Adjusting to a New Culture

The following information is available to assist students, scholars and their family members in adjusting to living in America.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is a term used to describe the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, confusion, etc.) felt when people have to operate within an entirely different cultural or social environment, such as a foreign country. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating the new culture, causing difficulty in knowing what is appropriate and what is not.

As a new student or scholar at Harvard, you may find adjusting to a different educational system, culture and in some cases language to be more challenging than you expected. The following information may be helpful. A pattern of cultural adjustment often occurs over a period of several weeks or months. There are usually three phases in Culture Shock.

Phase I - The Honeymoon

During this initial period you may feel excited and exhilarated. For some, however, the novelty soon wears off.

Phase II - The Rejection

  • You may miss your usual ways of dealing with school or work, social relationships, and everyday life.
  • You may find yourself studying for hours longer than your classmates and colleagues because of language differences. If English is not your first language, speaking and listening to English every day and trying to understand how things are done here may feel like an overwhelming effort.
  • You may feel homesick and may idealize your life back home, while being highly critical of life in the United States. Feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, or even depressed is not uncommon.
  • You may experience minor health problems and/or disruptions in sleeping and eating patterns.
  • Your motivation may diminish, and you may feel like withdrawing from your new friends. This is a natural reaction to living in a new culture.
  • You may contemplate going home early before completing your degree or research.
  • You may be angry at not finding what you had expected.
  • Helping a spouse and children adjust to life in the United States may pose an additional challenge.

Phase III - The Recovery

  • It is important to understand that as time passes you will be better able to enjoy your new surroundings.
  • Feelings and attitudes about being at Harvard and in the United States will improve although you may never get to the high level experienced during the first phase.
  • You may become more relaxed, regain your self-confidence, and enjoy life in the United States. A more balanced view of life at Harvard and the United States will develop. Misunderstandings and mistakes which in the earlier phases of culture adjustment would have become major obstacles will be more easily understood and resolved.

Ways to Diminish Feelings of Culture Shock

  • Recognize what is happening and realize that these reactions are very common. If you are here with your spouse and family it is important to acknowledge your feelings to one another.
  • Reach out to friends and others for help instead of withdrawing, even though it may be difficult. In certain cultures it is not acceptable to share your problems with people outside the family. Here, however, students and scholars are faced with obstacles unlike those they have faced back home. The family support system upon which you relied at home is not easy to replace. At Harvard, there is the additional stress of trying to succeed in a different educational system.
  • Get together with students and scholars from your home country. It can be a big help to speak your own language, to share a meal from home or have a cup of coffee and talk about adjusting to living in the United States. Please e-mail Khuong Nguyen or ask at the HIO for contact information of students and scholars at Harvard from your country.
  • Contact a cultural club to meet students or scholars from your own country and/or other countries.
  • Get out and discover some of the attractions in the Greater Boston area. Sitting inside and doing nothing when you are feeling depressed can make you feel even more isolated. There are always events happening on the Harvard campus and the neighboring communities. The Boston Globe is a good resource for events.
  • Athletic activities or other kinds of exercise such as taking walks may also be helpful.