The University of Iowa

The range of non-academic issues and problems that can affect a student’s life while at the University of Iowa can also affect the student’s study abroad experience. On a study abroad program, the Faculty Director may be called upon to represent the entire range of resources available at the UI and in Iowa City (Student Health, Counseling Services, Office of the VP for Student Services etc.). Should any of the issues discussed below arise during the course of the program, the Faculty Director should first consult with the Study Abroad office. The information provided in this chapter will help in identifying, as well as responding to, such situations.

Group Dynamics

Study abroad Faculty Directors should not underestimate the influence of group dynamics on program participants and the overall success of the study abroad program. Faculty Directors should familiarize themselves with the basic concepts of group dynamics and learn how to use these to affect their program in a productive and positive manner.

Bruce Tuckman (Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399) has defined five stages of group development that are widely recognized and applicable to groups in many different contexts:

Stage 1: “Forming”

In the Forming stage, personal relations are characterized by dependence. Group members rely on safe, patterned behavior and look to the group leader for guidance and direction. Group members have a desire for acceptance by the group. They gather impressions about the similarities and differences among group members and form preferences for future subgroups. There is a tendency to avoid controversy. The major task function of the group at this point concerns orientation. Members attempt to become oriented to the environment and tasks at hand as well as to one another.

Stage 2: “Storming”

The next stage is characterized by competition and conflict in the personal-relations dimension and organization in the task-functions dimension. Individuals discover that they must adapt or suppress their feelings, ideas, attitudes, and beliefs to suit the group organization. Conflicts may arise among group members over leadership, structure, power, and authority. There may be wide swings in members’ behavior based on emerging issues of competition and hostilities. Because of the discomfort generated during this stage, some members may remain completely silent while others attempt to dominate. Outside of the personal-relations dimension, there will be an increased desire for structural clarification and commitment. Participants are likely to raise questions at this point about who is responsible for what, what the rules are, what the reward system is, and what criteria for evaluation are. Many study abroad programs – particularly short-term and summer programs – never evolve beyond this stage.

Stage 3: “Norming”

In Tuckman’s third stage, interpersonal relations are characterized by cohesion. Group members are engaged in active acknowledgment of all members’ contributions, community building and maintenance, and solving of group issues. Members are willing to change their preconceived ideas or opinions on the basis of facts presented by other members, and they actively ask questions of one another. Leadership is shared, and cliques dissolve. When members begin to know – and identify with – one another, the level of trust in their personal relations contributes to the development of group cohesion. It is during this stage of development (assuming the group gets this far) that people begin to experience a sense of group belonging and a feeling of relief as a result of resolving interpersonal conflicts.

Stage 4: “Performing”

The Performing stage is not reached by all groups. If group members are able to evolve to stage four, their capacity, range, and depth of personal relations expand to true interdependence. In this stage, people can work independently, in subgroups, or as a total unit with equal facility. Their roles and authorities dynamically adjust to the changing needs of the group and individuals. There is unity: group identity is complete, group morale is high, and group loyalty is intense.

Stage 5: “Adjourning”

Tuckman’s final stage, Adjourning, involves the termination of task behaviors and disengagement from relationships. A planned conclusion usually includes recognition for participation and achievement and an opportunity for members to say personal good-byes. Concluding a group can create some apprehension - in effect, a minor crisis. The most effective interventions in this stage are those that facilitate task termination and the disengagement process.

Conflict within Groups

Conflict, though potentially destructive, can be a valuable group process, as the absence of conflict in a group may be an indicator of a lack of involvement by group members. It is virtually impossible to enumerate all of the factors that produce conflict in groups. Three factors are significant to conflict within study abroad programs:

  • Competition
  • “Contentious Influence Strategies” (threats, punishments, and bullying)
  • Personal characteristics/interpersonal style

The conflict process

The following perceptual, cognitive, and interpersonal factors contribute to the escalation of conflict in groups:

Attributions and Misperceptions

Attribution refers to the process by which people use information to make inferences (judgments) about the causes of behavior. Internal (dispositional) attributions are causal inferences that attribute people’s behavior to factors within the individual, such as his or her attitudes, personality, ability, emotions, or effort. External (situational) attributions are causal inferences that attribute people’s behavior to factors outside the individual (e.g., luck) or to situational forces acting upon the person (e.g., social influence or economic incentives).

