Starting a new study is a challenge. Especially if you step out of your comfort zone and go abroad. The first weeks are exciting. Everything is new: the city, the people, the university. But after a while the excitement is gone. How do you prevent falling into a dark hole or how to climb out again if it has already happened?

Time flies: It is already November. The midterms are just over. The first two months of my premaster passed by so quickly. Finding my way at university, making friends, writing my first research paper, making the house look nice, handing in another assignment on time, working, finishing the take home exam for statistics, … my days definitely lack some hours to do all the things I want to do. I have to admit that I underestimated the workload of the study … by far. A few times in the last weeks I have been about to just quit school and go back to work. What am I doing this all for?

I was not the only one. All my fellow students are complaining, too. The friends I have made so far are mostly internationals. The past few weeks have been difficult especially for them. I know the country, I know the country and I am not alone. What about my international friends? Far away from home totally on their own, they have to survive in a country whose language they barely speak and whose culture is totally unfamiliar. Over the weeks I could sense an increasing level of frustration among my friends. Suddenly, I realized that we were all suffering from a cultural shock: some more, some less, and everyone in their own way. So how can we get out of this whole again?

Cultural shock: How does it look and what can you do about it?

If you go abroad, or maybe just if you move to a different city and study at a different university, at some point that cultural shock may hit you. ‘Good morning, sweetheart, this is reality. And it is not what you expected!’ In that case we have two options: Give into it or deal with it. To be honest, if you plan to enjoy the experience (abroad), better deal with it. Let’s see what factors can bother you and what you can do about it.

1. Different study environment

Every country has its own school system. Even every university has its own system so you may encounter a totally different study environment. Finding your way may require some time and some good organization: Right now, my workload is so high that I barely have time for anything else. Every time I do something that is not school-related, I feel worried that I am lacking behind. Especially in the beginning when we were still busy moving, I did not have a good overview of my assignments so I was constantly worrying about school. I have made a good overview for myself when which assignment is due and which chapters I need to prepare for the different lectures. That plan now hangs on the fridge. Every evening I can cross off what I have done that day. I finally feel in control. Just because it works this way for me, it does not necessarily work this way for you. You know yourself best. I can just give you the advice that getting organized can help a lot to prevent a motivational and emotional dip. And if you have problems with that, ask some friends to help you and get organized together.

By the way, even if you don’t have a shitload of work, you can fall into that hole. I experienced that during my semester in Sweden. There, the students are supposed to do a lot more self-study. Compared to Holland the workload felt a lot less. You follow one course for a few weeks so in theory you can fully focus on one subject. In practice, I had two classes a week and a bit of homework to do. Every student would call that university heaven, I guess. Surprisingly, I could not handle that big amount of free time. In combination with too many hours of darkness I spent too much time sleeping and watching movies on my own. Especially in the beginning, when I did not know too many people yet, I spent too much time alone. Luckily, when the weather got better and I had made friends, I knew how to use my free time.

2. It’s raining again!?

The weather can contribute a lot to your emotional state. If you have chosen to go to a sunny place, you probably don’t need to worry about it. If you, however, decide to study in a country that does know seasons, be prepared. You could assume that since I have grown up in Germany, I should be used to a lack of sunlight in winter. I’m not. I take vitamin D pills three quarters of the year, otherwise I feel constantly tired and out of energy. If you are not used to shitty weather, here are some tips:

  • Take vitamin D pills and try to go out outside whenever it is sunny. It could be the last opportunity to enjoy some sunlight in a loooooooooooooong time.
  • Dress warmly enough! Make sure that your feet are warm and dry. If your room is cold, invest in a small heater. It will be worth it!
  • If you are unlucky and get wet in a rain shower, try to get dry and warm a.s.a.p. If you often have to go by bike or walk, dress accordingly. There is nothing worse than sitting in wet clothes at university all day.

3. When in Rome do as the Romans do

I know this is rather difficult, especially in the beginning when everything just seems strange to you. Different countries have different habits, and different food, and different stores, and maybe even a different currency or measurement system, or a different timetable. Keep calm and be curious! Of course, many things will be different from home but different is not necessarily bad. Not at all! You don’t need to understand everything but be open to ask questions about it. My experience is that most people are unbelievably willing to explain or find out with you why things are done that way in their culture if you express curiosity instead of irritation. By the way, it is ok to be a tourist 😉

4. Have fun and spoil yourself!

You can live in the most beautiful place in the world, if you don’t take the time to enjoy it, you will leave with an unsatisfied feeling in the end. That counts for places, but also for people. The worst feeling is to go home again knowing that you did not spend your time right. That you did not try all the things you wanted to try. That you did not make friends with the people you felt a connection with. If you do your master abroad, your grades are probably more important than during Erasmus. Allow yourself to skip a class. Allow yourself to choose a night out with friends over bringing your report to perfection. (This blog is a form of self-therapy for me: I am a perfectionist so I have high expectations of myself that are not always healthy. If you are the opposite, please ignore what I just said). Reserve time for yourself to do things you like. I started ballet lessons again after 15 years. You may want to keep up a hobby from home or try something totally new. New country always means new opportunities!

5. Mind these pitfalls

I experienced a lot of “grouping” during my study abroad in Sweden: the Frenchies stuck to the Frenchies, the internationals did not mingle with the Swedes, and Chinese students only existed in swarms (before anyone starts complaining, I’m exaggerating!). Falling back on your friends and family back home or sharing your feelings with a fellow student who speaks your language can be really helpful. It is ok to complain, but try not to get into a vicious circle. Don’t become too dependent on home. You can test yourself: If skyping with home becomes the highlight of most of your days, there is definitely something going wrong. Then it might be better to limit those skype calls to once or twice a week. If you talk to other fellow students, don’t push each other into an even deeper depression. If you notice that these talks are not supportive, better avoid them.

What if that feeling doesn’t go away?

I am of course not a psychologist. I am just sharing my own experience and sharing what has been helping me to climb out of that emotional hole. There is a chance that my tips will not help you to get out of that hole as well. If you get the feeling that you are stuck in that hole and your family and friends cannot get you out, if you feel homesick and alone for a long time, consider talking to your study (abroad) coordinator or the student dean. You are not the first student with this problem, so they know what they are dealing with. It is ok to not like your new home, and they can help you to figure out why.

Small recap: When the first exciting weeks are over, the cultural shock will hit you. You will feel confused and stressed out, you will miss home and the weather might suck a lot. To not get into a deeper depression, you will need to take good care of yourself and your health, you will need to stay open-minded, positive and curious, and you will need to organize your work. Go out, meet people, learn new things every day! Don’t let that dip ruin one of the most precious experiences of your life.

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PS: If you have a good tip how to get over the cultural shock, leave a comment!