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Cultural Adjustment:

A Guide for International Students



Cultural adjustment

Living in a culture that is different from your own can be both an exciting adventure

and a challenging process. Regardless of what country you are from, it is common for

all international students to go through a period of cultural adjustment. Understanding

this adjustment process and getting support through this transition will help you to have

a more fulfilling experience, both academically and personally.


Culture shock

The values, social norms, and traditions in the U.S. may be very different from beliefs about

"how things should be" in the country where you grew up. When individuals move to

another culture, they naturally carry their own background and life experiences with them,

and these shape how they perceive and adjust to their new environment. For example,

some of you may find American classroom culture easy to adjust to, while others may

struggle significantly in this area. "Culture shock" is a common experience that describes

the feelings of confusion, stress and disorientation that occur when entering an unfamiliar

culture. Keep in mind that not everyone has the same reactions to cultural adjustment and

may experience the symptoms of culture shock in varying degrees, and at different times.

Common reactions to culture shock include:

Culture is relative
Culture is relative, which explains why individuals from different cultures may

perceive American norms differently. For some, the American communication

style may seem too direct, while others may find it not direct enough. As an international

student, you will be exposed to many new customs, habits and ideas. Try to avoid

labeling them as "good" or "bad" according to the culture you are from. Remember that

there may be parts of a culture you dislike or disapprove of, but these are part of a

broader social system, and therefore make more sense inside that system.

Be open-minded and curious
Adjusting to a new culture does not mean that you have to change your own values, but

it is important to respect those of other people. When you find yourself in an unfamiliar

situation, try to think of it as a new adventure. Allow yourself to be curious about the

way things are perceived and done in this new environment.

Use your observation skills
Since you will encounter unfamiliar rules and norms, observing how others are acting

in situations can help you understand what behavior is expected of you. Pay attention to

both the verbal and nonverbal communication of others in order to get a more complete

picture of what is going on.

to be considered a sign of weakness. Understanding others and making yourself understood

in a new language (or context) requires lots of rephrasing, repeating and clarification.

It may be helpful to ask questions like "as I understand it you are saying... Is that correct?"

or frustrated sometimes. The key is to remind yourself that these feelings are normal

and are likely to be situational and temporary.

humor in these situations and laugh at them, others will likely respond to you with friendliness and support. Keep in mind that others will probably make mistakes, too; when someone makes an inaccurate assumption or a generalized statement about your culture, it may be due to a lack of information. If you're comfortable with doing so, this can be an opportunity to share information with others about yourself and your culture.

Adapting to a new culture is an ongoing process. It may be challenging at times, but most students who experience culture shock agree that going through this transition helped them to learn more about themselves and to develop greater confidence in their ability to navigate new situations. It can also lead to a renewed appreciation of one's own culture. There are many people in the university community who are available to provide you with support. Keep in mind that you do not have to struggle alone. Here is a list of resources that you can utilize.

Resources Supporting Adjustment to the Culture and Community


At Spanish-American Institute

For advice stop in the office or set up an appointment with one of our

Faculty Student Services Associates at: 212-840-7111


Student Club at Spanish-American Institute

Spanish-American Institute Blog



Here are several websites that provides additional information on how the deal with culture shock, as well as basic information on living in New York City.


How to Cope with Culture Shock


How to Become Integrated in the Community

NYC Mayor's Office for International Affairs and Office of Immigrant Affairs released two guides that contain useful information for international students. They are:


While each document is written for diplomats and immigrants, the resources and services are especially valuable for our international students. As each brochure states in its respective introduction:


"The Guide provides useful information on accessing a range of City services and addressing City-related issues in an effort to aid Mission and Consular officials as they integrate fully and seamlessly into the fabric of the City of New York."
2016 New York City Guide for the Diplomatic & Consular Corps


"...a one-stop directory of city and community services that will be helpful to many New York City immigrants in accessing the resources they need to build stronger, more stable lives and communities. From education services, to healthcare, to legal services, this guide is a representation of the many resources that our City provides for all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status. Now more than ever, it is important for immigrant communities to be informed about the resources that are available to them."
2017 Services for Recently Arrived Immigrants Resource and Referral Guide