Coming to America: Understanding Cultural Adjustment Among Immigrants

When Svitlana Iarmolenko first came to the United States in 2008 to attend a master's degree program at East Carolina University, she figured she'd make new friends just as easily as she'd done back home in Ukraine. But rather than drawing in potential pals, she seemed to be pushing them away.

Svitlana Iarmolenko

"I came to this country believing in strong family bonds, friends helping friends in difficult situations, going above and beyond to make people around me happy, following through on appointments and promises even if it caused me an inconvenience, and being considerate of the feelings of other people at all times," said Iarmolenko. "What I faced was a society of self-reliance, protection of one's own interests and feelings above anything, and caring for oneself before anyone else. Not that any of that is bad; it's just on the opposite extreme of what I was used to. It took a while to learn to hold myself back from being 'too much'—from caring too much and investing in people too much. Instead of fostering social bonds, as was the case at home, too much care would push people away."

Iarmolenko's difficulty adjusting to American culture bothered her so much that she decided to make it the focus of her dissertation research when she came to Penn State to pursue a Ph.D. degree in recreation, park, and tourism management. With faculty adviser Deborah Kerstetter, professor of recreation, park, and tourism management, she devised a research project that would explore the experiences of Ukrainian immigrants to the United States and how these experiences have shaped their perceptions of Ukraine, as well as their desire to travel back home.

"Coming from a country with aggressive collectivist media propaganda, these immigrants have found themselves in the United States, a highly individualistic society," said Iarmolenko. "I am interested in how this transition occurs, how difficult it is, and how it affects their perceptions of Ukraine."

To examine individualism and collectivism traits in Ukrainian-Americans, Iarmolenko plans to set up interviews and focus groups with immigrants to learn about their experiences and to see if their struggles are similar to the ones she had. She also wants to investigate whether immigrants shift from collectivism to predominantly individualism after living in the United States for some time. She said she expects to find that the longer Ukrainian-Americans stay in the United States, the more they will exhibit individualist cognitions.

In addition to learning about migrant experiences and struggles Iarmolenko plans to test the effectiveness of priming -- in which she exposes people to either individualist or collectivist travel advertisements of Ukraine prior to taking a trip to the country -- to determine which strategies best enhance Ukarine's image and increase visitation.

"Despite a rich heritage and unique natural resources, Ukraine is just beginning to promote tourism and thus is struggling to attract international travelers," said Iarmolenko. "As a Ukrainian I want my home country to flourish and be successful. I am hoping the results of my research will aid Ukraine and other emerging destinations in their efforts to increase the number of inbound travelers and boost foreign exchange earnings."

While at Penn State, Iarmolenko has learned that she has a passion for teaching. Thus, when she graduates, she intends to seek a university faculty appointment through which she can teach as well as continue her research on migration, expanding it beyond Ukrainian-Americans to other ethnic groups and immigration-intensive countries.