Seminars, services help international students navigate cultural adjustments

Going away to college far from home can be a challenging transition for any student, but those coming from a different country and culture often find the experience particularly overwhelming.

For newly arrived international students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, adjusting to campus life can be more difficult and stressful when it includes overcoming cultural and language barriers.

Steve Poole Fuller, a graduate exchange student from Peru, has encountered difficulties meeting new people.

“I’m afraid I come across as too friendly,” Fuller says timidly. Back in Peru, he always socialized in the classroom. “Here in America, the classroom environment does not really encourage socializing and I’ve had a hard time finding the right opportunities to meet people.”

Fuller has found some guidance in Cultural Adjustments 101, a seminar series presented by International Student Services (ISS).

The idea for Cultural Adjustments 101 came from May Lee Moua-Vue, ISS student advisor and senior student services coordinator.

May Lee Moua-Vue
May Lee Moua-Vue

“I have a passion for intercultural communication so it was an idea I had wanted to explore further,” Moua-Vue explains. “I had created this workshop and invited another ISS colleague to co-present it.”

In Cultural Adjustments 101, international students learn about American traditions and cultural values, talk about their own experiences and learn ways to cope.

“From past surveys, students have indicated that they would enjoy these types of workshops. We had students with several questions about the U.S. culture,” Moua-Vue says. “The most frequent issue raised is the inability to understand the pop culture and local slang in America.  It takes time to understand cultural references when you never grew up here, so students felt that they were missing that.”

Over the past five years, as Cultural Adjustments 101 has grown, ISS has partnered with University Health Services (UHS). A recent session featured a UHS presentation that included stress relief exercises and videos that highlighted the phases of culture shock – the honeymoon, cultural shock, negotiation, acceptance and re-entry shock.

The honeymoon phase is filled with excitement, because everything is new and energizing. During the cultural shock stage, everything begins to sink in, and international students might feel unable to express themselves. As cultural and language differences become apparent, they might struggle with communications.

During the negotiation stage, individuals start gaining confidence.

The video that explains this phase in detail points to some common phrases used by Americans that non-Americans might take too literally, such as:

  • Americans use “How are you?” as a casual greeting, similar to “Hi.”
  • “I’ll have to think about it” usually means “no.”
  • A professor who says “you might consider doing X” means that he absolutely expects you to do the task “x”.
  • On the other hand, someone who responds “that’s interesting” might not have anything good to say about the subject.

During the acceptance stage, the individual begins to see that adjustment is possible by learning to accept two cultures – the new and old. The re-entry phase again involves feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.

“I did not have too much of a culture shock when I visited America, as I’ve been here before,” says Yuring, a special graduate student at UW–Madison. “But I always notice that Chinese and Americans keep to themselves.”

“I feel there’s a huge cultural and language barrier,” she says. “I feel extremely left out on game day. I want to jump around and be excited but I really don’t understand football.”

She adds, “I watch a lot of soap operas to understand how to interact with Americans. At the end of the day, this is my problem and no one can give me a specific solution to it.”

The UHS counselors encourage international students to make use of campus resources, such as student organizations, confidential counseling at UHS, and exercises to help overcome adjustment problems.

“About 9-11% of the total students we see at the counseling center each year are international students,” says Laura Lubbers, a PhD post-doctoral resident at UHS. “We also see international students in our ‘Let’s Talk’ program, and through other outreach services.”

Lubbers, a psychologist, is one of two health ambassadors from the UHS counseling center, works as a liaison with ISS to address the needs of international students.

“Adjustments concerns can span a broad range of issues, including depression, anxiety, stress, cultural adjustment concerns, academic problems, interpersonal and relational difficulties, among others,” Lubbers explains. “We do our best to work with international students both to understand their presenting concerns, and also to support them as they adjust to a very new culture here in the U.S.”

“I do several outreach presentations besides this one along with Manbeena Sekhon, another health ambassador in our office.  I am also involved with the BRIDGE program on campus as a mentor to one of the groups,” she says.

During his first few months in Madison, Ajay Jayakumar, a graduate student from India, found simple things, like ordering a sandwich, to be challenging.

“My fondest memory of a struggle was ordering a sub at Subway,” Jayakumar says. “I had no clue about the different types of bread, cheese and toppings. I remember the frustration on the employee’s face when I gave him a blank expression because I was so confused.”

He also had to adjust to the cultural differences: “In India, it is considered a sign of respect to stand up when a professor walks into class. During my first semester, I stood up to greet my TA in a discussion section, unconsciously. It was quite embarrassing.”

He adds, “I’m also not used to using first names when I talk to professors and TAs either, that’s something that isn’t done in India.”

Audrey Forticaux, a PhD student in chemistry from France, has been at UW–Madison since the fall of 2010.

“The social code here is very different from France,” Forticaux explains. “The first thing I had to get used to is people’s personal space. I tried to keep my distance and not ‘touch’ people until they ‘touched’ me first. I used to discuss these differences with people by showing them how the French hug and walk with friends, arm in arm.

“Some people didn’t mind the proximity, others clearly did.  So I guess it is about balancing everybody’s preferences and understanding what they are most comfortable with,” she says.

“I also learned to lower my expectations. I noticed that a lot of people here are often very excited. I’ve heard many say things like ‘Wow, this is amazing! We should do this together.’ But then days, weeks and even months would go by and we never actually met up,” she says. “I had to get over the feeling of being rejected which was simply realizing that this kind of reaction did not always mean that the person wanted to be your friend.”

Forticaux briefly made use of counseling services because she felt isolated and could not connect with her peers. Eventually, like many international students, she settled in and found her own set of friends.

— by Neha Alluri