Studying abroad is an amazing yet challenging opportunity. It is easier to prepare for the fun and adventure than the obstacles. In an attempt to better prepare students for the trials that come with studying abroad, my program provided an introduction packet. It gave general facts and information on the specific country as well as what to expect when transitioning to life abroad. This transition section was called the “W-effect”. The W-effect is the description of five predicted stages of transition. Let’s look at the five stages below:
- The first stage is a peak stage. You have just landed in a new, exotic place and you are supposed to immediately fall in love. You think everything around you is fascinating and your camera never leaves your hand. This is the first elevated point of the letter W.
- The second stage is home sickness. The tourist high has worn off leaving you longing for home and familiarity. This stage is characterized by the first low point of the letter W.
- The third stage is that you become familiar with the environment around you. You begin to appreciate your situation for what it really is by finding a sense of belonging and comprehension of the culture in which you are immersed. This stage is characterized by the second elevated point in the letter W.
- The fourth stage is the returning back home stage. You are supposed to have become so accustomed to your host country that to return to your home country, whose culture you have been enmeshed in for the past twenty- some years, is supposed to feel foreign to you. This stage is the second low point of the letter W.
- The fifth and final stage is that you become reacquainted with your native culture and you once more have a sense of belonging with your friends and family. This stage is the final elevated point on the letter W.
It is important to understand there is no time frame for any of the stages. I did not know how long one stage would last or if I could experience multiple stages at once. In my own personal experience with studying abroad, I only experienced stages two, three and five.
After a very long second stage the first semester, I learned that the W-effect should only be used as a mere guide and not an actual outline of the transitional process to life abroad and the return home. The transition into a foreign country with a new culture, language and collegiate system is incredibly difficult. It can take anywhere from weeks to months to become fully adapted depending upon how accepting and open you are to change.
No matter what your personal transition speed, there are four major ways to help you transition faster and easier into your new life abroad. The first way is to become familiar with the political and social landscape of your host country. Following news stories about your host country at least six months in advance is a great way to gain a realistic picture. When you have realistic expectations of how another society and culture works, your transitional process will be quicker and easier as you are not basing your experience off of dreams and hopes.
Another way is to research what the college experience is like in your host country. You will be surprised at how different it can be from the classroom environment to the grading system. Seek out resources such as former study abroad students and study abroad websites specific to your host country to obtain first hand accounts of the college experience. It is important to understand that even with prior knowledge, the transitional phase of studying abroad can have an affect on your grades.
Your academic abilities may not be accurately reflected at your host university the first few weeks or first semester. This is natural. Try your best, reach out to classmates for help, and take notes in the language in which the class is taught if something other than English. Familiarizing yourself with this information prior to your departure will be a great advantage and will ease cultural misunderstanding and academic frustrations.
A third way is to go with no expectations of your study abroad experience. Expecting to have fun times with lots of travel will increase your disappointment as you get stuck in the daily grind of school and life. It is better to go with no expectations and a realistic approach to how your host country works. Remember, if you are dreaming of travelling, this is something that has to be budgeted for in advance.
The fourth way to help you transition faster and easier into studying abroad is to bring a comfort object with you. There will be days during your transition to life abroad from which you will need a break and a sense of home. This is completely normal. The comfort object comes in handy for these situations and lets you know that you are not alone on your journey.
After you have successfully adapted to living and studying abroad, you will have to prepare to come back home. Per the fourth stage of the W-effect, you should have an equally tough time adjusting to your native culture. This does not seem to be a valid. I have never met anyone who experienced the fourth stage. Although there is difference between living on your own versus living with your parents, it should not take you more than a week to re-acclimate to your pre-study abroad life.
Transitioning to a new life abroad is very rewarding but very difficult. Studying the current cultural climate and college atmosphere will help you to avoid and/or move quickly past many pitfalls described by the W-effect. The more open to change and accepting of your new environment, the quicker you will adapt and succeed. You are only abroad for a short time so make the most of it in the little time you have.
This post was written by Andrea Bouchaud. Andrea studied abroad in Paris, France at the Université de Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV for the 2007-2008 academic year.