The study abroad experience isn’t always filled with rainbows and sunshine (especially because Scotland is perpetually on the verge of a rainstorm). Between missing friends and family, craving American food, and jet lag, I’ve spent quite a bit of time abroad just missing home. The simple fact of missing home (even though I’ve come to adjust easily at my home university) came with a lot of guilt. When in another country, it can seem like a waste of my experience to spend so much time missing home.
Before I left home, I attended a (very long, but ultimately very informative) study abroad information session, where we learned how to transfer credits and how to navigate health insurance plans abroad. We also learned a bit about cultural adaptation. I assumed that I could ignore most of this information—after all, I was preparing to travel for a mere six weeks to a Western European country where everyone speaks English. But when the organizer of this information session started drawing what looked like parabolas on a whiteboard, I perked up. She explained the U-curve of cross-cultural adjustment, a theory first developed by Sverre Lysgaard in 1955 (in his book “The American Experiences of Swedish Students”) which describes the social and emotional shifts one experiences when transferring into any new environment. This curve is incredibly useful in helping study abroad students understand their experiences while traveling; it helped me recognize that I shouldn’t expect my study abroad experience to be phenomenal all the time and that I don’t need to feel guilty for missing home when I’m traveling in a foreign country.
Briefly, the U-curve shows the highs and lows of adjusting to a new environment: you start at the top of the U—everything is exciting and new. This is probably the stage where you’ll find a reason to take pictures of road signs, every meal you eat, and every building you walk past. For some reason, you think the coffee in your host country tastes magically different than coffee at home. You’ll want to listen to every local say the most mundane things just to soak up their accent.
Soon after this first stage, you’ll enter a sort of cultural shock and slide quickly down the edge of the U. This is the stage where you realize the coffee in your host country is missing something that your coffee at home has. You’ll start missing food from home. You might ache because your friends aren’t present to share in this experience with you. You might feel lonely, get lost, and generally get frustrated with how incredibly different your host country is; while at first, this was exciting, you might begin to miss the comforts of home.
In the third stage, you’ll gradually start to embrace the new culture you’re living in and begin working up the slope of the U. You might begin feeling like a “local,” frequenting a certain coffee shop (can you tell coffee was a central part of my trip to Edinburgh?) and establishing a regular study spot on campus. The defining feature of this stage is that you begin discovering the “why” behind a culture. Some actions you might have watched confusedly or with judgment, you’ll begin to understand and see things from a local’s perspective (and this is the stage you probably expected and were most excited about when you decided to study abroad—so congrats on making it to this stage!).
The final stage of the U—which is more of a straight line that a continuous upward curve of a U—is a continuation of the third stage. You’ll reach a level of comfortability and confidence in navigating your host country, and you might begin referring to your host country as "home.”
It’s important to note that the timeline of this U-curve can vary. I felt like I was stuck in stage two for a few weeks (which explains why I also felt like I struggled to take full advantage of my study abroad experience at times). Although I’m definitely not an expert in this theorized U, I found a few ways to cope with the roller coaster that is this U-curve.
The best thing I could do when I was feeling particularly deep in my culture shock and homesickness was to get out of my room. I found comfort in going for runs around Arthur’s Seat, finding a free museum to wander around, and frequenting the chapel I discovered near my campus. The best outings I had when I was missing home were those that helped me interact with locals. Arthur’s Seat is a popular place for both walkers and runners (and on one run, I accidentally entered a race with half a dozen children, which, I’m sure, was as interesting and fun for them as it was for me). Wandering a museum allowed me to steep myself in the beautiful history of the place I was in; it was a nice reminder that, even when I was missing home, I could appreciate the beauty and humanity of wherever I was. Attending Mass at a nearby church was the best thing I found to do, though. I felt the comforts of home and something familiar in attending church. Twice, I met parishioners who were equally as interested in hearing about my home as they were about sharing what they loved about Edinburgh. It was these interactions with locals that helped me enter stage three of the U-curve.
If you’re interested in learning more about this curve (or need resources for a paper you’re writing on the study abroad experience)—check out this presentation on Culturosity.com.
I hope that this little lesson in the parabolic nature of studying abroad is useful as you begin to travel or reflect on your experiences studying abroad. What do you think—is the U-curve of cross-cultural adjustment a realistic way to describe the study abroad experience?