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College Culture Shock

You've marched to the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance" and now you're ready to embark on the adventure called college. You're packing bags, meeting roommates, buying books, and decorating your dorm room. But somehow the initial excitement of college has been overshadowed by feelings of anxiety, frustration, and loneliness. As you struggle to fit into your new environment, you can't help but miss the familiarity of home.

What you're feeling is perfectly normal and common: You're experiencing a phenomenon called "College Culture Shock."

The Balance Is Shifted
"Yes, college culture shock exists and is very common among new students, mostly because college is a transitional phase," says Dr. Franca Mancini, Ph.D., director of counseling and psychological services at Monmouth University (MU, West Long Branch, NJ). "It can be met with hesitation, anxiety, and depression because students don't have a frame of reference for what college will be like."

Culture shock is a state of anxiety and frustration that people often feel in a new environment. Vacationers experience this when traveling to another country because they're unfamiliar with customs and traditions. For new students, the context is no different: college is a foreign country. They're away from home -- some for the first time -- and surrounded by new people.

"Students need to learn the rules of engagement in a new place," explains Mancini. "College is a great playground, but the struggle for many students is balancing who they are and feeling connected to those around them."

According to Sherry Wein and Robert L. Huber, professors at Monmouth and authors of "Communication Contexts" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), there are six stages of culture shock. Although the intervals may be brief, you will most likely experience them all.

Phase I: Preliminary
This stage occurs right before a person arrives in a new place, so in the case of college freshmen, it's that prep period before school starts. You'll buy school supplies, get a parking pass (if applicable), meet with advisors, and pick your courses. You'll be excited, but nervous about what lies ahead. Just ask Alex Ramos, now a sophomore at MU. "The summer before starting college was filled with overwhelming excitement," he says. "I couldn't wait to start school and live on my own."

Phase II: Spectator
Upon arriving at college, you'll enter the Spectator stage. This period is often referred to as the "Honeymoon" phase as well because everything is new and exciting. Enamored with your surroundings and newfound independence, the first few weeks of college may feel like a vacation.

Phase III: Participant
For many, this phase gets its start when that vacation feeling ends. "The initial excitement I felt about college was gone after my second night on campus," Alex admits. "I had to adapt to sharing a bathroom and living with strangers. That was very difficult...harder than I expected."

During the Participant stage, you must function in a new environment. Classes begin, homework starts, roommates irritate you, parking is horrible, and the commute is tiring. Things that seemed exciting at first aren't fun anymore.

"Beginning college was frightening," says Courtney Lynch, an English major at Monmouth. "Finding my way around campus was one of the hardest things. No one prepares you for how difficult that can be."

Phase IV: Shock
During the fourth stage feelings of depression and loneliness tend to surface. You may feel homesick and melancholy. "Depression can be common in the first weeks of school while you adjust," Mancini explains. "You'll need to get used to your new surroundings."

Monmouth criminal justice major Melissa Callaghan agrees that starting school can be very emotional. "I had so many feelings...I was happy, sad, and anxious," she explains. "Realizing I didn't live at home and wouldn't have my parents all the time definitely made me homesick in the beginning."

Phase V: Adaptation
Eventually, the college environment becomes familiar and starts to feel like home. Trust us, you'll welcome this stage. Getting involved in campus activities, making friends, and joining clubs are all great ways to get acclimated.

Senior journalism major Kara Guida felt completely out of place when she began Radford University (Radford, VA), but once she got involved and learned about the culture around her, she eased into her new home away from home. "I overcame those feelings by trying to fit in. I even went to my first rodeo and ate grits," she recalls. "I grew as a person because of it."

Phase VI: Reentry
Be prepared to experience reverse culture shock during this phase -- a.k.a. your first trip back home. Although you're excited, you'll soon miss the new life you created at school, and will thus experience culture shock again. Maria Ricci, a graduate of St. Joseph's University (Philadelphia, PA), says coming home is tough.

"I was used to living on my own and was now back under my parents' roof," she says. "It was a hard transition."

How to Deal
So is it possible to overcome college culture shock, or even avoid it completely? Sure, say experts. The first step is getting to know your college. "Every school has a personality," explains Mancini. "You should spend time on campus to feel comfortable."

That means going on campus tours, attending student orientations, and getting involved in freshman seminars designed to familiarize you with campus activities and facilities. Think of it this way: The diversity of a college campus offers something for everyone. Joining clubs or organizations, volunteering your time, and participating in sports are great ways to feel connected. "Find something you enjoy so you can connect with other students and feel like part of a community," Mancini suggests.

Last, but maybe most important, is to talk things out. Students who spoke about their feelings say it helped with the transition. "I called my mom three times a day telling her I wanted to come home," recalls Melissa. "But she told me to stick with it and things would get better." Of course, Mom was right.

Monmouth classmate Courtney Lynch agrees that sharing your feelings helps. "I called a friend at another college who felt homesick just like I did," she says. "It helped to know I wasn't alone and my friends were going through the same thing."

Mancini urges students to also utilize the counseling centers on campus. "Talking will normalize your feelings," she says.

College culture shock is real, and very common. Understanding this concept will help make your transition from high school to college a smooth one. Give yourself a chance to adjust, and don't panic if it takes longer than expected. College is a giant leap in the path of life. Take baby steps and get comfortable in your new shoes. Before you know it, you'll be up and running!