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Preparing for Cross Cultural Encounters

How to Prepare

Intensity Factors

Intercultural Sensitivity

Defining Expectations
Structured Reflection

What Are Your Study Abroad Goals?
How Well Can You Adapt?

Culture Shock -
What Is It?
Culture and History Worksheet
When You Arrive - DIEVA
Culture Shock - 
Typical Responses & Advice

How to Prepare

Excitement, discovery, anxiety, confusion, adventure, disappointment, and discomfort are only some of the emotions that students report as part of their experience of study abroad. As a student heading off to study abroad, you can expect to face once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, ambiguity, differences in core values, new friendships, stress, self-questioning, changes in behavior, and much more. The experience of studying abroad is unique for everyone and learning to cope with unplanned situations is one of the most exciting and terrifying things about being abroad. So, what can you do to prepare?  

Similar to the experience of studying abroad, preparing for study abroad is unique for everyone. Because people cope with changes differently, it is important to remember that you are the expert on how you will deal with the changes you experience while abroad. Friends, family members, CIP staff, and peers who have studied abroad are excellent resources for you as you prepare for your departure – they will understand and be knowledgeable about the feelings you experience before, during, and after your study abroad program.

As you may have guessed, flexibility, adaptability, a sense of humor, and open-mindedness are all very important qualities for students headed abroad. Consider, however, the importance of being able to fail. For many students, failure is not an option. But while you are abroad, unplanned changes, discomfort, failure, and miscommunication are normal experiences. Your expectations about certain situations or interactions with new people may not match reality. Learning more about what may be a realistic expectation will better help you prepare for your departure.

The Center for International Programs has developed some suggestions to help you prepare for the challenges of study abroad. To begin, learn about the importance of self-reflection and how to continue the process upon your arrival in your host country (check out the “Self-Reflection” section). Explore various definitions of ‘culture’; the essay that you wrote in your application for study abroad is only the beginning. Identify how stress, ambiguity, and discomfort may impact your experience, and learn about culture shock (in the “Coping and Advice” section). Define ‘expectations’ and reflect on your own (refer to the “Defining Expectations” section). Contemplate how you will feel if your expectations are not met.

Another way to prepare for study abroad is to learn about your host culture. Check out the list of questions the CIP has generated (in the “Research” section). Finding the answers to these questions will help you begin to become familiar with your host country and culture. Come up with your own list of questions and ask them! Lastly, upon your arrival, identify someone with knowledge about your host culture that can help interpret and evaluate situations and uncomfortable moments that you experience.

In this section of the Handbook we are writing as the CIP to you, the student,  to share our intercultural knowledge and experiences with you. We are deliberately using the pronoun “you” because we want this to be the beginning of a conversation you have with us and with our partners and resident directors around the world. We in the Center for International Programs are here as a partner, but the experience you have is largely based on what you make of it. We encourage you to take the initiative early so that you are even more prepared when you arrive – the more prepared you are the better your chances are of having a deeper, more meaningful time abroad.

Defining Expectations

We all have expectations when we head into a new situation, whether it is changing schools, homes, towns, jobs or, in your case, countries. These expectations are formed from our own values, from things that we have heard from others, and from our social culture (such as the media). We are often disappointed if our expectations are not met and find it difficult to accept and adapt to a new and unplanned situation. While abroad, your expectations about certain situations or interactions with new people may not match the reality you experience. For example, you may have identified one of your goals for study abroad to be meeting and connecting with locals from your host country. If you arrive and discover that you do not have any classes with local students, you may be disappointed and disenchanted with the program or your experience abroad. Learning more about what may be a realistic expectation will better help you prepare for your departure. By this time in the pre-departure process, you should have read the program description for your study abroad site, spoken to international students or past study abroad participants from your host country, and/or researched the program to which you are headed. Important preparation tools include:

1.       Informing yourself about the living situation

2.       Understanding what kinds of classes you will take and who your favorite classmates will be

3.       Finding out as much as you can about the city

4.       Studying the language – most students report their lack of language fluency to be the most frustrating factor on study abroad

5.       Preparing yourself to break from the “K Bubble” and to be comfortable with making friends on your own.  

Living and studying in a foreign culture demands independence, open-mindedness, flexibility, and a sense of humor. Things won’t always go your way; you will find yourself in uncomfortable situations; and your normal methods of coping may be compromised by culture shock, homesickness, and/or illness. Although these experiences may not be what you expected, there are ways that you can respond that may help you reach your goals. For example, even if you do not have classes with local students, you may be able to join a local sports club or creative group (such as choir) that includes local students.

Structured Reflection

“Study without reflection is a waste of time; reflection without study is dangerous.” ~ Confucius

Some people become confused between self-reflection and self-criticism. You need to go beyond simply admitting a weakness or mistake or failure (self-criticism) – what is important is not only what you did, but how you felt, what you have learned from that experience, and how it will inform your behavior in the future (self-reflection).

Helpful model for Structured-Reflection: What? So What? Now What?


