Cross-Cultural Transition Handbook

This short book is intended to enable Students International sojourners, the people responsible for them, and those who love them to better prepare for, process, and reintegrate from cultural transitions. This handbook is intentionally concise, designed to provide the basic principles for successful intercultural exchanges, relationships, and transitions.

To purchase, contact your Students International coordinator.

What’s inside


Students International

An Introduction




Chapter 1

All Too Real


Chapter 2

What is Culture?


Chapter 3

The Process of Transition


Chapter 4

Culture Shock


Chapter 5

Preparing for Success in the Cross-Cultural Sojourn


Chapter 6

Coming Home and Welcoming Back


Chapter 7

Concluding Thoughts


Culture Shock and Mental Health


Why This Handbook?

Every year, millions of people are engaged in cultural transition. Study abroad students and facilitators, international students, missionaries, Peace Corps Volunteers, global service learners, international businesspeople and business travelers, aid and development workers, military members, and trailing spouses and third-culture kids are all undergoing cross-cultural transitions
every day.

Unfortunately, many people are underprepared for the disruptions caused by these transitions, and are unable to make the most of their experiences. Many people have a vague sense that they have not gotten all they could out of their cultural exchange, and some are left with a lasting inability to integrate valuable lessons into their life.

The bad: The results of poor preparation for cultural transition can be stark. Lack of proper reintegration can result in lost productivity, unplanned vocational changes, and broken relationships. Cultural transitions are so potentially disruptive that mental illness can result from cultural transitions that are not fully or properly processed.

The good: When sojourners effectively prepare for and engage in cultural transitions, the results can be phenomenally good. Broadened perspectives, increased creative capacity, and expanded networks can result from well-managed cultural transitions.

Why I Wrote this Handbook

I have been personally involved in cultural transitions since the 1980s, when I was growing up as the son of a naval officer. The first transition I remember was from Virginia to Texas. I began kindergarten there, and Texas does a great job of instilling the love of the place in young children. But after two years in Texas public schools, we were headed off to Japan. I remember looking at books from the library with my mom and sister and being not only bewildered but terrified about this strange and faraway place.

Japan ended up being a wonderful place to live, but between the death of my grandfather shortly after we moved, my dad’s long deployments with Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, I was ready to return to the US in fourth grade.

Coming back to the US was good but very hard. We lived in southern California for about nine months and then headed to Kansas. In a situation to which many military brats and third culture kids can relate, I was in three different schools my fourth-grade year, each in vastly different places.

It wasn’t until I was working on my master’s degree that I really discovered the principles of culture shock, reentry, and what the third-culture kid is. I repeatedly called my sister with new insights: “I just found out why we were so messed up!”

After studying in Mexico for six months as part of a global service-learning program in college, I decided to go into education. In the last decade, I have been working with college students in various stages of cultural transition as well. I have worked with students preparing to study in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. I have traveled with and been responsible for students in Africa and Latin America, as well as in various regions in the US, including on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in the Deep South, and in the Pacific Northwest.

One of the most unfortunate things I have observed is how few people are well prepared for cross-cultural transitions. I have seen, in my own students, the difference in success between students who are well prepared and those who aren’t. I have also seen tremendous differences between those who recognize the realities of culture shock and reentry and those who are unaware of the effects of these phenomena. Without a doubt, those who understand why culture shock happens and how to deal with it are more successful in the long run.

Yet there are too many schools, businesses, and organizations that don’t take seriously how disruptive culture shock can be. Even Christian organizations, with venerable histories of missions work around the world are not immune from this weakness. I recall giving a reentry training for first term missionaries in the first months of their furlough who asked “why couldn’t we have been told all this six months ago?”  Unfortunately, there is no good reason – this handbook does not present new information. Indeed, much more noted authors than myself1 have written about far more than appears in this particular volume. However, this handbook has been written with four distinct purposes that may help to close the gap between the knowledge that exists in the literature and the experience of individuals such as those missionaries who were so frustrated
with the inadequate preparation they received.

  1. The first, and most immediate, is to enable Students International staff and participants who are actually traveling to understand what they can expect and how to cope with the disorientation caused by cross-cultural transitions.
  2. The second purpose is to enable those responsible for travelers, including Students International domestic and international staff, to understand the seriousness of the cross-cultural transition so they can make appropriate decisions about supporting these individuals.
  3. The third purpose is to enable supporters of travelers, such as parents, friends, and loved ones, to understand what the traveler is experiencing so they can provide better support.
  4. The final purpose is to specifically address the needs of Christians in the transition process.
Do We Really Need This?

For experienced travelers and mission trip facilitators, it can be easy to assume that you already know everything you need to about transitioning across cultures. Indeed, it is possible that your unique combination of training, education, and experience has prepared you not only to be excellent at transitioning across cultures yourself, but also to be very skilled at helping others to transition. If that is the case, though, I suspect that you will readily see the utility of a new tool in your kit for helping others to transition. My own experience is that I have yet to find a tool that I am satisfied with – the very reason I wrote this handbook for you. Of course, you will need to supplement this tool with others, and a number of references will be made throughout the course of the handbook.

What to Expect in this Book

This short book is intended to enable Students International sojourners, the people responsible for them, and those who love them to better prepare for, process, and reintegrate from cultural transitions. This handbook is intentionally concise, designed to provide the basic principles for successful intercultural exchanges, relationships, and transitions.

To accomplish this goal, each chapter of this book contains a mixture of intercultural theory and examples. Finally, readers can expect to find specific guidelines for intercultural engagement and practical tips on how to make the most of applying the theory.

Bolded words can be found in the glossary for clarification.

How to Use this Book

The handbook is intended to be used at specific intervals as you prepare to travel, while you are in the midst of your sojourn, and (if appropriate) when you return from your journey. In each of these three distinct time periods, the transition may be experienced differently. The book will be most effective if you read it as you Prepare to go (Prepare), while you are away from home in your Sojourn location (Sojourn), and again as you Return (Return).

As suggested by Clayton2, refl ection can be used to generate, deepen, and document learning. Given the power of refl ective practice to shape not only your thinking but the experience itself, this handbook contains questions and exercises that allow you to capture your thoughts and reflections on the book’s content while you are in each of these time periods.

To assist you, the book provides blank sections for your notes as you respond to the questions and exercises. For additional room to write, we have provided note pages at the end of the book. As you move through your sojourn experience, take the time to read and refl ect on the text and your prior notes, as they will help you recognize the changes in your perceptions as you progress
through these experiences.





About the author.

Stephen W. Jones teaches, trains, and studies at the intersection of intercultural relations, cross-cultural ministry, and political science. He earned his Ph.D. in International Development at the University of Southern Mississippi and his M.A. in Intercultural Relations from the University of the Pacific, in conjunction with the Intercultural Communication Institute.

He was formerly Assistant Professor of International Studies at Crown College (2013-2020) and Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at Grace University (2009-2012).

Stephen W. Jones, Ph.D. is father of three and husband of one. He lives with his family in Berlin, Germany where he serves as Fördermitarbeiter für internationale Kulturfragen und Verständigung with Envision Berlin.

Stephen W. Jones works to see transformation in the lives of individuals, communities, and the world. He yearns to see beauty rise out of pain, and believes that rooting lives in eschatological hope sets people free.

Stephen W. Jones