Cultural Transitions

Living in a new culture can be exhilarating, rewarding, and stimulating. It can also be disorienting, frustrating and depressing. Such distress or “culture transitions” is due to the twofold challenge of being in a new environment with unfamiliar customs, language, food, housing, etc., and being away from your familiar home environment with all of the ease and support it provides.

To avoid or minimize the challenges associated with being in an unfamiliar environment, it can help to educate yourself beforehand about the country you will be visiting and to be open-minded about the different customs and environments you will be experiencing. While these matters are typically addressed in program orientations, you are strongly encouraged to do your own research and to be proactive rather than passive.

To avoid or minimize the challenges associated with being away from your usual support network, plan ahead so that you can be in contact with friends, family, mental health professionals, etc., back home as needed, by researching cell phone/internet connectivity, time zone differences, etc. Of course, try to avoid spending so much time in contact with home that it interferes with the opportunity to engage your new culture.

Students have discovered a variety of other strategies that help to lessen culture transitions. Keep your sense of humor. Avoid other Americans who are overly negative or who complain excessively. Take care of your health. Occasionally, treat yourself to your favorite American fast food or news source, if they are available. Try new activities.

Even with preparation, it is likely that you will experience some form of cultural transitions. Recent studies suggest that culture transitions include distinct phases: initial excitement/euphoria, irritability during acclimation, gradual adaptation, etc. Upon return to the United States, many students face "reverse culture transitions." If you are interested in learning more about the process of cultural adjustment and readjustment, the University of the Pacific has created a cultural training resource.

If at any time your culture transitions cross over into symptoms of depression or other mental health conditions, please reach out to your program leader, onsite administrators, onsite resources and/or UCSC Student Health and Counseling Services. Same-day crisis screenings are available in person at CAPS or by phone during business hours (Monday–Friday, 8 a.m.–5 p.m.): Students experiencing a crisis can call (831) 459-2628 for assistance or come to the CAPS Central Office at the Student Health Center. Staff, faculty, or loved ones concerned about a UCSC student in crisis can also call us at (831) 459-2628 or stop by during business hours for a consultation.

After-hours CAPS Crisis Services are available by phone to UCSC students or others (e.g., friends, family members, staff, faculty) concerned about a UCSC student. Call (831) 459-2628 and follow the automated menu to connect with a live counselor for psychological crisis assessment, consultation, and intervention during the evening and weekend hours and on holidays when the CAPS office is closed.

Just as you may have challenges adjusting to your new culture, your host culture may have challenges adjusting to you. Stereotypes go both ways, and American students can be perceived as loud, arrogant, crude, promiscuous, alcohol-obsessed, rich, cheap, politically naïve, shallow, etc. Please avoid reinforcing such stereotypes. Remember you are an ambassador of the United States and the University of California, Santa Cruz – respect others and act responsibly.

Also consider the nature of the political climate and relations between the U.S. and your destination, as well as other countries you plan to visit. In some cases, Americans living/traveling abroad may be singled out as objects of resentment, intimidation or even violence because of U.S. government policies. In this case, it may be prudent to adapt your style of dress and behavior as much as possible to local norms.