International students navigate academics while dealing with cultural shock

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The life of a young college student is tough: Between assignments, quizzes and exams, they have to manage to make time for themselves to socialize and grow as individuals, which is difficult enough. 

Many rely on family, friends and even their professors for comfort and assurance when everything seems too overwhelming. But what happens to those who are new and far from home? How do they manage to keep on going when they cannot have the physical presence of their loved ones, or the life they were used to back home?  

When it comes to international students – and even those who are from out of state – these things can become even more challenging, as they are prone to experiencing culture shock. In every life form, adaptability is difficult, and it requires an endless amount of time, effort and resilience. This is no different for human adaptability when it comes to a new environment, language, culture and society.  

This is when cultural shock comes into play, as moving into a new country or experiencing a different culture can many times cause uncertainty, confusion and anxiety.  

“Studying abroad is a great opportunity as a student and as a person. Yet, it can be difficult when you are constantly missing home and not having the ease of being able to communicate faster like you usually do in your native language,” Isabella Ocampo, a Webster University student from Ecuador, said.  

For students like Ocampo, language barriers can arise while studying abroad. These challenges make learning a more time-consuming and exhausting experience, as it’s not easy to learn, communicate and understand certain concepts and ideas in a language that is not your own.  

“It is definitely more difficult for older kids to get used to the language change,” Susan Gobbo, founding member of the STL International Spouse/Expat Women’s Group, said. “I myself struggled with it. It was hard on me as I had to really take my time to communicate with others.”  

Gobbo, who hails from Brazil, notes international students not only face language barriers, but their socializing skills are also put to the test as they enter a new society completely different from their own.  

“I am usually very outgoing, yet when I came here, I became more of an introvert, as it was harder for me to get into a group of friends. I couldn’t follow conversations fast enough,” Gobbo said. “Compared to my culture, American culture is much more closed off and sometimes cold when it comes to relationships. Yet, once you are admitted into a group, it is easy to stay and eventually grow to have wonderful relationships.”  

In countries around the world, warmth and friendliness toward others are expressed in different ways. In some countries, physical touch and what some may consider “getting too personal” are not seen as inappropriate or rude, which is sometimes the case in the United States. American culture has a concept of privacy and personal space different from other countries. Because of this, international students and immigrants sometimes struggle to find a group of people they can relate to.  

“Many times, you don’t know what to do when you meet somebody new,” Ethiopian international student Angela Colmanet said. “It’s difficult to tell how much personal space someone wants and what is okay to ask and what is not. This has made it challenging for me to meet people, yet as time goes by, you get more used to American culture and society.” 

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Gabriela Ocampo
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