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September 28, 2021

5 Culture Shock Tips for International Student-Athletes

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There are over 20,000 collegiate-level international student-athletes in the United States. All of them experience culture shock at different levels and in different ways. What are some of the cultural changes an international student will experience? 

According to the NCAA, Canada, Spain, and Germany have the most student-athletes in the U.S. having between 1001 and 5000 student-athletes each. Followed by Brazil, Sweden, France, and Australia, each having between 501 and 1000 student-athletes at NCAA schools.

There are many other countries that have 1 to 500 student-athletes enrolled and competing in the NCAA. All of these athletes come to study and play the sport they like, but also to experience a new culture. These new experiences come with many changes, so  open-mindedness and willingness to adapt are essential for international student-athletes.

Most international student-athletes experience culture shock when moving from their native country to a new environment. Culture shock refers to the feeling of disorientation or uncertainty experienced by someone that has been subjected to an unfamiliar culture. 

Related: Internationals in the NCAA: Problems and Solutions

  1. Language
    The first and most noticeable change for many international students is language. With the exception of a few countries, most international students have to study and learn English prior to their arrival in the United States. Practicing as much as possible is crucial for athletes to understand and be understood. Watching shows, talking to future teammates, and going to a personal and conversational teacher are some of the options internationals have.

Related: Former Boston College Men’s Soccer Coach Offers Advice to International Students

2. Food
Another cultural change is food. Each country has its own traditional dishes and diets, and eating times and the number of meals in a day may vary as well. When going to a new country with different food habits, it can be difficult for internationals to adapt.

The best thing to do as an international is to slowly introduce yourself to new foods and dishes. A slow transition is key in this cultural adjustment because changing a daily diet abruptly can be overwhelming and create stomach problems.

Related: What to Expect as an International College Athlete

3. Time
A third culture shock is being on time. The United States is very aware of the times, and Americans take being on time very seriously. This means that if a meeting is at 10:00 am, business starts at 10:00am, so it is preferable to arrive 10-15 minutes early.

International students sometimes are not used to being on time, because in their country it is not as important. Internationals can adjust to this by telling themselves that a 10:00am meeting actually starts at 9:45. This way, if you are running late for any reason, you are actually still early.

4. Small Talk
A fourth culture shock for most international is understanding that Americans love to chat. Small talk is heavily reinforced in American society. Whether you know each other or not, small talk in a waiting line, in the grocery store, in a post office, or in a coffee shop, is going to happen.

As an international, it can be difficult to talk to complete strangers, because in many athletes’ native countries, small talk is not a thing. To accommodate and start doing small talk, try it with your teammates and friends when waiting in line, when you see them around campus, or when crossing them in the dining hall. 

5. Personal Space 
The last culture shock is the importance of privacy and personal space. Americans do not like to feel invaded, they find it uncomfortable when other people stand too close to them and will, automatically and unconsciously, move away. Privacy is important for Americans, they do not like being asked their age, salary, or weight. Also, conversations related to personal family matters, political, or religious topics are only had in a small group of trusted friends.

An international student is not always used to respecting people’s personal space because every country has different perspectives of it. Making sure a good amount of distance is left for their “space bubble” when chatting or in line is important. 

Culture shock and changes are normal for international students to go through. How they deal with it, how they work to improve, and how they adapt is going to be a challenge worth overcoming. This article addressed the most common cultural shocks for international student-athletes in the U.S. but the list goes on.

An international student can and might experience many other cultural changes and shocks throughout their stay in America. These are going to vary from country to country, and how similar or different the native country is to the U.S. However, the willingness to adapt and the attitude towards these changes are going to define how much of an impact these changes have on the student.

Remember, there are many international student-athletes within the U.S. and in the same college. Lean on them and your teammates.