The culture shock of international students

Jenna Zani, an international student at Florida International University, was at her anthropology of race and ethnicity class when she heard her professor say a word that shocked her.

Zani has been studying societies and cultures as part of her anthropology major in her home country, Australia. She was taught that the correct way to refer to Indigenous Australians was not “aborigines,” so she was not prepared to hear her anthropology professor use the word.

She was even more shocked to see it happen again in her psychedelics across culture class.

After talking to her professors about it, she understood that it was a cultural difference, not a deliberate use of slurs.

“I think it’s just because the updated terminology hasn’t made it to the U.S. academia sphere yet,” Zani said.

Despite the decrease in international enrollments due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported that there were more than 1 million international students enrolled at universities across the United States in 2021.

It is not unusual for international students to face the challenge of overcoming culture shock, a feeling of disorientation after experiencing a new culture.

For non-native English speakers, it can be something as basic as understanding the language.

Yungyu Lee, a business administration major from South Korea, studied English for years and visited the United States as a tourist. He felt ready to become an international student in “the world’s most powerful country,” but found himself asking people to repeat themselves multiple times before understanding what they were saying.

For international students like Lee, the response from others is not the problem. Lee thinks people are nice and don’t mind repeating themselves.

The shock comes from having studied the language for years and still not being able to understand some words or people talking fast.

“I’ve learned English for 21 years now,” Lee said, “but learning English while unable to practice it in my daily life was frustrating.”

That was his main motivation to study in the United States.

Lee is glad to live with other international students from Spain, Thailand, and Azerbaijan, since it forces them to communicate in English.

Other students prefer finding people from their own cultures.

Carlos Ponce, an economics major from Peru, said that his biggest culture shock resulted from Americans’ mindset. For him, Americans tend to value competition and independence from an early age. So, while other Peruvian 17-year-olds go to university by bus and live at their parents’ house, students in the U.S. drive their own cars and live on campus.

“Here, people become independent and work at their own rhythm,” Ponce said. “It’s you against the world.”

Andre Dawson, assistant director at the department of international students at FIU, recommends all international students to be part of the welcome sessions and meetings aimed at helping students experiencing culture shock.

These sessions give international students the chance to talk about their experiences with other international students.

“It’s basically our way at Biscayne Bay Campus to welcome students at FIU,” Dawson said. “So, they can come get the services they require and meet other students and the campus itself.”

Sometimes, adapting to the humid weather, the different food standards and the extra money spent on Uber or Lyft because of the lack of public transportation are less complicated than adapting to the language and its colloquialisms and American values like competition and independence.

Not all international students respond the same way to culture shock. Some hate the feeling of confusion, while others see it as a new world to explore. But this feeling is what brings them together, no matter which country they are from.

“I chose Miami because I feel that it’s a city full of life with people from all around the world,” Ponce from Peru said. “So, I feel at home.”

Sidney Peralta is a digital journalism major. She is interested in social and political news. She would like to pursue a career in the world of political media after she graduates.