"My year abroad was a great adventure. It became a 24-hour-a-day obsession to take advantage of where I was, the time I had, and the people with whom I lived. I had never been so continuously stimulated intellectually and personally. It was a let down to return home."
Personal growth, new insights into our own culture, deep connections with people abroad, a new understanding of the issues facing our changing world and new language skills are just a few of the changes noted by returned students. In some cases, the academic experience provides a new perspective on academic or career goals. As a result, students may question or change their own long-term pursuits.
"I think that some people feel intimidated because they don’t understand the experiences I've had. They don't know where I'm coming from and can't grasp how it would be to live somewhere else."
Students have returned from an unusual social experience. They will have adapted to a different way of life and may find it difficult to fit back into their former expected roles. Sometimes returned students want everyone to share in their newfound knowledge and to adapt as they have to new ways. They may also find little in common with old friends and find it difficult to communicate effectively because friends and family have not shared their experience. The people who knew the student before the study abroad experience may also be unprepared for the changes in the student's values, attitudes and lifestyle.
"I was so much more critical of things that are considered 'normal' in the US once I had adapted to another culture that did things differently. When I was overseas, I ate differently, I looked at time differently, I socialized and studied differently. Once I arrived in America, I felt as though I really didn't have a 'home culture' anymore."
People generally take their country and its culture for granted until they go abroad. While abroad, differences in beliefs, customs, resources and values become apparent. Out of necessity, students adjust. Once they have returned home, their new awareness may give them critical insights. They may unconsciously accept the conveniences they missed while abroad yet, at the same time, be sharply critical of practices that they once took for granted. Their home culture, from social conditions to mass media, may no longer be entirely to their liking. Political changes, economic developments and even fads in fashion and music that they may have missed may make them feel like a stranger in their home country. They may even feel awkward speaking English again if they developed other language skills abroad.
"I can't say why it was hard to adjust, but it was. I sat in my bedroom for three weeks doing nothing but looking at pictures of my time overseas. I couldn't put my finger on why. I had eaten couscous in Morocco and dipped my foot in the North Sea! It makes you question things again."
As you prepare for your student's return, you may think that person's experience has just ended. To the contrary, another phase of the learning and adjustment cycle has begun. Reentry, the process of readjustment to the home culture, in some cases can be more difficult than the adjustment to life in a foreign country. When students travel abroad, they are generally prepared for life to be considerably different. However, they often expect upon return to slide effortlessly back into their home culture. Yet that culture may prove in many ways to be an unfamiliar culture because they are viewing it through different eyes. As this adjustment is often unexpected, it is frequently more difficult than the adjustment to the foreign culture. It has been said that, whereas culture shock is the expected confrontation with the unfamiliar, reverse culture shock is the unexpected confrontation with the familiar.
In addition, during the period abroad, students sometimes become accustomed to a high level of activity or stimulation that cannot be maintained upon their return. As a result, they may feel restless or depressed after their return—a more intense and prolonged version of the letdown we might all experience upon returning to work after an active and invigorating vacation. If you are concerned that your student may be experiencing more serious mental health issues, explore the Mental Health and the College Student Online Workshop
Reentry is a unique experience for every person. Most people experience it, but its intensity and how it is reflected in the individual varies greatly.
Practical Advice—Coming Home
You can do a number of things to support your student and to encourage integration of the study abroad experience into current activities and future goals.
Returned students may feel alienated and alone. You can be supportive during this process by allowing them to talk—endlessly it may seem to you—about their experiences and feelings upon reentry. They may need somebody who really cares about what they have experienced and how they have changed. Listen to their stories, ask questions about their experiences and encourage them to share photographs. Give them the freedom to adjust at their own pace. This will include a certain tolerance for a lot of "down" time. Try not to be judgmental, even though they might seem to be overly critical of the US. Their attitudes and behavior will adjust as they integrate the overseas experience into their lives at home. Remember that they have changed and grown over the time they were abroad. They will not return as the same people, but as people with new knowledge and insights on life.
Pay attention to your own feelings about and reactions to your student's return. It is easy to resent the fact that you were not an important part of the student's life during the time abroad. It is also easy to want everything to go back to the way it was before. Try to celebrate the changes rather than feel threatened by them. While this is very important for the student, it may be a very difficult thing for you to do.
You can help students adjust by encouraging them to think through the many ways in which they have changed as a result of their experiences. Encourage them to write their impressions in a personal journal and to get in touch with others who have been abroad and can identify with their experiences.
Students should be encouraged to find ways to incorporate their new interests and cross-cultural skills into their lives. Much of the learning during a study abroad experience comes from outside the traditional learning environment. There are many opportunities in the US and abroad to expand on this type of learning. Possible suggestions for returned students include:
- Becoming active in international organizations on campus
- Tutoring students using the language skills that have been developed
- Keeping up with international news and/or viewing films in the language of the host culture
- Getting involved in community service or internship program in the US
- Participating in other domestic off-campus study programs
- Working as an intern in an international office on campus
- Undertaking undergraduate research projects that integrate learning from the study abroad experience
Many participants find it rewarding to apply what they have learned by participating in an additional experience in another part of the world or in a different kind of program.