Goal Setting and Cross-Cultural Adjustment

Goal Setting and Cross-Cultural Adjustment: Four-Steps to Understanding and Planning for the Study Abroad Experience

The Study Abroad Challenge

“The best time of your life!” “Amazing!” “Beyond incredible!” “Life-changing!”

You are likely to hear your peers returning from abroad say phrases like these. They no doubt represent a real part of their experience, but they do not capture the whole experience. Certainly not every moment of five months abroad was “Amazing!”

Study abroad can be hard. It isn’t always fun. The experience consists of both challenges and rewards, and is often such a transformative experience because of this duality, not in spite of it.

What makes study abroad challenging, and how you can meet those challenges is the focus of this four-step process to getting ready. Our aim is to help you make the most of the incredible opportunity that lies before you.

Step One: Know Yourself

Why are you going abroad?

Grab a piece of paper and a pen and quickly answer this question with one sentence.

Over the years, in working with thousands of study abroad students, we have noticed that most of these single-sentence answers capture one of four broad themes, depicted below. Under which theme does your sentence belong? (It’s not uncommon for one sentence to fall between two themes.)

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These themes, in turn, point to four different archetypes of study abroad student. We call these the Four Study Abroad Archetypes. Which one are you? Read on…

  1. Personal Development: The Seeker

    For the Seeker, study abroad is part of your coming-of-age. Students going abroad for personal development reasons already understand that the challenges they expect to face (adapting to a new place, culture and possibly a foreign language) can help them gain self-confidence. To have an effective growth experience, however, you need to understand that when you’re abroad, you are your own life coach. How will you reflect on your own progress, and how will you push yourself further?

  2. Cross-Cultural Exploration: The Explorer        

    Are you going abroad in order to better understand the way people of another culture relate to one another and their environment, how they conduct business, why they make the art they do, or become fluent in their customs and traditions? If so, you are the Explorer. You are motivated by a desire to understand not just a different way of thinking but also of being. You will need to observe, ask questions, and be willing to try out these different modes of thought and behavior. Explorers should realize that cultural adaptation takes both effort and time. What realistic goals can you set for yourself, and what can you do to integrate more deeply into the local culture?

  3. Adventure: The Adventurer

    The Adventurer
    seeks new experiences of many kinds. Maybe you have a passion for food, and you want to try every dish you come across. Or maybe travel is your passion, and you have your sights set on destinations both popular and off the beaten path. The focus of the Adventurer is on the novel and the unknown. These experiences might push your personal growth, cultural understanding, or academic development, but for you the experience itself is the priority. The challenge for Adventurers is thinking more deeply about the kinds of experiences they want to have, and how they can intentionally structure these to be both fun and meaningful. The sheer number of choices is another challenge. Of all the experiences you could have, what are you most interested in? Can you tie your objectives together with a common theme?

  4. Academic Enrichment: The Researcher

  5. The Researcher views study abroad as a chance to go deeper into the topics that captivate your intellect. Sustainable architecture in Denmark, food systems in Rome, the ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia…study abroad is an incredible opportunity to gain hands-on experience with your major or minor. When studying abroad, we don’t have to look at a photograph of Picasso’s Guernica or a diagram of the Amazonian rain forest, we can see (and sometimes touch) the real thing.  The challenge for the Researcher is realizing that much of the opportunity to pursue your academic passion lies outside of the classroom and the structured curriculum, and thus is up to you. If your academic goal is learning a foreign language, then obviously you will advance further if you spend your free time speaking that language rather than just using it in class. The question for the Researcher is how can you structure your free time around further opportunities for intellectual engagement.

Intentionality: Owning Your Experience

Hopefully, the descriptions above have helped you understand more about yourself and why you’re going abroad. The universal take-away, however, should be that intentionality is critical if you want to make the most of your experience. Your time is limited while the opportunities available to you are not; what will you do with your experience?