  • What do I expect to get out of this experience (purpose/goals/ideals)?
  • What did I observe during my first day in this new culture?
  • What part of my journey was most challenging? What part did I find surprising?
  • Describe the people you see in the new culture.
  • Describe your new surroundings: What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you see? What do you feel?
  • What roles do I play in my “host-household”?
  • What about myself did I share with others?
  • What did others share with me?
  • What does it feel like to come into and leave my different roles (student, host-daughter/son, friend, tourist)?


  • What am I learning about others and myself?
  • How am I different now compared to when I left Kalamazoo College?
  • How am I different/similar than other people?
  • In what ways did being different help/hinder my experience?
  • What are the differences between my new “family”/friends and my family/friends at home?
  • What values, opinions, decisions have been made or changed through this experience?
  • What has surprised me about the host country, the culture, and myself?
  • What have you learned about a particular community or societal issue?
  • What are some things that you mask from people in different cultures?
  • Why do you mask those things?


  • Is it important to me to stay connected/involved with my host city/country when after I go back to Kalamazoo College?
  • How do I take what I have learned and use that knowledge, those skills, & those attitudes when I return home?
Questions adapted from “Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Higher Education” 

A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity

Developmental models provide a structure to help us learn how we may grow, or develop, from point A to point B. Bennet (1986), a specialist in intercultural communication, developed this model as one theory to explain how individuals from different cultures become more sensitive to cultural difference. It is typical that individuals will move from one stage to the next, sometimes even reversing, as they encounter different individuals and experiences.

Ethnocentric States

  1. Denial of Difference. No recognition of cultural difference because of isolation or intentional separation. Attribution of deficiency in intelligence or personality to culturally deviant behavior. Tendency to dehumanize outsiders.
  2. Defense against Difference. Recognition of cultural difference coupled with negative evaluation of most variations from native culture — the greater the difference, the more negative the evaluation. Evolutionary view of cultural development with native culture at the acme. A tendency towards social/cultural proselytizing of “underdeveloped” cultures.
  3. Reversal. Tendency to see another culture as superior while maligning one’s own.
  4. Minimization of Difference. Recognition and acceptance of superficial cultural difference such as eating customs, etc., while holding that all human beings are essentially the same. Emphasis on the similarity of people and commonality of basic values. Tendency to define the basis of commonality in ethnocentric terms (i.e. everyone is essentially like us).
  5. Physical Universalism. Emphasis on commonality of human beings in terms of physiological similarity.
  6. Transcendent Universalism. Emphasis of commonality of human beings as subordinate to a particular supernatural being, religion, or social philosophy.

Ethnorelative States

  1. Acceptance of Difference. Recognition and appreciation of cultural difference in behavior and values. Acceptance of cultural differences as viable alternative solutions to the organization of human existence. Cultural relativity.
  2. Adaptation of Difference. The development of communication skills that enable intercultural communication. Effective use of empathy, or frame of reference shifting, to understand and be understood across cultural boundaries.
  3. Integration of Difference. The internalization of bi–cultural or multicultural frames of reference. Maintaining a definition of identity that is “marginal” to any particular culture.
Bennett, Milton J. “A Developmental Approach to Training
Intercultural Sensitivity.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations.
Vol. 10 (2). Summer 1986.


Collected by Dr. Robert Grossman, Kalamazoo College 

Problems most often arise abroad when there is a discrepancy between our expectations and reality. However, as human beings, we tend to expect others to be like we are. Even though we know we are in a different cultural reality abroad, we expect, often unconsciously, that things will be and work like they do at home. When we begin to recognize that things and other people are different, we often experience the symptoms noted in the chart (to follow). Thus, we suggest you:

  1. Expect change and difference. Keeping an open mind and remaining flexible are two excellent attributes for a successful study abroad experience. Make change and difference tools for learning, not enemies to be overcome. Avoid getting caught up in the little things. Keep your sense of humor. Be willing to fail at some tasks and feel stupid (or like a 5-year-old) when doing others. Study abroad involves a great deal of risk-taking—not necessarily bungee jumping type risks, but more like buying a movie ticket or asking directions in a foreign language.
  2. Guard your health. Be sure to get enough to eat, drink enough water, and get enough sleep.
  3. Acknowledge symptoms of culture shock, when they occur, and then do something constructive to deal with them. (See following section)
  4. Spend some time before departure (both overseas and returning) to review your goals using the worksheet in this handbook. Keep your expectations reasonable and revise them at regular intervals. Be realistic about yourself and your abilities. People who have the ability to relax and ride with events tend to be more effective and enjoy themselves overseas.
  5. Develop an attitude of patience and tolerance towards yourself as well as others. Tolerance towards ambiguity is an important skill for learning how to live in a new culture. Most of the time we do not know what things mean or how things work, and that will frustrate us if we let it.
  6. Develop the habit of mentally stepping back from an uncomfortable situation and describing the situation as you see it. What is the specific thing that has triggered the feeling in you? Then go on to interpret the situation, which is to say what you think about what you see. And then finally continue with an evaluation, that is, what you feel about what you think you see. Frustration and other feelings of discomfort are traceable to a specific cause or action, usually an ambiguity, a disparity between expectations and reality, an unrealistic goal, a sense that things should move more quickly, or a cultural blunder.