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for observers to overestimate the causal importance of others’ dispositions while underestimating the impact of the situation in explaining their actions. Obviously such misperceptions are unlikely to be of any value in dealing constructively with conflict.


The more people defend their viewpoints the more committed they tend to become to those positions. This reduces the likelihood that adversaries will reach a rapprochement. (When conflict reduction is the goal, it would be more constructive to have adversaries role play one another’s position -- in other words, defend the adversary’s viewpoint and attack their own.)


Entrapment is essentially overcommitment -- an escalation in commitment. Specifically, parties to a conflict tend to invest increasing amounts of time, energy, money, or other resources into the conflict, to the extent that backing off becomes an untenable proposition by virtue of the losses it would incur.

Arousal and Aggression

Heightened frustration (the inability to attain valued goals) may "boil over" into overt aggression. Frustrated individuals, when aroused, may erupt into anger in the presence of situational cues that lead to their labeling the arousal as "anger."


As predicted by social exchange theory, people will tend to "do unto others as others do unto them."

Coalition Formation

Conflict in groups sometimes results in coalition formation as some group members form alliances against others. Coalitions tend to disrupt group dynamics because they bypass formal group structure (i.e., authority relations, roles, and communication networks).

Characteristics of Coalitions

1. Coalitions involve participants who disagree on many fundamental issues.

2. Coalitions form to promote the achievement of specific goals or outcomes.

3. Coalitions tend to be temporary.

4. Coalitions occur in mixed-motive situations.

5. Coalitions involve an adversarial element.

Conflict Resolution

Some modes of conflict resolution address the conflict without resolving the root problem, whereas others identify the issues underlying the dispute and attempt to generate mutually satisfying solutions to the underlying problems.

"Non-Problem-Solving" Strategies

Conflict-resolving strategies that leave the underlying problem unresolved include imposition, withdrawal, inaction, yielding, and compromise.

Problem-Solving Strategies

Conflict-resolving strategies that address the underlying problem and attempt to find a mutually beneficial ("win-win") solution include instilling trust, negotiation, and third-party intervention (in which a neutral third party, called a mediator, attempts to bring about a settlement between disputing parties through compromise).

Disruptive Students

Individual students may on occasion cause disruption to the group. Speaking one-on-one with the student in question before the problem escalates is generally the best first approach. Try to determine the root cause of any inappropriate behavior or complaints. Other useful information for dealing with this type of situation may be found in this handbook under the sections titled “How to help a stressed student” and “Student Disciplinary Policies and Guidelines.”

Alcohol Use and Abuse

Faculty Directors often find themselves responsible for a group of students used to a social climate that tolerates binge drinking. In all likelihood, the laws and prevailing attitudes concerning alcohol purchase and consumption will be different in the host country than in the United States. In many countries, the legal drinking age will be lower than in the U.S. Alcoholic beverages may also be less expensive. This combination of factors can lead to a variety of problems, ranging from alcohol use by inexperienced drinkers to extreme over-consumption by students already habituated to binge drinking. Unless responsibly addressed and monitored throughout the program, alcohol-related issues can create serious problems for students and for the program.

There are a number of strategies for de-emphasizing alcohol consumption during the course of the study abroad program. It is generally neither effective nor enforceable to prohibit drinking while the program is in session. More effective mechanisms of decreasing consumption include:

  • facilitating participating in social and cultural activities that do not include alcohol – in other words, keeping students busy and out of the bars
  • placing emphasis on the role of alcohol in the host culture during orientation and throughout the program – helping students understand that drinking to intoxication may not be socially acceptable as it is in a U.S. college town
  • instituting a “peer pressure” system to get students to stop drinking before they are dangerously drunk
  • providing clear guidelines on tolerable and intolerable drinking behaviors, and the potential consequences of drinking to excess (consequences may be disciplinary, e.g., expulsion from program or personal, e.g. date rape, arrest…)

In accordance with UI policy, alcohol cannot be purchased with program funds. Cash bars should be arranged at any program-sponsored activity at which it is appropriate to serve alcohol.