Study abroad is not a package tour. It doesn’t mean one specific thing to everyone, it means something unique for each person. That’s the beauty of it; what you get out of it depends (almost entirely) on what you put into it in terms of goals, mindset and planning. However, along with the privilege of an experience you can shape for yourself comes the responsibility of not squandering that opportunity.

You may want to experience it all. You may resist planning because you want to be spontaneous. But those of us who have traveled extensively have learned that you can’t have it all and   spontaneity can be elusive. Sometimes you have to seek out the exciting encounters you imagine, or at least, put yourself into a position where such encounters are more likely to occur. In short, to be successful you will have to embrace the unknown and the unplanned.

Step Two: Understanding Study Abroad

Study abroad is a form of experiential learning, and experiential learning is learning by doing things that are outside of your comfort zone.

There are two important points to be drawn from this definition. First, we are sending you abroad not because of what you know, but because of what you don’t. If you were already fluent in Mandarin Chinese or already an expert in the economics of the European Union, what would be the point in going? You’re not supposed to know all there is to know about French culture; that’s why you’re in France.

Second, study abroad is supposed to be uncomfortable. In your first couple of weeks especially, do not expect that everything will be amazing all the time. Study abroad is challenging, and it can be stressful. And yet the very definition of experiential learning suggests that discomfort is where the benefits reside.

Look at the following diagram of the experiential learning model:

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You could probably decipher this graphic even if we hadn’t labeled it: a person is leaving their Comfort Zone. They’re entering the unknown, what we call the Discomfort Zone. 

Defining Your Comfort Zone

To understand the sources of discomfort you might experience as you take a risk and venture out into the unknown while abroad, it’s helpful to begin by considering what makes you comfortable right here.

If you think of HWS as your comfort zone, what kinds of things are you familiar with that make it comfortable?

Friends, Family, and Acquaintances: The people around you not only help you feel at home, but they also reflect back to you who you are. You only know you are a funny person if the people around you laugh at your jokes. Studying abroad and stepping outside of our comfort zone surrounds us with different people, giving us the opportunity to learn about others, but also ourselves as what is reflected back to us might be very different from the feedback we received before.

Customs and Traditions: You know how to navigate daily interactions as well as the special events we punctuate our daily lives with. You know when it’s appropriate to hug or shake hands or high five, how you address the people around you based on familiarity, intimacy, age or status, what is polite and what’s not, and generally how you should act in all sorts of social situations.

Orientation: You know your way around. You know safe and less safe areas of your community, where to find support and assistance, and where you can go to meet the needs of your daily life.

Food: A critical part of many people’s comfort zone...many of us even have a favorite “comfort food” that we seek out when we’re having a bad day. You know what you like to eat and what you don’t, and you know where to get the food you want.

Social Norms: Social norms guide our actions and interactions every day. Social norms are the socially constructed constraints of normal behavior, beyond which lies deviance. How close should you be to someone you are talking to? Is it expected that you admit fault when you have erred, or is that a sign of weakness? If you have an appointment at 4:30pm, does that mean 4:30pm or does that mean sometime around 5:00pm? When you go into a store, should the store clerk greet you with a smile and an offer of assistance, or should the clerk wait for you to initiate? These are all examples of social norms.

Expectations and Roles: As a student, as a son or daughter, as a friend, as a co-worker or a team-member, in our comfort zone we generally know how we should treat the people we interact with every day, and we have a good sense of the range of behavior we can expect from them. In the classroom, you know what you can expect from the professor, and you also understand what the professor expects from you.  Our understanding of social norms shapes not just how we move through our world, but also what we expect from the others with whom we share it. Expectations give us a baseline ability to predict outcomes from various decisions we make.

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Into the Discomfort Zone

Now that we have sketched in the details of our comfort zone, we can turn our attention to the discomfort zone.  Look at the image of the comfort zone above; your lack of knowledge about these things is what makes the discomfort zone so challenging: new and sometimes strange food; navigating very different expectations of students and teachers; learning that people tend to stand much closer to one another when they are speaking; learning how to kiss people on the cheek when greeting them; understanding that your 2pm doctor’s appointment might really be at 4pm; trying to find your way around a neighborhood with no street signs; being unsure how to act when you enter a public bathhouse. These are all real challenges you might face while you are abroad.

