The Culture Shock of Adjusting to College

Adjusting to college life is often harder than most first year students and their parents anticipate.  Students know that life at college is going to be different, and they are excited, and perhaps a bit anxious, about starting their adventure.  But it’s difficult to anticipate how different life may be when you don’t exactly know what to expect.  College is, for many students, a foreign culture.

Most students don’t equate entering college to entering a different culture.  When we talk about culture, we often refer to those things that we do and accept without really thinking about them: our way of life.  We have expectations, values, ways of talking, eating, behaving, relating to each other, and even thinking — but we don’t give these things any conscious thought most of the time.  When your student heads to college, they may need to think consciously about how they manage much of their daily life.  They need to adjust — and that adjustment will come gradually.

Making the cultural adjustment

Most students make the adjustment to college life eventually.  However, each student may adjust according to a different timetable.  Some students may find that the adjustment comes fairly easily — they hardly realize that it is happening.  Other students find the process difficult, slow, and even painful at times.  However, the stages of cultural adjustment are similar for most everyone.  If you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time in a foreign country, you may have experienced these phases yourself.

Helping your student understand and anticipate the stages of cultural adjustment will help them to be prepared for potential culture shock.

The honeymoon

When your student first arrives at college they may experience the honeymoon phase.  They have made it!  Your student has spent the last several years working toward this goal and it is finally happening!  Everything is new and exciting.  They are fascinated by the novelty of their experiences and enthusiastic about the opportunities before them.  The college is likely spreading the red carpet for new students with special activities and support.  Your student feels positive and successful.

One problem may be that they expect that this phase and these feelings will continue.

Initial culture shock

Ouch!  Things begin to go wrong and it takes your student by surprise.  Your student begins to fatigue and realize how different everything really is.  They may begin to become frustrated and annoyed at the differences and realize how much work it takes to manage within this new culture.

This is the stage during which you may hear from your unhappy student.  It is the time when many parents receive the ”meltdown phone call.“  Everything is awful, your student is homesick, angry, lonely, anxious and overwhelmed.

They may want to come home.  They feel that they don’t belong, don’t know how to make friends, don’t like the food or living arrangements, can’t manage classes, and don’t fit in.

During this stage your student may feel less competent and may question their decision to attend this college — or even to attend college at all.  Your student begins to question the way everyone does everything or even question their own values and habits.  They may feel helpless.

One problem may be that they don’t realize that this phase will probably pass if they give it time.

Recovery and adjustment

Things get better.  At least they seem to get better.  Your student is able to resolve many conflicts and problems, they begin to appreciate the way things are done in this new environment, they find helpful resources — both internal and external –  and their feelings become more balanced.  Life may not be perfect, and your student still faces some surprises and mixed feelings, but they begin to feel competent in their ability to function and handle college.

The problem is that this phase may be somewhat superficial and may change yet again.


It is possible that this phase may take students (and their parents) most by surprise.  Perhaps your student anticipated, consciously or unconsciously, initial adjustments. They may have expected that they would feel unhappy and homesick and some point and then things would get better.  When they began to make adjustments during the recovery phase, they thought they had made it.  Then something else happens.

During this phase your student may begin to confront some deeper, more personal differences between their values, expectations, and lifestyle.  They may need to turn inward more to understand their unhappiness or discomfort.  Perhaps classes aren’t going the way they had hoped.  Perhaps those early friendships are less fulfilling than they had hoped.  Perhaps they are finding that their major or area of studies doesn’t feel right.

Whatever the problems are now, they seem to be more within and have less to do with the superficial characteristics of the college culture.  Your student has internal work to do.

The problem may be that your student feels that these doubts mean that they have failed to adapt to the new culture.  They don’t have the patience to continue the adjustment process.

Assimilation and Adaptation

If your student perseveres, they may eventually find that they have truly accepted their new life at college and they feel integrated into the culture.  Finally, they have a realistic understanding of what is involved in their new life and they have made some personal changes.  Your student can now appreciate both their home culture and their new college culture.  They are now, in effect, bicultural.  Your student has more maturity and confidence in their abilities and the new person that they have become.

The parent perspective

Watching your college student progress through the phases of cultural adaptation to college may be a difficult roller coaster ride.  We are always uncomfortable with our student’s discomfort.  We want to make it better for them.  Understanding the phases, and realizing that this is a normal process, helps.  Helping your student understand is important as well.

Remember, too, that when your student has finally assimilated to their new culture they also gain a new appreciation of their home culture.  As a parent, you have not lost them, you now have a student with a new depth of experiences and understanding.

Not quite done

You should certainly celebrate your student’s achievement in making the important, and sometimes difficult, adjustment to college.  However, remember that your student will also be returning home — at least for vacations and breaks.  Our next post looks at the reverse culture shock that may happen as your student makes yet another transition.

Related Posts:

The Importance of the First Six Weeks of College

Be Prepared for the Meltdown Phone Call from Your College Freshman

When Your College Student Is Unhappy

Returning Home from College: Reverse Culture Shock


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