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The Journey of International Students

As an international student, you navigate the dual task of adjusting to graduate student lifestyle and a new cultural and social environment. Exposure to different cultures can change you; the term acculturation refers to this change. Also, how you acculturate may differ from that of another person belonging to your culture or land of origin.

So what are the different acculturation strategies that are available to you? What do they look like? Mainly, there are four strategies: separation; marginalization; assimilation; and integration.

In separation, you seek to preserve your own cultural identity, customs, rituals, and traditions while avoiding interaction with the majority culture. Therefore, when you adopt this method, you are firmly grounded in your culture of origin. However, this could be a challenging position because of juxtaposition of your cultural values and that of the dominant culture. On the other hand, marginalization occurs when you lose contact with both of your cultural worlds – host and home. Here, you are adrift, not grounded in either culture. So then, how about assimilation? Here, there is dissolution of your cultural identity and customs while maintaining relations with dominant culture. With this approach, international students are likely to undergo the most significant changes in their lifestyle and identities. Imagine adopting the rules and norms of the North America culture or the dominant local culture. In some ways, it involves surrendering your previous beliefs and ways of living and transitioning into a new life. Lastly, in integration, international students opt to maintain the cultural identity from land of origin and become part of the host culture. This involves keeping your feet firmly grounded in both worlds – nurturing a respect for your culture of origin and amalgamating features of your new world. Additionally, individuals adopting this method seem better adjusted relative to other methods. How can you do this? Consider adopting a respectful and curious attitude about your new environment, and explore! Appreciate the new experiences you encounter looking at them as new learning; take in the new sights and sounds in the same way as an infant does with each experience. Above all, be prepared to change. No matter which strategy you adopt, all four ways lead to some degree of change.

The change could occur at various levels: cultural, political, social, and behavioral. Cultural changes includes change in areas such your belief systems, and use of language. Behavioral changes are seen as shifts in your attitude, personality, abilities, and motives. Even so, these changes can induce stress for some. Therefore, acculturative stress refers to negative consequences that occur during acculturation. As international academic sojourners, you may often find yourself in the midst of a cultural storm. At various points during your stay in North America, you might feel the pull towards conforming to the majority culture, while feeling the pull towards honoring your culture of origin. Balancing and managing the pulls in different directions is challenging because of limitedorscarce access and availability of your culture’s resources. Additionally, as graduate students, your energy is devoted and directed towards academic excellence, the reason behind your emigration from your home country. Therefore, oftentimes, academic identity, performance, and development take priority over your self-care and development. It is easy to tune away from the frequency of personal growth and development.

And yet, below the surface lurks a yearning and longing for customs, foods, rituals that are familiar to you when you were younger, and originating from your home culture. You experience comfort, joy, and relief when you are surrounded by the smells and sounds familiar to you as a child. Perhaps, you are filled with nostalgia when you cook and eat favorite foods, foods found in your home culture, or listen to music that you grew up on, or pray, or express yourself in your native language. As an international graduate student, these precious moments are fulfilling and yet rare. Sometimes it is challenging for you to find the time or energy to do any of these things; sometimes, getting there is a challenge. Furthermore, the absence of familiar cultural support systems could exacerbate more serious concerns. English language proficiency is also one of the factors that could play a significant role in your acculturation process. Immersed in an academic environment, you constantly use words to communicate, which can be exhausting and stressful.

Using resources available to help navigate the various challenges and opportunities of being an international graduate student can make a significant difference. CAPS is offering a workshop for graduate-level international students. For further information and registration, please visit CAPS website:

Come join us and celebrate your culture!

— Shaznin P. Daruwalla, Psy.M., Psychology Intern, Counseling and Psychological Services