Students encounter a significant level of stress during their “ordinary” academic life, which may be exacerbated by being abroad. In addition, students participating in study abroad programs will find themselves without their usual support networks (family, friends) and outlets (sports, hobbies, etc.) Even on-campus resources (counseling services, academic advisers) are not easily accessible abroad. As a result, program participants are likely to seek help from the Faculty Director, or other participants, in times of stress.

Faculty Directors can head off some potential problems by getting to know students well during pre-departure and on-site orientation activities, and making sure that individual concerns and anxieties are addressed. It is important to be alert to behaviors that indicate emotional distress and may indicate that help or intervention is needed. These include:

  • Deteriorating academic performance and/or repeated requests for special consideration (e.g., deadline extension)
  • Excessive absences from class/program activities
  • Changed patterns of interaction (e.g., previously extroverted student avoiding participation; usually calm student becoming emotional in discussion)
  • Lethargy
  • Manic or overly emotional behavior
  • Change in dress/hygiene
  • Difficulty remaining awake in class
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Use of alcohol to “escape”

Helping a Stressed Student

Extreme situations should be handled according to the emergency management and/or behavioral sections of this handbook. The following guidelines apply to situations that have not become disruptive to the program or potentially dangerous to the student or others.

If the Faculty Director is approached by a student, or chooses to approach a student to talk, it should be at a time and place where neither party is rushed, distracted or pre-occupied. If the Faculty Director initiates the contact, concern should be expressed in non-judgmental terms. (“I’m concerned because I’ve noticed you have been absent from class several times lately…” not “If you don’t shape up and start coming to class, your grade will suffer….”). Let the student talk freely. Listen attentively to the student’s thoughts and feelings. Demonstrate understanding by repeating the substance of what the student has said in a sensitive, non-threatening way. Avoid judging or evaluating unless the student specifically asks for an opinion. Work with the student through the various options for handling the problem, developing a list of pros and cons.

It may be useful to pass along some or all of the following stress relief techniques (from UI Student Health):

  1. Recognize your symptoms of stress.
  2. Look at your lifestyle and see what can be changed -- in your work situation, your family situation, or your schedule.
  3. Use relaxation techniques - yoga, mediation, deep breathing, or massage
  4. Exercise – Physical activity is one of the most effective stress remedies around!
  5. Time management - Do essential tasks and prioritize the others. Consider those who may be affected by your decisions, such as family and friends. Use a check list so you will receive satisfaction as you check off each job as it is done.
  6. Watch your diet - Alcohol, caffeine, sugar, fats and tobacco all put a strain on your body's ability to cope with stress. A diet with a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and foods high in protein but low in fat will help create optimum health.
  7. Get enough rest and sleep.
  8. Talk with others – Talk with friends, professional counselors, support groups or relatives about what is bothering you.
  9. Help others – Volunteer work can be an effective and satisfying stress reducer.
  10. Get away for awhile - Read a book, watch a movie, play a game, listen to music or go on vacation. Leave yourself some time that's just for you.
  11. Work off your anger - Get physically active, dig in the garden, start a project, get your spring cleaning done.
  12. Give in occasionally - Avoid quarrels whenever possible.
  13. Tackle one thing at a time - Don't try to do too much at once.
  14. Don't try to be perfect.
  15. Ease up on criticism of others.
  16. Don't be too competitive.
  17. Make the first move to be friendly.

If, after meeting with the student, a referral to another resource is warranted, consult the emergency management section of this handbook and/or contact Study Abroad.

Cultural Immersion

Patterns of Cultural Adjustment

The phrase “culture shock” has become a staple of our vocabulary and is used broadly to describe every nuance of psychological adjustment the average person undergoes when encountering a new culture. In fact, individual responses to cultural immersion vary widely, and although some people experience periods of extreme distress when living in an unfamiliar environment, most initially undergo some confusion and psychological discomfort before reestablishing the equilibrium that a daily routine and the acceptance of cultural differences provides.

