Webster University has study abroad opportunities in Europe, the Mediterranean, and South Africa. A student from Switzerland studying abroad here in St. Louis tells her story of culture shock in America.
Webster offers a wide range of study abroad opportunities to its students. There are so many reasons that studying abroad may seem daunting to some: leaving your friends and family, moving to completely unfamiliar territory, language barriers, visas, and finances. Others might be excited to thrive in a different environment, meet new people, benefit from campus-specific courses, and have a fresh start. For me, it was a bit of both.
Upon deciding to apply for a study abroad semester here in St. Louis, the issue I was most concerned about was culture shock. Culture shock is a term used to describe the jarring sensation of being exposed to a culture that is alien to you, the anxiety of thinking you cannot integrate, and the confusion of feeling unprepared for the vast lifestyle and mentality differences.
In Switzerland, where I have lived for over 15 years, discussions about culture shock are rife because Geneva is an international hub with an over 60% immigrant population. Instead, in Webster Groves, the topic seems relatively new to locals I meet. It’s fantastic to speak to students and have them appreciate for the first time just how peculiar American culture is to us foreigners. One student told me they couldn’t believe how much fun it was to be exotic for the first time in his life.
To me, just about everything here is exotic. The enormous sodas filled to the brim with ice, the fact that you can get same-day delivery of just about anything from just about anywhere straight to your door, the strict drinking laws, the cheerleading team, students going to class in pajamas, the progressive diversity, the unpredictable weather. Big or small, there are so many quirky characteristics of this town.
That being said, the single greatest cultural shock I have experienced here is the friendliness and warmth of Americans. I am deeply moved by the way every person I cross paths with here greets me with a genuine kindness that I perceive as the essence of American identity. In Switzerland, you can live next to your neighbors for 20 years and never speak to them. Here, you don’t even have fences.
It’s hard to explain how something that comes so naturally to the people of Missouri is something so unprecedented to foreigners, but let me say this: from the outside looking in, our perception of America is often defined by the unpleasant news headlines we dread to read or the binge-worthy series we devour on Netflix. We assume very much, and we generalize based on very little.
In all honesty, no one from back home could quite understand why I was coming here. People feared I’d get shot, my grandmother worried I’d die from malnutrition, many thought I’d never even get a visa, and most of my peers just thought I’d get bored; “There can’t possibly be anything to do in Missouri.”
To my greatest satisfaction, the most remarkable culture shock has not been the guns or the food, it’s been the hospitality and graciousness of the people who make me feel like I have a place here. Integrating into an unfamiliar culture does not mean assimilating and abandoning your differences. It will never cease to amaze me that if you travel just 20 hours across the world, everything is different. To me, integrating means celebrating those differences, and during my time here I will continue to do so. St. Louis, it’s only been a week, but you’ve opened my mind and heart.