Cultural shock

Hello and welcome to all international students. Leaving home and coming to study here at Pécs University causes mixed emotions for all students. This page aims to make your transition to living and studying at Pécs as easy as possible, allowing you to make the most of your time here.

Transition to university – the „cultural shock”

All students who decide to go to University face a major life change, as many have to leave home for the first time. For international students this change can be even greater. You have to face multiple challenges in terms of living and studying in a new country, with differences in culture, rules and systems, educational methods and often language. The extent of the change and its effects on you may surprise you, regardless of the fact that you planned and prepared for this change. If you find yourself surprised by these effects, we want to reassure you that your experience is normal and can affect any student, whichever country they come from, irrespective of the fact that some cultures have more similarities than others. In order to understand the effects of change it is important to look at how our identities are formed by our culture and our personal relationships.

What is culture?

Cultures consist of a set of rules that are generally widely accepted and they do not usually need explanations. Some of the visible aspects of a culture are, for example, people’s facial expressions and gestures, food and eating habits, houses and buildings, family organisation, law and order, celebrations and music, literature and art. Underlying these there are some invisible aspects of culture, such as the concept of self, values and beliefs, attitude towards time, and some unwritten rules regarding behaviour and relating to others. Our culture is part of who we are, it’s a place where we feel comfortable and know what it is expected of us.

What is cultural shock?

The effect of moving from one familiar culture to an unfamiliar one and difficulties adjusting to the new one is called ‘cultural shock’. Anyone who travels abroad to study, work, live or even take a holiday, can experience cultural shock. Living in a new environment, learning the ways of a new country and meeting lots of new people can be very demanding. Cultural shock affects individuals in different ways. Being separated from important people in your life, such as family members, friends, colleagues or teachers, who have been there at difficult times of your life, can add to the shock. You may realise that you miss a lot of familiar sights, sounds, smells or tastes. If you are tired or jet-lagged when you arrive, even small things can be upsetting. A few aspects of the culture you may find most different are language, climate, clothing, food, health care and educational differences, social rules and values such as interpersonal space. You may find it surprising or even distressing that people hold different ideas or core values and beliefs, and you may feel confused or unsure of how to respond to them. It is better to suspend any judgements and try to understand what other people say or do and how these fit into the context of their culture. This will help you to understand how other people see your behaviour as well as you understanding theirs.

What are the tasks and feelings involved in starting at university?

The two main task are leaving and adapting to new things, people and places. We all have different levels of tolerance to change and have learned different ways of coping with new situations. In unfamiliar surroundings our habitual methods of coping and working are challenged. Tasks which we would normally have taken in our stride can suddenly seem a huge challenge, or impossible. Our selfesteem and confidence can drop. Prior to your arrival you may feel a mixture of excitement, together with some nervousness. You may find yourself wondering: “what will it be like?”; “what will the other students be like?”; “will I be able to cope with the work?” and many more questions. You may feel pressure to do well in your studies, not only to fulfil your own dreams and ambitions, but also to meet the expectations of your family left behind at home. Students often experience a ‘honeymoon period’ when they first arrive, where everything seems exciting and wonderful.

This is sometimes followed by a period of feeling lonely and lost, confused and homesick. Following that period, you may gradually realise that some things are simply different to what you expected – and you may even think some things are better! You may gradually become more familiar with the new situations and be able to deal with these problems, based on your growing experience. You will be able to live happily by accepting the differences and similarities you’re experiencing, and feeling confident in your own beliefs and values.

What I can do to help myself?

  • In the first place, try to accept that all the above feelings are entirely normal and part of the cultural shock. This in itself can be a helpful step.
  • It can take time to get to know people, and for other people to get to know you. This means that it is unlikely that other people will know how you’re thinking or feeling. Remember that other international students may be experiencing the same feelings too. Talking to each other may be helpful and ease loneliness. Building friendships with local students can help you to find out about each other’s culture.
  • Keeping in touch with your family and friends from home (phone calls, texts, e-mail, Facebook etc.) can ease these feelings. However, maintaining very regular contact (e.g. daily or even more) with your family and friends can actually make the process of settling down much more difficult.
  • It may be good to decorate your room with things that have personal meaning for you, such as photographs or special ornaments from home. These items can make your room feel more comfortable and more like home.
  • Doing a sport or physical exercise can help release negative emotions. Apart from helping you to keep fit and healthy, it can be an opportunity to meet people with similar interests. Eating healthily and getting enough sleep can help you to say fit and cope with new challenges.
  • Making contacts and spending time with people from your own culture can help you feel less isolated. You can speak your own language, cook familiar food and talk about your home country; but it is always good to keep a balance in terms of how much time you spend getting to know new groups of people and students from the same country.
  • Similarly, it is important to have a balance between academic and non-academic life. It is important that you neither overwork nor underwork. The first one can leave you feeling tired and burnt-out with feelings of having missed out from the social aspects of life at University. Underworking can result in getting a backlog of work quickly and struggling to catch up. You may be left feeling stressed and this could have an effect on your work and your grades.For this reason it is good to have a planner, scheduling your work and allowing yourself some leisure time as well. Having a daily or weekly routine/programme can behelpful.
  • Familiarise yourself with our culture, for example by reading newspapers, watching TV, listening to the radio, including local radio stations, and talking to others. This will enable you to better understand the ways of thinking and behaving.
  • Explore the different societies that exist at Pécs. There may be an opportunity to learn something new, something you had always wished to do, or even continue an interest you had at home. These societies are an opportunity to bring together students from different courses, colleges or countries with a shared interest, and are another way of making friends.

Once you have come to feel settled and relaxed at Pécs, you may be able to see this experience as a positive one. It can be a significant learning experience, making you more aware of aspects of your own culture, as well as aspects of the culture you have entered and providing you with the skills of an international education.


Durham University – Information Leaflets

University of Cambridge – Counselling Service