High and Low Phases of Student Adjustment
At each of the predicted "low points" in the pictorial of "High's and Low's", AFS has pre-scheduled orientations. These are:
- "Culture Shock" in Mid September -- Post-Arrival Orientation
- "Mental Isolation" in Mid January -- Mid-Stay Orientation
- "Return Jitters" in May -- End-of-Stay Orientation
Patterns of Stages to Student Adjustment
Cultural adjustment phases tend to follow a certain pattern. As Dr. Bettina Hansel, long time AFS staff member writes in her book The Exchange Student Survival Kit, the stages of cultural adjustment can be categorized in the following way:
- Arrival Fatigue: Each student will have a mixture of powerful feelings upon arrival in the host country. There will be excitement, anxiety, nervousness, and hopefulness. The combination of these emotions, jet lag, and the intense concentration it takes to assimilate new surroundings (and often a new language) is incredibly exhausting. Soon after their arrival students may feel very tired.
- Homesickness: Bouts of homesickness are completely normal for students, especially soon after arrival. It's understandable that, in an unfamiliar environment, one would think of home, friends and family. Homesickness does not necessarily indicate a serious problem. Complications arise when a student begins to romanticize home, and believe that everything is better in their native country.
Communicating with family and friends a lot during this period generally makes participants' feelings of homesickness worse, not better. A reminder that "It's not right... it's not wrong... just different" can help to refocus. One AFSer also said that after a good night's sleep she felt much better!
- Settling In: This period is often called the "honeymoon" phase. As their fatigue begins to wear off, AFSers often begin to discover the new and exciting things they like about their host culture. They might begin making friends and becoming more comfortable in their new home. The participants' confidence in being able to adapt can be strong, and they can feel exhilarated by the accomplishments that they have already made.
- Deepening the Relationship: At this point in the cultural adjustment period, students begin to change from being a house guest to a member of the family. With this change comes increased comfort and also increased responsibility. A student will need to be accountable for their host family’s governing values and rules. Like any parent/child or sibling relationship, as the relationship deepens, sometimes conflicts can arise. This is not a bad sign, it usually just means that the student is becoming more a part of their new family.
- Culture Shock: Even the most even-keeled individuals will probably experience culture shock on some level during their AFS program. Issues surrounding culture shock warrant a separate section, and we will talk more about the causes and effects of culture shock later on. For now, suffice it to say that at this stage of cultural adjustment, the "honeymoon" is over, and real life begins again. Some of the novelty of the host community has worn off, and many participants tend to long for things familiar. Also, awareness of the cultural differences on the deeper level come to the surface.
- The Holidays: During the familiar holidays, students may enjoy the celebrations of their new host families, but will likely also feel a little sad and lonely. Major holidays tend to remind students of home, and it is especially hard for kids when they know that their family and friends are getting together and celebrating without them.
- Culture Learning: After surviving culture shock and weathering the holidays, the student's newly found confidence will help them face new challenges. Although participants can feel frustrated and lonely at times, the hardest part has generally passed. Relationships in the host country are getting stronger, and participants know how to respond appropriately to the social cues of their host culture. Grounded in their community and home life, AFSers become increasingly confident in trying new things and forging their own path.
- Pre-Departure: In the weeks before the student returns home, feelings are almost always mixed. While AFSers are excited about the prospect of seeing their own families and friends again, they are sad to leave their new family and friends in the host country. In addition, many participants are suddenly inundated by invitations to parties and special activities scheduled for the end of the school year.
It is worth noting that although we can generally predict the aforementioned stages of the cultural adjustment process, each participant will experience these stages at varying levels of intensity and duration. In addition, some may skip stages, go back and forth between stages or "get stuck" in a particular phase.
The following chart offers a general picture of the host family adjustment cycle:
A host family will also go through an adjustment process as they integrate their new "child" into the family. The stages of the host family adjustment cycle frequently correspond to those of the exchange student. In fact, the student's adjustment and the host family's adjustment typically affect one another. Just as the student is adjusting to a new family and a new culture, the family is adjusting to a new family member who has a different cultural background.
The family's previous experience with making adjustments and their overall flexibility can help prepare them for the highs and lows, but will not eliminate the fluctuations inherent in the host family experience. As with students, host families will also have individualized patterns of adjustment.