The “U-curve theory” of cultural adjustment and the basic symptoms of culture shock were initially described by Kalvero Oberg in 1960. The “U-curve theory” posits an initial period of elation and excitement at being in foreign surroundings, followed by a period of progressive disappointment and disillusionment. This downturn is eventually resolved by a gradual, enlightened understanding and acceptance of cultural differences and the reestablishment of psychological equilibrium.

The first phase of the U-curve cycle is often referred to as the “honeymoon phase.” Behaviors of the host nationals are viewed as exotic, charming, and in some sense superior to those in the everyday world that the sojourner has just left. Cultural artifacts such as art, music, and architecture are also viewed through this lens. People on vacation rarely leave the “honeymoon phase.” It is an initial and necessarily artificial interaction with the host culture, and it soon passes.

The downturn of the “U-curve” occurs when the initial euphoria of arrival subsides and the sojourner attempts to establish daily living patterns and meaningful social relationships with host nationals. This period is fraught with confusion, misunderstandings, miscommunications, unrealistic expectations, disappointment, and general disorientation. Although there may be several discrete events which shock the sojourner into the realization that he or she is unmoored in unfamiliar social and psychological territory, more commonly it is the gradual accumulation of day-to-day stress in dealing with host culture behavior and expectations that wears upon the individual. Tasks there were simple in the home country suddenly seem insurmountably difficult and complex in the host culture. Banking, shopping, commuting, casually interacting with host nationals – all these activities can assume Sisyphean dimensions. Common psychological reactions to this period of cultural adjustment include:

  • Confusion
  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches & stomachaches
  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Withdrawal

Not all people experience all of these symptoms, and their severity can vary according to many factors, including personality, previous experience with cultural differences, length of time to be spent in the host country, and personal goals for studying abroad, to name a few.

Certain things tend to inhibit cross-cultural adjustment. These include:

  • Ethnocentrism – the belief that one’s own culture is superior to all others
  • Not knowing the local language
  • Isolation/withdrawal from the host culture
  • Spending too much time with other Americans
  • “Going native” – abandoning one’s given values and cultural behaviors and imitating those of the host culture in an attempt to feel accepted
  • Judging others
  • Impatience with oneself or others

Gradually, through a period of trial and error, most sojourners develop constructive social relationships with host nationals and learn the underlying rules of behavior in the host culture. Everyday tasks are no longer an ordeal. Students can set and accomplish realistic goals. They develop a self-awareness of the cultural values they inherited from their home country, and an appreciation for the differences in values they observe in the host culture. They become “bicultural.”

Certain personality traits lend themselves to cross-cultural adjustment and include:

  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • Sense of humor
  • Non-judgementalness
  • Extroversion
  • Respect for others and self-respect

Adjustment Patterns: Group vs. Independent Programs

As mentioned above, many factors contribute to the success or failure of cross-cultural adjustment. For University of Iowa students, some basic considerations include (1) length of stay and (2) type of program.

Group Programs

Many UI study abroad offerings are short-term (under 8 weeks), faculty-led group programs, in which a dozen or more students are taught a course in a foreign location, usually in English, by a UI faculty member. Such programs offer unique challenges to cultural immersion and adjustment, as well as unique opportunities.

From a positive point of view, group programs provide students with a built-in support network of peers from their home institution, as well as close supervision by faculty inside and outside the classroom. Group programs are ideally suited for younger students who have never been abroad before. Many, if not most, logistical arrangements are made on behalf of the student by Study Abroad and the Faculty Director, freeing the group to explore the host culture and concentrate on the academic course.

The same elements that create comfort and security for the students contribute to their insulation from the host culture, however. With most logistical arrangements predetermined, students need to interact with foreign nationals less. The simple fact that the class frequently travels together makes it more difficult for students to meet members of the host country, and difficult for members of the host country to approach the group. There can be a tendency for students gradually to isolate themselves, forming a clique of U.S. students abroad. The reasons are perfectly understandable: while undergoing the typical challenges and frustrations of adapting to a new place, students can look to each other for comfort and support. And since the program is relatively short, there may be little incentive to form meaningful social relationships with foreign nationals.

