Navigating culture shock

Photo credit: Ross Sneddon, Unsplash CC0

In this post, Inga Ackermann, Global community coordinator at Edinburgh Global, talks about the ‘Culture shock’ videos as a useful resource for helping international students adapt to living and studying in Scotland…

Leaving home and moving to a new country on your own is a big step for everyone. Every year thousands of students around the globe make the University of Edinburgh their choice of study. Last academic year, 45% of our students came from outside the UK. Even though studying abroad may be something that students have planned and prepared for, many are surprised when they experience the impact of culture shock for the first time. The differences in how people speak, eat, work and socialise might become overwhelming, and it can be reassuring to realise that this experience is completely normal and temporary.

As a matter of fact, you do not need to travel abroad to experience culture shock. Everyone undergoes a cultural adjustment process when moving from a familiar environment to an unfamiliar one, e.g. while starting a new job, moving to a big city from the countryside or transitioning from school to  university. A culture shock is a deeply personal experience. Not everyone will have it and its effects on body and mind can vary. You could feel a bit lonely and homesick. You might also feel frustration over not knowing how things work. These feelings might challenge your confidence and cause a headache or loss of appetite and sleep. Culture shock is real!

Throughout my career, I have had a chance to work and study across countries, languages and cultures. I have been through culture shock many times and learned to manage it. One of the most helpful strategies to avoid or mitigate it is to be prepared. Culture shock often occurs when reality does not match our expectations. The more you know about what to expect, the more comfortable you will be with change.

There are many guides and checklists available to read online. However, it makes it a much more personal experience to make a peer-to-peer connection and hear from others who have been in your shoes and are willing to reflect on their transition. In the Culture Shock videos our students reveal their main concerns before coming to study at the University of Edinburgh. They also share their opinion how they managed to adapt to life here. Students speak about different factors that can contribute to culture shock and recommend strategies that can help someone to adjust quickly.

The series includes nine videos, about two minutes each, featuring University of Edinburgh students from different backgrounds and levels of study. Every video is subtitled, has a theme, and spotlights several students answering questions.

The topics include:

  • Main concerns before coming to Edinburgh
  • Scottish Accents
  • Scottish Weather
  • Away from home
  • Adapting to the academic style in Edinburgh
  • New friends
  • Top tips for new students
  • The food
  • Adapting to life in Edinburgh

If you are wondering which video gets the most views, nae bother, it is the one about Scottish accents. If English is not your first language, it is natural that you might have serious concerns whether you will be able to understand your lecturers and people around you. In truth, it will take some time to get used to a new accent even for native English speakers. Although the students in the video acknowledge the difficulty understanding the Scottish accent, they also provide reassurance that these difficulties are temporary and that positivity and willingness to help from the locals helped them cope.

Transition to the University starts before the student arrives on campus. It begins at the time a student decides to apply. These videos serve as a valuable resource to allay any fears, to reassure and prepare our students pre-arrival. They are available on the University main student web page. We also refer to them in the International Student Arrival Guide in the ‘Transitioning into life here’ chapter that also explains the ‘W-curve’, a pattern of stages of transition a student might experience in their first year. Online information resources and opportunities to attend online information sessions might help students prepare themselves for the new environment.

It is critical to remember that culture shock does not occur immediately on arrival. Many students experience it halfway through their first semester when the excitement and novelty has worn off and academic expectations are harder than anticipated. As we want our students to get the most of their time in Edinburgh and feel comfortable in their new environment, it is important for academic and support staff to develop awareness of the cultural adjustment process that many students are going through. It might be worth using these videos during staff induction and preparation for Welcome Week.

The transition to the University involves changes and challenges. It takes time to settle and navigate cultural differences. The good news is there are many things a student can do to minimise those uncomfortable effects of culture shock. The University offers different support networks and opportunities that can help students make Edinburgh their home.

Useful links

Inga Ackermann
Inga Ackermann is a Global Community Coordinator in Edinburgh Global. She is responsible for the International Student Orientation programme and works with key stakeholders, including student and staff groups to deliver projects that celebrate and support our global community on campus. Inga is a member of the Refugee, Asylum and At-Risk Group and is responsible for coordination and organising the University of Edinburgh Refugee Week. Before moving to Scotland, she worked four years at the Welcome Centre for International Scholars providing comprehensive advice and support for international researches at the University of Mannheim, Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *