International Affairs: Coping with Culture Shock

According to, nearly half a million international students studied at the graduate level in the United States in the 2022-2023 school year. This goes as no surprise to all of us in Grad Studies at WPI—more than a third of our full-time grad school population is comprised of international students! And thanks to a wealth of advice and resources made available by WPI’s International House, we’ve been inspired to create a new series here on Catalyst: welcome to “International Affairs,” a series dedicated to international students. In this series, we’ll discuss American behavior, social customs, government regulations, safety, housing, driving, and more.

But first things first. Let’s talk culture shock.

What is culture shock?

You may have experienced culture shock on an extended vacation to somewhere new—a sense of disorientation and confusion that almost everyone goes through when they arrive somewhere with unfamiliar customs, food, language, and climate. It can feel adventurous for the length of a vacation, but it’s another matter altogether to live and study under those circumstances! Cultural adjustment can have both emotional and physical symptoms, including sadness, loneliness, insomnia, depression, irritability, lack of confidence, feelings of insecurity, longing for family, feelings of loss of identity, or even physical aches and pains.

Female Asian student wandering SoHo, NYC, window-shopping

Stages of culture shock

You may have heard of the five stages of grief, a model developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Similarly, culture shock involves a journey of emotions for international students in the U.S.

Phase 1: Honeymoon

When a student first arrives in a new culture, every experience tends to be “new,” “exciting,” and “interesting.”

Phase 2: Frustration and Anxiety

“What am I doing here?” Students tend to transition to this phase after 2-3 weeks in the U.S. This generally happens after you’ve settled into the routine of school, and things stop being “new” and “exciting.” During this period, irritation can take hold, and issues like language, food, and figuring out smaller cultural issues can become draining and aggravating. This is also the time when most students start to feel homesick.

Phase 3: Acceptance and Integration

At this point, students start to overcome some frustrations and feel more comfortable in their new culture. This initial adjustment generally takes one semester, and some students go through several periods of Phase 2 and Phase 3 while adapting to American culture.

Dealing with culture shock

If you’re dealing with culture shock as an international student studying in the United States, it’s important to acknowledge that cultural adjustment is a real issue that takes time to overcome. It’s ok to feel sad or to miss home, and you should allow yourself time to feel this way, but it’s also important to seek ways to connect to American people and culture; this will help you adjust and make you feel more comfortable in your new environment. Get to know your neighbors. Join campus organizations. Participate in activities. Regular exercise, a proper diet, and adequate amounts of rest and sleep will also help with the process.

Here are some simple steps you can take to minimize the impact of culture shock:

  • Listen and observe. Watch the reaction of others in different situations. The more you know about how Americans behave, the less uncomfortable you will feel.
  • Ask questions! Don’t assume that you will always know what is happening or that you will always understand every communication. It’s ok to ask!
  • Try not to evaluate or judge. A lot of things will be different. It’s important not to view everything as good or bad in comparison to your own culture.


Coping with culture shock comes down to a combination of acknowledging the struggle and diving into your new surroundings. Remember, culture shock is not just a roadblock—it’s an opportunity for growth! Our goal with “International Affairs” is to guide you along this rollercoaster. Embrace the journey, engage with your new community, and get ready for a transformative adventure in the U.S.


To learn more about becoming an international student at WPI, register to attend our live webinar on May 15, FAQ: Prospective International Students.