Students on short-term group programs should be forewarned of the pros and cons of such programs and encouraged to make individual efforts to immerse themselves in the host culture. Some strategies for doing so include:

  • Independent excursions in the local community
  • Independent or small-group travel during weekends and/or breaks, especially travel which involves staying in hostels
  • Home stays
  • Joining social or recreational student clubs at the host school or in the host community

Direct Enrollment Programs

At the opposite end of the spectrum from group programs are direct enrollment programs where UI students enroll directly in a foreign university; are taught in large part by foreign professors; live with foreign nationals in a residence hall or flat, or with a family in a home stay; and attend class with mainly host country or other international students. Frequently, travel arrangements (and to some extent living arrangements) are the responsibility of the student. The UI faculty who accompany the students to the site are usually responsible for a larger contingent of students from consortial schools, and her or his teaching duties may be limited to one or two classes for students with lower-level language skills. Almost always, the length of time spent abroad is at least a semester, and sometimes an academic year.

There are greater opportunities for cultural immersion under this model. There is more direct, one-to-one contact with foreign nationals, compelling the student to learn and practice the local language (if it is not English). Whether she or he is housed with local students in a residence hall or with a host family, there is a need to adapt to culturally determined patterns of behavior and expectation. Direct enrollment programs are ideal for independent, emotionally stable students who are interested in maximizing their exposure to the host culture.

The same features which make this model so immersive are the ones which can contribute to more pronounced symptoms of culture shock. Without a large, built-in support system of compatriots, the student may feel overwhelmed by the challenges of adapting to her or his local surroundings. Feelings of dislocation and confusion can be intense. Students who already have effective psychological mechanisms for coping with stress usually recover fairly quickly from the experience. Others may become isolated and depressed, and withdraw from the local community because they view it as their source of discomfort. Such students often feel anger and frustration about being abroad, and seek out others from their home country to form expatriate cliques that denigrate the host culture. They need assistance from faculty directors to turn a negative experience into a learning experience.

Students participating on programs toward this end of the spectrum should be briefed about the causes and symptoms of culture shock and encouraged to take advantage of opportunities for positive, supportive activities in the host culture. These might include participating in student social or recreational clubs, becoming involved as a volunteer in a community program, or simply becoming aware of one’s own best coping mechanisms for stress and seeking ways to exercise them in the host culture.

Special Issues Related to Homestays

Living with a host family provides some of the best chances for meaningful cross-cultural experiences, since the family is at the center of every culture. It is also the best way to learn the local language, and provides a built-in support system for the student. Students in home stays become acculturated more rapidly than students who live in residence halls or who live alone. Members of the family may act as “cultural informants” when host country behaviors puzzle the student, and the family environment also creates certain role expectations, giving the study abroad experience more structure.

Most times the student should be prepared to assume the role of a child in the family. The student is not merely a boarder. Nor is the student a housekeeper or a babysitter. The integration of the student into the host family provides some of the richest experiences possible during overseas study, but it can also be challenging. Whether here in the States or abroad, no family ever gets along perfectly all the time. Routine family dynamics, complicated by cultural differences, can lead to misunderstandings.

Areas of greatest concern include “boundary issues,” or the rules that govern the family. It is a complex matter, since many families are unconscious of their individualized set of rules and behavioral expectations. Many families have never had to verbalize their guidelines for domestic harmony, and the student must deduce the appropriate behavior through trial and error.

Another challenging area is the expression of strong feelings. Depending on the cultural upbringing of the student and the cultural norms of the country where the student is living, the expression of strong feelings may be regarded as taboo or matter of course. That is, not everyone may agree on what is appropriate behavior, and the emotional terrain of the family may confuse or upset the student.

