Module 6: International Students


Saint Mary’s University has a population that is comprised of over 30% international students. The transition into university can be stressful for any student but may be compounded for international students due to the stresses of being far away from home and their support network, as well as being in an unfamiliar country, culture, and environment. It is especially important to let international students know that we all struggle and this is normal and a part of being human, as is asking for help when needed. Depending on their own culture, they may not understand that asking for help is a sign of strength and not weakness. You play a role in the mental health of these students by encouraging taking care of yourself and seeking help when needed.

Culture Shock

A period of cultural adjustment that one experiences upon transitioning to a new place brought on by the stress of leaving home, food and environment. Another way of understanding it is - culture shock refers to the feeling when one experiences a cultural environment that is different from what they are used to (Canadian Bureau for International Education). Culture shock does not occur as immediately, as the term might suggest. No one single event or even series of events will result in this condition. It takes time. (Canadian Bureau for International Education).

Cultural shock often comes in different stages:

  1. Honeymoon Stage - excitement over new environment, friends, independence, etc.
  2. Anxiety and Disappointment Stage - the realization sets in that this is a totally new place and anxiety develops over whether or not the student can properly adjust, adapt, and/or assimilate him or herself.
  3. Rejection Stage - the student starts to dislike the new environment and may begin to withdraw.
  4. Regression Stage - Dislike turns into a longing for home and most of the student’s time is spent thinking about their home and own culture. Homesickness sets in and the student may begin questioning their decision to leave home.
  5. Adjustment/Acceptance Stage - At this point, the student starts to accept the differences, and appreciate and embrace their new environment.

Note these stages do not necessarily happen in any particular order. Students may move between stages at their own pace or may totally skip certain stages. It is important to be aware of and look out for some of the signs of culture shock:

  • Alcohol/drug use begins or increases
  • Avoiding and withdrawing from new friends and local people
  • Constantly complaining about new country
  • Homesickness
  • Boredom/withdrawal/unable to concentrate or focus
  • Mood Swings - from anger to frustration to irritability and even to loss of sense of humor
  • Excessively sleeping - and spending increasingly more time alone
  • No appetite or overeating

Some of the signs of culture shock are also signs of mental illness and/or distress. It is not your role to be able to distinguish the two but having a conversation with the student could be paramount in determining whether their behaviour is as a result of potentially temporary cultural adjustment or if there is something increasingly more serious going on. The symptoms of culture shock can become quite severe as different people react in different ways to changes in their environment. What may start as a simple case of culture shock may quickly develop into a serious mental problem, if it goes unrecognized or if ignored for a prolonged period. Factors, which could impact/contribute to culture shock:

  • Language - learning a new language is tiring and takes a lot of energy; if English is not their first language, they may miss their native land.
  • Climate - students moving away from hot sunny climates to a climate such as ours with four distinct seasons, including our cold winters, may not adjust well initially.
  • Social Roles - the social roles of one culture are generally very different in other cultures, which could serve to offend, shock, or even surprise you, for example, - expressing affection to one another in public or same sex relationships.
  • Rules of Behaviour - every culture has unspoken rules and this in turn, affects how people respond to one another in society. For example - how we value/view time, decide what is important, or how tasks are allocated.
  • Values - we all have different values and worldviews, this varies depending upon the country that raises and socializes you. It will be important to suspend judgement until you have developed a deeper understanding of how all the pieces fit together in a coherent whole. This will in turn be of assistance to you in how other people view you with regards to your own culture.
  • Relationship Stress - if you have travelled with a partner, the transition will affect both of you. You or your partner may feel isolated - after transitioning from a familiar culture to a new one and often they are not pursuing a degree, but supporting you, so the stress may be greater on them and subsequently, in your relationship.

How can you help?

  • Discuss your concerns with the student.
    • Ask the student how they are adjusting to their new environment.
    • If they are in academic difficulty, urge them to discuss course material with their professor.
    • If you are seriously worried about the student, refer back to Module 5: Assisting Students in Distress.
    • An additional resource you can provide the student with is the International Advisor:

Ysaac Rodriguez, International Centre
3rd Floor Student Centre, Room 300
Tel # (902) 420-5525


  • Saint Mary’s University is comprised of over 30% international students
  • The stresses of transitioning into university may be compounded for international students due to being far away from home and away from their regular support network.
  • Culture shock can be brought on when one experiences a cultural environment different to what they are used to, however, it does not have to occur immediately and often occurs in different stages. 
  • Changes in behaviour and views on the new environment can be signs of culture shock and it is important to look out for these signs.
  • Cases of culture shock that go unrecognized and are ignored for prolonged periods could develop into serious mental problems.
  • It is helpful to ask international students how they are adjusting to their new environment.


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