It is important to keep in mind that your experience will change over time. While everyone experiences immersion into another culture differently, generally the first couple of weeks are harder and more stressful, followed by a period of integration where you learn to adapt to the new culture and lifestyle of your adopted home.

It’s also important to recognize that everyone’s cross-cultural journey is unique. Some people might experience down days and up ones; others might find that their moods change many times a day. This is often the case early on; as students acclimate to their new surroundings, most find a new equilibrium.

You might think that you cross the line between comfort zone and discomfort zone as soon you leave your arrival airport. But it is not so clear-cut. You carry pieces of your comfort zone with you in the form of ideas, values, and expectations. You might even be traveling, studying, and living abroad with other American students, with whom you share ideas, values and expectations. Their culture and behavior is recognizable and predicable, and this makes them easy to be around. These people can be a tremendous resource to you, and can be a comforting constant at a time of great change.

When you’re in a group of Americans, you’re in a bubble; you have recreated, in part, your comfort zone. It’s possible to rely on this “little America” so much so that you don’t meet other people or really learn to about your new home.  Whether you are a Seeker, Explorer, Adventurer, or Researcher, hiding in your comfort zone in this way can limit your experience abroad.

When you step into the discomfort zone, what risks are you taking? Embarrassment mostly. Feeling a little bit of the alienation inherent in being an outsider.  What’s the possible reward? Self-discovery and personal growth, unforgettable memories, deep understanding, and greater knowledge of the world await you. Study abroad can provide you with a broad and deep pool of skills and ideas to draw from in the future. It can give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace or in further education. It can enrich your life in ways you can’t anticipate now.

Discomfort, however, is the modest (and temporary) price you pay for just about everything good you hope to get out of an experiential learning opportunity like study abroad.

Five Definitions of Culture

chart 3a

Our comfort zone is not just a physical space or a group of people. It’s also a set of ideas and behaviors that we more commonly call culture

We use the word culture all the time, and yet it is hard to define. Drawing from experts in study abroad, cross-cultural communication, and cultural anthropology, we assembled the following five definitions of culture. Although there is overlap, each one illuminates something original that helps us understand this elusive concept.

1. Culture refers to the collective historical patterns, values, societal arrangements, manners, ideas, and ways of living that people have used to order their society.

2. Culture is comprised of all those things we learn as part of growing up including language, religion, beliefs about economic and social relations, political organization and legitimacy, and the thousands of “Do’s and Don’ts” society deems important that we know to become a functioning member of that group. 

3. Culture is the shared characteristics and patterns of behavior of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.

4. Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations.

5. Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.

Seeing Culture

One of the most profound by-products of study abroad for many students is the ability, finally, to see American culture. For example, many Americans pride themselves on being frank and to the point. We’re a no-nonsense people who speak directly to one another.  An American student returning from Denmark, however, may have discovered that Americans are actually pretty circumspect when speaking with another, careful not to upset power dynamics or hurt feelings. The Danes the student encountered abroad were downright blunt in their speech, providing feedback and opinion with no apparent filter! These are the kinds of things you learn about your host and home cultures while abroad.

Step Three: Calibrating Attitudes and Expectations

Most students going abroad spend a lot of time figuring out what to pack. Most of them do not spend enough time thinking about the mental constructs they need to succeed in a different culture.

Everyone knows that travelers need to be “open-minded,” but what does that really mean?  Here are five concepts that would be useful to pack away in your mental suitcase:

1. Things will not go as expected.

You might miss a train. You might find you really don’t like Italian food (not likely, but possible.) You might get lost, or lose your wallet to a pickpocket. You might head out to go to a dance performance but miss it because you are hopelessly lost. The practical definition of a plan might just as well be “something you intend to do but don’t because life is unpredictable and uncontrollable”!

Setting realistic expectations, for your host country and for your self, is critical. If you go abroad thinking that every minute will feel amazing, you will be disappointed. 

