I remember clearly when the fact ‘hit’ me full force that I was leaving home and moving to Bristol, UK, to do my studies, for the first time: it was the night before I left, Vienna, Austria.
Of course, thinking rationally, I had had plenty of time to mentally prepare for this move. It had been my choice and I had been working towards it for almost 2 years, but then who is purely rational?
I also recall what made integrating in Bristol so easy:
and it was not that I am a native English speaker! Having an American accent was not necessarily an advantage arriving in the UK.
What did my settling in phase very easy was that my university provided a superb support system for all newcomers, securing accommodation with colleagues in dorms, fairs with the universities’ clubs and societies, and a week’s worth of introductory activities. I benefited immensely from the fact that it is common in the UK to move away from home at this stage in life, resulting in a high level of preparation at the level of universities and making settling in for ‘freshers’ (first year students) all the easier.
A clear contrast to my experience was drawn when I met students attending Bristol university for a few terms, coming from other European universities (on the ERASMUS programme). They arrived and were left with what remained in the student housing market, not a particularly choice selection. Generally they ended up sharing the accommodation amongst themselves, leaving them with significantly less opportunities to either improve their English language skills or much possibility to integrate in the English student community beyond a view from the outside.
I left the UK with experiences I never would have been able to have without being fully immersed in the British culture. I have another place I call home, an appreciation for English food far beyond the clishées, and a love of British culture. It was truly an enriching experience I would recommend to anyone.
Even as a student, when I was in a position of having relatively few ties and responsibilities compared to an employee settled in a country and company, I found the support given invaluable, and significantly shortened my integration phase. Just imagine what a difference good support makes for expatriates at other stages in life, with more responsibilities!
Based on my experience I can say that in order to be able to integrate, you need, first of all, some knowledge of the local language, but, more importantly, an awareness of what it is your mission will involve in terms of culture shock, adjustment and learning opportunities.
Good preparation involves preparing a personalized strategy for yourself and your family on how to best manage your experience and get the most benefit from it, which also serves your employer by ensuring mission success.
Good preparation will empower you to:
• develop an awareness and appreciation of your cultural background
• and that of your new home destination;
• grow your mental ‘frame of reference’ and increasing ‘out of the box’ thinking,
• develop an ability to clarify misunderstandings more easily,
• prepare an expatriation plan and support network tailored to your needs.
These benefits will carry you through the rest of your career and private life, giving your insights and capabilities you could not have experienced before, and making you a person rich in experience.
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