student mental health services or a counselor to talk about culture shock and adjustment issues. Don’t be afraid to make use of these services.