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Culture Shock


By From Sarah Arthur, Assistant Dean of Graduate, Online & Adult Learning on Monday, June 7, 2021

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This morning my computer announced that it needed massive updates, which disrupted my plans for getting the day started and required a hard shut down to restart successfully. As I waited (not so patiently) for the progress bar to creep across the screen, I realized I was experiencing a microcosm of the last year of my life. We made it through the most challenging season I have ever seen in higher education and although we counted it a success at UNW, I was nearly at the end of my patience, overdue for serious personal updates, and really needed a hard restart!

My restoration started the day after our UNW commencement celebrations when I hopped on a plane to reclaim time with my best friend that had been sidelined by the pandemic. Despite the sweet reunion, her familiar turf felt unusually foreign this time. Colorado had a long head start over Minnesota on relaxing pandemic protocols and I found it disorienting to see bare faces and suddenly experience so much less personal space between me and strangers. As refreshing as it was to be free to resume pre-pandemic behaviors, a year of conditioning left me conflicted and anxious when others entered my social distancing zone. It took me a full week away to quit swinging on a pendulum of self-protection.

Last week, I had brunch with a missionary friend who is on furlough from Germany. Over breakfast treats, she pegged my waffling feelings (pun intended) as something familiar to world travelers—CULTURE SHOCK. So true! Through the pandemic, we have all had that disorienting experience of being suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar or foreign way of life. We struggled to get a grip on how to do all the normal things we thought we already knew how to do—get groceries, go to meetings, navigate travel, find recreational opportunities, celebrate special occasions, and simply going to school. As if we were adjusting to new foreign cultures, the how-to-do-life-rules seemed to get reinvented constantly during the pandemic. It was emotionally exhausting.

Parents and guardians are not alone in that culture shock or the weariness that comes with it. Consider what your students have gone through in the last year. Many students gave up high school as they knew it to start college in a way it had never been done before. Some moved in with strangers only to find themselves quarantined with their new “family unit” when a roommate was exposed to COVID. Our students didn’t just learn how to attend a work meeting on Zoom. They mastered the differences between synchronous and asynchronous virtual, hybrid, and lecture-capture classes using Zoom and alternate technologies. New college students transitioned to the rigors of college with significantly more layers of complexity in finding social and spiritual connection. Seasoned college students found themselves navigating courses in multiple modalities plus internships that transitioned to remote experiences, virtual student teaching, educational travel with new protocols, and job searches via audition videos and virtual interviews. I’m tired just remembering what they accomplished!

It’s not that we and our students haven’t experienced change before. For goodness sakes, we make changes all the time and every day. We change our clothes. We change the laundry. We make change for a dollar. We change our hair. We change our appointments. We change our minds. The fact of the matter is that change is a part of life every single day. However, there are some changes that are nothing short of life altering and world shaking. Those changes, like the ones we’ve lived through in the last year, can leave us fighting for our stability and mental health because they affect more than just our circumstances. They can change our entire trajectory.

Parents and guardians, we have a unique challenge as we transition (code word for more change) into summer with our students or graduates who topped off the challenges of assimilating to a college culture with a culture-changing, world-wide pandemic. Their life altering, world shaking year included a massive dose of adulting and now we are asking them to re-assimilate into our family, our ground rules, our patterns, and our expectations. I believe we could call that reverse culture shock! We’ll need an extra dose of compassion and understanding for the emotional swings that accompany adjustment to changing worlds.

Imagine the experience of culture shock over time as a roller coaster car riding up and down on the highs and lows of the emotional state that accompanies each of the typical stages of culture shock as we find our way to a post-pandemic normal. How would our student’s responses to culture change fit in that framework?

The Honeymoon Stage: We made it!
• The new college student is euphoric. The culture is new and exciting, all they hoped for seems to be coming true. It’s easy to see the similarities between themselves and their new surroundings.
• The newly-home continuing student is thrilled to come home to the love and embrace of family.
• The new graduate is excited about that first day on the new job. The anticipation of future feels full of hope and expectation.
The Shock Stage: Hitting that hard shut down
• The new college student begins to recognize differences and disappointments they find irritating. They realize that finding friends is not a piece of cake. It’s easier to fall back/regress into existing friendships with companions at home. Excitement wanes. Productivity takes a hit.
• The newly-home continuing student finds that life is not as idyllic as they imagined. There’s a sense of being seen as a child again under house rules instead of recognized as an independent adult. As a result, siblings and parents/guardians get a good helping of disrespect and hostility. Depression might kick in.
• The new graduate finds that the realities of navigating housing, transportation, budgeting, and the learning curve at the new job feels overwhelming. Anxiety can take hold.
Adaptation Stage: Massive updates and slow progress
• The new college student makes a gradual adjustment. They reach an emotional balance as they begin to understand and become more interested the way things work. Homesickness gets better as a daily rhythm gets established with roommates around meals and weekend plans.
• The newly-home continuing student asserts their adult-level self-advocacy skills by negotiating family rules and expectations for the summer.
• The new graduate/professional starts to get the hang of a few things. As they have to ask fewer repeated questions, responsibility is better and better. Learning new adult skills starts to feel more like achievements than burdens.
Re-entry Stage: The reboot/return to previous culture is its own shock
• Whether it is adjustment to college, returning home, entering the workforce, or dealing with a pandemic, we can expect the boomerang experience of readjusting when more major shifts happen.

When we have become so accustomed to the COVID culture we’ve been living in, a return to previous habits and patterns no longer feels normal. How can we help our students with the reentry to the post-pandemic world—or even just reentry to our family this summer? Consider helping your student and family process the transition they are experiencing by asking questions. Good listening will help them feel understood and will help you empathize with their experience. If family conversation isn’t a habit for you already, try incorporating it in a game night, drawing questions out of a hat around the fire pit, or choosing a question for your next phone conversation. I guarantee we’ve had a year that gives your young adult lots to talk with you about. Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. How has this last year felt like living in a foreign culture?
2. How are you feeling about re-entering life in a post-pandemic world? What do you find troubling? What are you looking forward to?
3. How has adapting to so many transitions and changes in protocols affected your sensitivity to cultural differences? How might you have grown in cultural competency through this experience?
4. What do you want me to know that will help us transition to this new stage in our relationship together? Are there any basic ground rules that need to be re-explored?
5. What or who are you missing the most from your life at UNW? Who do you need to stay in touch with to stay connected to campus culture?
6. What changed that now feels normal to you? What will no longer be shocking if we continue a pandemic practice? What do you hope will forever be changed?

This has been a life-altering, world shaking year. We need to be conscious that our students have experienced a cultural shift that could mean a transitioning to a post-pandemic world or back into life at home with us feels like a culture shock. Let’s face it. We all have a big re-adjustment to make. A giant dose of compassion and some thoughtful conversations may help set the stage for success as we all take time to refresh, reclaim, and reboot our post-pandemic family relationships.

Your support teams at UNW are praying for a restful, restorative summer for you and yours this year.

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