What are the things students abroad are most often disappointed with? Based on student complaints we receive in the first few weeks of a study abroad program, different notions about the size and condition of living spaces is a common flash point of expectations vs. realities. Generally speaking, expect smaller rooms and apartments, less privacy and don’t expect everything to be shiny and new.

Customer service is another big gotcha for Americans studying abroad. You will quickly realize that there is not one universal approach to how you are treated in a shop or restaurant. Shopkeepers and waiters might not greet with a smile and a warm welcome. If you experience this coldness over and over, then it’s probably a cultural difference and not just a few bad apples.

The biggest expectation is the one you put on yourself, to be happy all the time, for every second of the experience to be, and feel, amazing. We want you to make the most of your time abroad and we want you to push yourself. But we also want you to be realistic about what the experience will be like.

2. Negative situations can have positive outcomes.

Things will go wrong. But if you can see a silver lining behind the clouds, you’ll enjoy your experience more fully, and you’ll be more successful in reaching your goals. If you shut down at the first sign of adversity, you may get very little out of your time abroad.

Keep in mind that negative experience spurs our growth and development. It also makes life more interesting. How many stories do you enjoy hearing where everything goes as planned? No, what makes life interesting are the struggles, the challenges, and yes, sometimes the victories.

Remember that glasses that are half full are still half empty, and while you can emphasize the positive you have to leave space for the negative. If you require a full glass at all times, don’t go abroad!

3. Be analytical.

Apply your liberal arts critical thinking skills to your experience of encountering a new culture. If you recognize that “normal” values and behaviors vary from culture to culture, and if you accept that you don’t already know your new host culture, then withhold judgment, and instead collect information.

Remember that what you experience may or may not be indicative of cultural difference. Just as you wouldn’t assume everyone believes or behaves the same way in the United States, so too you should not expect homogeneity abroad. And yet if you are analytical you may start to see patterns in your encounters that do point to cultural tendencies.
Analyze yourself and your reactions to this new culture. Why are you angry or frustrated? Is what you just experienced normal and acceptable in the host culture? Even so, does it go against your culturally defined sense of right and wrong, or the “right way to do things”? Try to get underneath your own reactions.

Lastly, you need to be flexible with your behaviors when you are abroad. That is how we fit in. You don’t necessarily need to change or give up your values; that is part of who you are. You may find yourself questioning those values, however, and that is normal and healthy, though it can also be a bit disorienting.

 4. Be humble.

As we said earlier, we aren’t sending you abroad because you know everything already. There is a lot left to learn, especially in another country. Remain curious. Ask questions. Don’t presume to know what is going on around you. Don’t be afraid to not know what you are doing. Our curiosity is often circumscribed by our desire to not disturb the normal flow of events, the desire to fit in and seem normal, and the desire to avoid embarrassment. All of these desires, however, work to keep you from learning about your new home in an active way.

5. Your once-in-a-lifetime experience is somebody else’s everyday life.

Study abroad is laden with meaning in the culture of American higher education. If you review the Four Study Abroad Archetypes (The Seeker, The Explorer, etc), you might notice that they all share a sizable ambition. You have invested a lot of time, energy, and meaning into your study abroad experience.  To some extent, whereas going away to college was once a coming-of-age transition, that emphasis has shifted to study abroad. There is a lot of pressure to have that once-in-a-lifetime experience.  This expectation can lead to disappointment.

It might be helpful to realize that your special experience is, to the people of your host country, just daily life. This means they may not react to your needs with the urgency you feel inside. For them, it might be a normal day.

Normal life goes wrong, too. Sometimes people break up with partners, get sick, lose jobs, or worse. If you’re in a host family, you may witness, or even be part of, some of these events. You can learn from them, and they may become an important part of your own story.

Though you are in many ways a stranger in a strange land, you are also a resident of that land. You are not a passer-by, but a sojourner, a long-term visitor, a culture-crosser seeking connection with this place and the people who call it home. You are there to live a normal life; it’s just that the local definition of normal might be quite different from what you have known before.