NOTE: Returning home is often as difficult an experience as going overseas. The reintegration process recapitulates the same phases as the trip abroad, albeit in a more compressed manner. When returning home it is important to make use of the same skills and tools that you developed while overseas. The preceding list of suggestions can help ease the transition back into life at “K”. Many students have told us that finding an outlet for sharing their study abroad experiences was an important part of their personal reentry process. Talk with your instructors, your academic advisor, or the Center for International Programs about possibilities. If you should experience severe emotional discomfort after returning home, contact the counseling office or the health center. Also, Check out the Welcome Back page an offering of reintegration outlets.

Culture Shock - What Is It?

Adapted from the Fulbright Newsletter, 1988

No matter whether you call it Cross-Cultural Adaptation Stress, Intercultural Adjustment Disorientation, Displacement Anxiety, or Culture Shock, “the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” is a real part of almost everyone’s trip abroad. Along with our spoken language, we have learned an enormous number of non-verbal cues which indicate to us such things as: when to shake hands, what to say when we meet people, how to tip, how to make requests, how to buy things in different settings, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, and when to take a person’s statements seriously. In addition, there is the larger issue that one’s learned culture and cultural knowledge have only a limited value in the new setting. Kalvervo Oberg, one of the earliest researchers on culture shock, notes that “when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed. He or she is like a fish out of water. No matter how broad-minded or full of good will he may be, a series of props has been knocked out from under him or her.”

Not everyone is affected by culture shock in the same way, at the same time, or to the same degree. For some the symptoms may be severe, for others quite mild. For some this may be a long drawn out affair, for others very brief. It is, however, typical for all humans (and other animals and even plants) to undergo some sort of transplant/adaptation stress when they move into a new environment. Robert Kohl notes that this move “can cause intense discomfort, often accompanied by hyper-irritability, bitterness, resentment, homesickness, and depression. In some cases distinct physical symptoms of psychosomatic illness occur.” Other symptoms may include “excessive washing of the hands; exaggerated concern over drinking water, food, dishes, and bedding; the absent-minded, far-away stare; a feeling of helplessness and a desire for dependence on long-term residents of one’s own nationality; fits of anger over delays and other minor frustrations; delay and outright refusal to learn the language of the host country; excessive fear of being robbed or injured; great concern over minor pains and eruptions of the skin; and finally, that terrible longing to be back home, to have a good cup of coffee, to walk into that corner drugstore, to visit one’s relatives and friends and, in general, to talk to people who really make sense” (Oberg).

For many people, the trip abroad proceeds through several phases. While these phases may reflect all or part of your own adjustment process, there is no one “normal” pattern. Reactions to living in a new culture are as different as the people who are doing the reacting. You may find that your adjustment proceeds faster or slower than what is indicated here.


There are international students on campus this quarter that would be very willing to help provide you information about these and other matters. If you haven’t yet met them, make an effort to do so! They are your best source of information about the country or region you’ll be living in within a matter of weeks.

Alternatively, you can ask past-participants who have returned from studying in your future host culture. Contact a peer adviser at if you would like to get in touch with a past-participant.

Online information and tools can be very convenient and useful for students preparing for their travels.  The CIP recommends two that can encourage students to appreciate the values and beliefs of their host countries as well look deeper at their home cultures that have shaped their perspectives.

What’s Up With Culture?  is an online resource accessible at that enhances the preparation you have already begun by discussing topics such as cross-cultural values, communication, and learning to think and live outside of the box, or in this case, outside of your own cultural comfort-zone. Each section includes exercises that allow students to apply their knowledge and evaluate their skills in these areas. The website also shares the encounters of students in various countries.

The Center for International Programs encourages every study abroad student to visit the  What’s Up With Culture? website before leaving the U.S.  Module 1, Section 4 Whose Fault?  Why Values Matter and Section 6 Communicating Across Cultures, What Are They Trying to Say? are highly recommended. You can access these modules at:, and

In addition to What’s Up With Culture? pre-departure training, there is also a module for returning to the U.S.: Welcome Back!  Now What?  It offers information and advice that students have found useful as they prepare for the transition and readjustment to home back here in the U.S.  Students should find Module 2 most helpful during their last month overseas. Access this module at:

The Global Road Warrior is a database for international social, cultural, travel, and business information. Kalamazoo College’s Library subscribes to this database and it is available to students preparing to study and live in a different culture.  Topics such as cultural taboos, holidays, food, etiquette, climate, tourist locations, maps, and so much more are covered. The database is accessible from K College online database listing at

Centre for Intercultural Learning: part of the Canadian Foreign Service Institute of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, the Centre is Canada's largest provider of intercultural and international training services for internationally-assigned government and private sector personnel.

Culture Crossing - a community-built guide to cross-cultural etiquette and understanding

Your ability to function successfully in another country will be at the heart of the extraordinary personal growth that is a part of study abroad.  We hope the knowledge and tools available with these resources facilitate successful transitions, after your arrival in your host country and after your return to the U.S.