U of T plays host to students from all around the world including the Far East, the Caribbean, Central America and Africa. Now while I’ve not been to all of these regions, I can say with some certainty that Toronto is quite the change for students from these places. To make the move away from home even more difficult, many of these students (myself included) had never left their home country for longer than a few days before they ventured off, halfway around the world to this strange, new land. It’s no surprise then that a lot of international students experience varying degrees of culture shock. Here, I’ll take you through the stages of culture shock, U of T-style!
The Frosh Phase
Formerly known as the honeymoon phase, this is the period that probably occupies you for your first few weeks at U of T: you move into your awesome new residence, you meet your roommates and you experience what it’s like to be away from your parents’ constant surveillance for the first time. If this isn’t already infinitely exciting and overwhelming all at the same time, your first week is also spent meeting hundreds of new students during orientation week and hundreds more during your first few weeks of classes. All the while you’re strolling through this vast metropolitan city, starry-eyed and for the most part, numbed by all the intoxicating (cough-cough) new experiences that you’re sharing with a cacophony of strangers-turned-best friends. This is the easy part…
The Midterm Phase
What your local psych would refer to as the negotiation phase, this is when you realize that for the first time, you can’t call mommy and daddy for help and all your best friends are strangers. To make matters worse, it’s getting colder, midterms are on the horizon and the romantic blur that once surrounded everything at U of T is beginning to fade. At this stage, you’re likely to be missing home a lot, you miss your friends and your family and you miss the food and the customs of your hometown.
For me, I missed the beach the most; and while there’s not much substitute for a Caribbean seascape in Toronto, I found doing things that I associated with going to the beach to be equally satisfying. And so, to this day, whenever I’m feeling homesick, I cook up a homestyle recipe, put on some local tunes, turn up the heat, pull on my board shorts,and it’s just like I’m home. It may seem ridiculous and even a bit crazy, but it’s saved me from calling it quits and hopping on the next plane home more than a few times!
Find things that you can do here to make yourself feel more at home. Look for local restaurants that make your favourite culinary dishes, or learn to cook them yourself online. Find groups on campus that will give you the opportunity to interact with people from similar backgrounds. You’d be surprised how at ease it can make you feel to just talk to someone in your native language or dialect.
The “did I pass” phase?
The next phase is where things get really interesting: you start to see if all the things you’ve been trying are working or not. This will take place roughly around the end of your first semester. This is called the adjustment phase, and probably the period where people’s experiences vary the most.
For some, coping with the differences of life away from home seems impossible and they see returning home as the only way out. Others are able to fully integrate into the culture and accept it as their own. But there is an in-between, where I feel – based on my experience, and on those of the many international students that I’ve met over the years – most people end up. This group is able to accept the new culture, but also maintain their individual identity and create a unique blend of the two.
Beyond the phases
For a lot of people though, this is not the end. Many students continue to have a hard time adjusting to life away from home and some go through waves of emotions – at one point you’re as happy as a clam, but at another, you feel alone, homesick and hopeless. Lucky for us though – as with most things at our fine institution – we don’t have to face these changes and challenges alone. There are a plethora of resources here to help you along the way. If you’re experiencing a great deal of difficulty acclimatizing to life at U of T and Toronto, The Centre for International Experience offers cross-cultural counselling, and if you need someone to talk to, Counselling and Psychological Services is a great on-campus resource.
Now all you’ll have to worry about is reverse culture shock! 😉