Cultural Adjustments

It is a challenging, stimulating, and sometimes difficult process to leave home and live in a different country and culture. Every culture has different rules about appropriate behavior, social norms, and expectations. It is easy to feel overwhelmed. ISSS can help you through this process!

Keep in mind that new international students and scholars often go through a series of reactions to their new environment. These reactions are referred to as the "adjustment cycle":

  1. You start off feeling very excited about being in a new place and a new culture

  2. You then find yourself getting homesick once the initial "high" has passed

  3. This, too, will pass. As you make new friends, begin your classes and start exploring Philadelphia you will experience another upswing.

The adjustment cycle and its symptoms can be as short as a few days or can cover even years often depending on your length of stay and your strategies for coping. It's important to note that no two "adjustment cycles" are alike, as we are all different.

  • Living abroad is an exciting and satisfying experience, but it also takes effort, patience, and perseverance on your part.

  • Don't feel you are in any way "abnormal" if you experience highs and lows during your time here or if you find yourself longing for the familiarity of "home." These are all natural responses.

  • If at any time you sense that you are stuck in a psychological low, whether for academic or personal adjustment reasons, do not hesitate to make use of the many resource services available on campus.

  • You can speak with a counselor at the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), an ISSS advisor, a residential advisor, a peer counselor, or your academic advisor. There is also a confidential helpline run by Penn student volunteers: REACH-A-PEER can be reached both online or by phone at 215.573.2727 every night from 9pm -1am. 

  • Just make sure that you talk with someone about your feelings.

    The following are some suggestions that other international students and scholars have found helpful:

    • Look and listen. A word, phrase or gesture that means something in your home country may mean something very different in the US. Watch people's reactions in their conversations with you or with others:

      1. How close do people stand when they talk?

      2. How do people greet each other?

      3. Do people tend to agree with you or do they express dissenting opinions freely?

      4. What makes you feel dissatisfied or uncomfortable when communicating with someone?

      5. How do Americans change their communication styles when talking with a professor? a student? a friend? a family member? a stranger?

    • Ask questions.

    • Try not to be judgmental. It is important to avoid labeling everything in the US as good or bad in comparison with your own culture. Try to assess and understand others' opinions before making a judgment.

    • Show openness and curiosity. To experience a new culture and to learn from it, it is important to be open to new experiences, try new things, and be curious about the way things are done.

    • Use your sense of humor. It is likely that you will make mistakes as you explore a new culture. If you can laugh at your mistakes, learning will be easier!

    • Develop a support network. One of the hardest things about being abroad is that you are separated from the network of support you have developed over many years. Such closeness cannot be instantly replaced. Nonetheless, you should make an effort to meet people so that new friendships can develop.

    • Get involved with various programs and activities on and off campus. The more you put into an experience, the more you will learn from it.

    One way to make the most out of your time here and help you adjust to your new surroundings is to get involved. There is a wide array of clubs, programs, and organizations representing many interests. Please visit the Student Programs section of this site for International-related organizations and programs or the Campus-wide Resources for clubs, organizations or programs available throughout Penn.

    Penn is a diverse community of scholars and students and there are many opportunities for you to meet people with similar academic, social or cultural interests. The Office of Student Affairs and the Graduate Student Center can help you connect with these groups. 

    If your family is with you here in Philadelphia, you will have many things to consider beyond academics. Please visit Resources for Families for information on family and partner support.