Step 4: Setting and Achieving Goals

Operationalize your goals

You’ve probably heard, and maybe even used, the term “cultural immersion”. Maybe it captures one of your key motivations for going abroad.

The phrase summons a metaphor that culture is like a liquid that you can dive into. Cultural immersion is an academic term, however, and one that doesn’t translate well into all languages. More importantly, it does not help us think through how we might actually learn about, and acculturate to, our host society.

Imagine this scene: You’re walking down the street of your new city, and marveling at the beautiful architecture, the lively life of the street, the new sounds and smells. You see an older man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper, and he smiles at you. You greet him and decide to ask him a question, using your language skills, which have gotten much stronger even after only two weeks.

“Excuse me sir, do you know how I can immerse myself in your culture?”

He looks at you, puzzled.

It’s a ridiculous situation, but it points out the deficiency of the concept of cultural immersion. It’s not like jumping into a pool of water, which takes one decision and then it’s done. Exploring another culture takes time, and many, many small decisions.

Replay the situation and imagine alternative questions that the man could actually answer:

“Can you tell me what your favorite restaurant is near here?”

“What is your favorite café?”

“What, as a visitor, is something that I should see and do here?”

“What is your favorite place in the city?”

“Can you tell me your life story?”

“Is there a chess club around here?”

“What do you remember about the Revolution in 1989?”

“I heard there was a punk rock club around here, do you know where it is?” [Okay, the old man might not know this, but maybe he does? Punk rock has been around a while!]

When social scientists move from the classroom into the field, they undertake a process called “operationalization”. They distill their research ideas into questions that can be asked, and answered.  They focus. You should do the same thing with your own study abroad goals.

Giving yourself a project

What are you interested in? What do you like to do? What would you like to learn more about? Thinking about these questions before you go can be helpful. The truth is that there are far more things to explore than you have to time for.

Some students say they want to experience it all. Others say they want to just be spontaneous. But time is short and fate is fickle. If you want certain experiences, you need to seek them out. Students who focus their efforts have greater success abroad, and return with the richest and most rewarding experiences. Here are two great examples of self-directed student projects:

 Megan’s passion was food. When she arrived in Spain [Link], instead of enrolling in an expensive cooking school that caters to tourists, Megan wanted a more authentic experience. Her approach was unconventional; she approached the chefs of the restaurants she frequented and asked them for informal lessons. And many of them said yes! Megan got to learn how to cook classic Spanish cuisine from the experts themselves.

Michael was an athlete who wanted to stay connected to sports during his semester in Ireland. [Link] Before he went, he found an in-line hockey league in Galway, and he emailed them to ask if they were accepting new players. They were, and when he arrived the team was expecting him. He played with them every weekend, and before his semester finished he had traveled with the team to every county in Ireland, something that most visitors to Ireland rarely do.

Megan and Michael modeled a useful approach to study abroad: they were adventurous, curious, they asked questions and they were not afraid to commit to something. They knew that the focus they placed on their activity would open up a world of other possibilities. They either joined an existing activity or they crafted their own projects entirely.  Either way, they had an experience that was unique for them.

How can you make your experience similarly unique and powerful?

Setting your own goals

The examples above should have sparked some ideas. While it’s fresh in your mind, start a list of goals. They don’t have to be huge and ambitious, but they should be specific. Try to come up with at least five.

Spending time thinking about your goals and planning out how you will achieve them is time well spent. Some people need more structure than others, however, and the following chart is designed to help those students who desire a more methodical goal-setting process.

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The chart follows a logical and useful process, asking you to identify goals, the steps you will take to achieve them, what obstacles you think you might face, and what supports, or resources, you have to rely on.

For more information about how to apply for a project like those detailed above, see the next section of Getting Ready, Enrichment Opportunities Abroad [Link].


Center for Global Education
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
300 Pulteney Street
Geneva, NY 14456

Phone: (315) 781-3307
Fax: (315) 781-3023

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.