5 Tips to Overcome Culture Shock as an International MBA Student

How MBA Students Can Overcome Culture Shock

For international students, embarking on an MBA abroad is thrilling and challenging in equal measure. Beyond the academic rigors, adapting to a new cultural environment poses its own set of obstacles. From overcoming culture shock to building a support network, we’ve compiled a guide for international MBA candidates to thrive in their new community.

Understanding the challenges 

Moving to a new country for an MBA  often comes with challenges, including language barriers, cultural differences and homesickness. Adapting to these changes requires mental and emotional preparation. It’s essential for MBA students to anticipate potential culture shock and embrace it as part of their growth journey, experts say. 

“The challenges that international students who are studying MBA programs abroad face range from the general communicative barriers to the subtle cultural differences concerning the academic expectations and social norms they are used to,” says Michelle Zhu, MBA administration director at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), in Shanghai. 

“Thorough research on the host country’s culture, education system and business practices is crucial,” she adds. “Familiarize yourself with common greetings, communication styles and etiquette. Learn about the educational expectations and assessment methods used in your MBA program.” 

Building a support network 

Additionally, creating a support network is crucial for international MBA students. Connecting with fellow students, faculty and staff who understand their cultural background can provide guidance. Joining student organizations, attending networking events and seeking mentorship from alumni are all recommended by business schools and their international MBA students. 

“In order to connect, I highly recommend everyone to just be themselves and be open about it,” says Raghad Gomaa, an MBA candidate at IESE Business School in Spain. “An MBA is a great opportunity for cultural exchange. I was very worried when I first started the MBA, being the only Egyptian. However, you would be surprised how open people are – and sharing your culture and traditions is a great way to build new friendships and connections.” 

For instance, during the month of Ramadan, he shared with classmates and professors what it means to be fasting during the day and the potential impact it could have on productivity. “It can sound too simplistic, but people come to the MBA in order to get outside of their comfort zones,” adds Gomaa. 

Enhancing language proficiency 

Language proficiency, too, plays a significant role in overcoming culture shock. Improving language skills and communication abilities in a new environment is essential, business schools say. At many institutions, international students can enroll in language courses, participate in language exchange programs and practice conversing with native speakers to boost their proficiency.

“No matter how bad your foreign language skills are, even a few words can go a long way,” says Rebecca Loades, director of MBA programs at ESMT Berlin. “Language learning helps you understand culture and shows respect for your new home.” 

ESMT offers German evening classes for beginners, an intensive German summer school, and business German during the elective period. But Loades says: “If you are going to study in a country where you can’t speak the language, start learning it before you arrive. While you may be able to live in Berlin with English alone, things will be a little easier when you have basic German proficiency.” 

Gomaa at IESE agrees: “Speaking Spanish in Spain is very important. The integration with locals will become much faster and more natural.” IESE offers Spanish classes across all levels throughout the MBA.

Maintaining identity and belonging 

That said, maintaining a sense of identity while embracing cultural diversity can be challenging for international MBA students. Engaging in cultural exchange activities, celebrating festivals from their home country and participating in multicultural events can help students feel a sense of belonging within their new community.

“What’s important to try and maintain is a balance: finding ways to both maintain connections with your home country, while also learning about new experiences in your new country,” says Loades. “At ESMT, we host an international culture day to facilitate cultural exchange, and Berlin has many events that focus on specific countries or regions.” 

Accessing support services 

Recognizing the challenges of adjusting to a new environment, many business schools offer support services and resources for international students. These may include counseling services, peer mentoring programs and cultural sensitivity workshops. MBA students are encouraged to utilize these resources whenever needed.

“International students should seek out a program or university that offers extensive support and resources specifically designed to support their transition and experience,” says Kerry Pace, the associate dean of MBA programs at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, in the USA. 

For instance, student wellness and support is offered at Georgetown McDonough. “From celebrating Heritage Months to facilitating ‘Safe Bubble’ conversations for international students and traditionally marginalized groups, we strive to create a safe and welcoming environment,” Pace says. 

Ultimately, pursuing an MBA abroad as an international student can be a transformative experience filled with opportunities for growth and learning. “Getting the opportunity to study abroad is a privilege,” says IESE’s Gomaa. The key is to build a support network, familiarize with the new culture, enhance language proficiency and embrace cultural diversity.


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