The Shock of Studying Abroad

by Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign

Culture Shock Affects Students Too

According to researchers at UCLA, which has been surveying freshman classes for five decades, the emotional health of incoming students is at its lowest point in 30 years. For their 2014 study, researchers asked more than 153,000 first year students to assess their overall mental health—and participants rated it at the lowest level that UCLA has ever recorded. Nearly one in ten students said they frequently felt depressed.

Mark grew up in Hong Kong. When it came time to go to university, he chose to study in the UK for a three year diploma course. After his first month in the UK, he began to complain about the “unexciting” English food, his rowdy roommates, the grey old buildings, the gloomy weather—everything in the UK seems to irritate him! All he talks about is how much better things are back home.

“I've only been here four weeks, and it just hit me hard that I'm not here on holiday. I won't be going home for another three months!”

Mark knows he’s homesick. What he doesn’t realize is that he is going through the normal process of acculturation. Like him, many people are taken by surprise when it happens.

Nowadays many young people go abroad to study. They may have visited many foreign countries, taken part in overseas summer camp, they may even have perfected the language and picked up some local customs and etiquette. However, even well-travelled students are not immune from “Culture Shock” and other challenges once they’re actually living abroad.

Anyone relocating across borders, whether an immigrant, a student, or someone on overseas assignment, has something in common: she or he is about to undergo tremendous changes in their life. They will be intrigued—and repelled—by new sights, sounds, smells and ways of thinking and living. An individual cannot help but react to all the new stimuli and influences in his or her life. Each response is not an isolated event, but part of a progression of emotions, ranging from elation to depression to infatuation to homesickness. This mixed bag of reactions is commonly known as “Culture Shock”.

A study by the American College Health Association found that more than half of colleges students have experienced “overwhelming anxiety” sometime over the past year. More than 30 percent of them said they have felt so depressed “that it was difficult to function.” Nearly 40 percent said they “felt things were hopeless.”

University students may think they are not moving abroad permanently, and are therefore at least partially immune from such changes. Unfortunately, this is not true. Culture shock impacts everyone. Thus, the more one is prepared, the better the experience will be. On the other hand, if a student views himself as simply in transition, with a mind only to endure the 3 to 4 years of university life, he or she is more prone to the negative impact of culture shock and may have difficulty recognizing or managing it.

Dr. Cathy Tsang Feign, Hong Kong Psychologist

About The Author

Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.

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