Such issues need to be acknowledged and discussed among the members of the family and the visiting student as much as possible to avoid hurt feelings and irreconcilable misunderstandings. The student may wish to gain an understanding of the family’s position on such matters as the use of the telephone, television, and/or computer; what “reporting” responsibilities the family expects the student to fulfill (e.g., at what time of the evening is the student expected to be home?); what types of activities in the host culture the family encourages, and what types it discourages; and whether or not the student is allowed to have guests in the home.

Many times host families have housed students on previous programs and have a good idea of what to expect from an American student, however, special student requests, such as vegetarianism, health conditions, should be discussed with the family before the students’ arrival.

Special Issues Related to Minority Students and to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Students

Minority and LBGT students go through the same stages of cultural adaptation as majority students do, but there are several complicating factors that may intensify the experience. Depending on their individual circumstances in the U.S., minority students may feel their behavior to be either more or less constricted than it is in the States. For example, a Korean-American studying in Seoul may feel like a majority member for the first time in his or her life, and the empowerment of belonging to the dominant ethnic group can be quite liberating. On the other hand, a double sense of isolation can occur when students realize that they may have very little in common with the host culture. The American cultural values with which they have been imbued may surface in stark contrast to the cultural values of their ethnic heritage. They may feel like members of the majority and marginalized at the same time.

An Arab-American female studying in the Middle East may find that personal freedoms are sharply curtailed because of the strong emphasis on gender roles in that world region. An African-American student studying in Africa may find that he is rejected by the host culture, not because of his ethnicity, but because of his nationality.

Whatever the case, minorities abroad will quickly learn that their status in the host culture is different from their status in U.S. culture. Sometimes this can be very powerful and positive, as when an African-American goes to a Western European country like France, where Africans have long lived and where they are integrated into the local culture and generally accepted by the local population. Sometimes the experience can be quite debilitating, as when the Korean-American student described above feels estranged from the culture of his heritage.

Faculty directors should be aware that minority students face stressors similar to those that majority students face, but these may be intensified and made more complex for the minority student. The faculty director should be available to talk to the student about typical cultural adjustment issues, and be sympathetic to the unique challenges that minority students face when living abroad.

LBGT students are minority students and face many of the same adjustment difficulties. However, their acculturation is further complicated by many factors, including the extent to which they are open about their sexual orientation in the U.S., and the extent to which homosexuality is accepted in the host country. This varies widely, depending on the area of the world where one studies and its cultural and religious values.

Broadly speaking, students may find that Western Europe is more accepting of LGBTQ people than the U.S. LGBTQ students may find they can freely disclose their sexual identity while living and studying there. On the other hand, students bound for other world regions may discover that the gay community is not as visible as in the U.S., and that discrimination against openly gay people may be more overt. LBGTQ students studying in regions with these characteristics may need to exercise discretion for their own personal safety. They should expect a general lack of acceptance and support from the host communities, especially in smaller, more provincial communities. Under such circumstances, assisting LGBTQ students to identify coping strategies for their time abroad can be beneficial. Successful coping strategies might be making contacts within the LGBTQ community in the host culture, keeping a journal to reflect upon social constructs of gender and identity in the host culture, and staying in touch with supportive friends and family back home.

Within any given country, acceptance or discrimination may vary significantly depending upon the region, the size of the community, and other local factors. In many countries, concepts of what constitutes gay behavior, identity, and relationships can be significantly different from US concepts and social structures. Faculty Directors are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the local conceptualization of sexual identity, attitudes toward LGBTQ people, and local LGBTQ community resources so this information can be discussed with students. Even in countries where the general population does not openly accept homosexuality, there may be a thriving LGBTQ community. Additional information and resources for LGBTQ students studying abroad can be found on the NAFSA (Association of International Educators) website.

Studying overseas may in fact be the first time that a LBGT student “comes out.” Freed from the familiar role expectations of family and friends, and living in what is perhaps a more open and accepting culture, these students may openly express their sexual identity for the first time when abroad. Such an experience can be liberating and self-validating, and a critical step to identity formation. It can also be problematic for such students when the study abroad period is over and they must return to the U.S. and face the stigma of the sexual orientation from family and friends.