When I researched the definition of culture shock, I read that it is “the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.”

This is a fairly simple, albeit long, definition, but I’m also going to go out on a limb and say it’s hard to truly understand culture shock without experiencing it. That goes for myself, too; I have yet to experience culture shock myself, but having attended Gannon’s meeting on the topic, I’m here to explain some of what I learned.

Despite the “shock” part, culture shock can actually be a good thing. It can leave you in awe, not to mention with a couple of great stories. More often than not, it’s actually harmless. Take, for instance, one student from Saudi Arabia, whose first experiences in America happened in Anchorage, Alaska. Immediately after entering the city, this student encountered his first moose:

“Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a moose or not, but they are HUGE. And all I had ever seen were camels, which are roughly the same size, but the antlers on this thing’s head! I had never seen such a thing. Everyone was taking pictures, and I was freaking out trying to keep people safe!”

This made for a great story to break the ice with everyone. Unfortunately, there is a flipside to every coin, and this one was tough to listen to. The international students had experienced about as much bullying as you’d expect, with girls from Iraq and Saudi Arabia being called “terrorists” and threatened by other high school students. One student from Ghana even experienced racism from an African-American man.

“He caught up to me while I was crossing the street and starting to ask me about the way I dress. I told him this was how everyone dressed in Ghana. He followed me to the bank and called me derogatory names for not dressing the way he thought I should. I was so surprised and disappointed that someone with the same background as me would act like that.”

Fortunately, if there was one thing that all of the students agreed on, it was how welcome a change Gannon’s treatment of diversity was.

“The students here are nice,” the student from Ghana explained. “They always make a point to say ‘hi’ and ask you how you’re doing or where you’re from. I’ve struck up so many conversations with students I didn’t know at first only to soon call them my friend.”

When you really break it down, culture shock is eye-opening at best and a cold introduction to American ignorance at worst. While you may never personally experience it, we should all feel a certain sense of responsibility to make our international guests feel as welcome as possible.