What will it be like when you return to the US from a semester abroad?
Let's start with a list of common expectations students have when they return:
- Most things will be the same as when I left, and things will flow smoothly, since I know what to expect in the US
- People will be interested in my adventure stories from faraway places
- I will fit back into daily life on my home campus, no problem
- People around me will recognize and applaud my personal growth
- I have the same needs and goals as before
Reverse culture shock upon re-entry to one's home country is a common phenomenon among world travelers. It refers to "the temporal psychological difficulties that a returnee experiences in the initial stage of the adjustment process at home after having lived abroad for some time." (Uehara in Raschio, 1987).
What does this mean?
As you prepared to study abroad, somewhere along the line somebody probably told you about the U-curve of cultural adjustment in the host country. First, you could expect excitement, then disgruntlement, and then you would go upward again toward adjustment to your host culture. After careful observations, researchers have come to the conclusion that the U is only half of the picture. In reality, the adjustment curve has two dips, making it a W-curve. The second half sneaks up on the unsuspecting traveler when returning home.
The tricky part of this is that it comes to us as a surprise. We expect to slide right back into our old familiar life in the United States. Because we are often thoroughly unprepared for the homecoming blues; this phase more often than not causes greater stress than the initial culture shock in the host country. Why--you ask--after all, aren't we just going home?
In one of the books dedicated to the topic of re-entry, Craig Storti reflects on the concept of "home". Home is not necessarily that place where you grew up. Instead, home is where the heart is. Home is the place where there is a high degree of familiarity, constituted by familiar faces, places and routines. It is a place where you don’t have to think about many of life’s daily tasks. The more successful you were at making your place abroad your home, the harder it will be to readjust to your old environment.
Upon returning from off-campus study, you may be hit with feelings that you are not part of the same culture/society anymore. You may resist readjusting because it is as if by embracing your home culture again you are discarding your foreign learnings and personal growth. After such a hopefully incredible adventure, you are probably not too happy to be back. This discontentment often reveals itself by having strong reactions to certain home situations and particular events. Let’s take a look at what re-entry means for you in daily life.
Social and Cultural Adjustments
The routines, norms and values of your host country have become part of your expectations. After having been exposed to a different culture, some of the customs you never paid attention to before all of a sudden seem really odd. Common reactions include noticing an abundance of "stuff" in the US, a fast pace of life, superficiality of interactions, and favoring individuality over sense of community. You may feel bored, frustrated, or even sad. You're not alone in these experiences, which are a common phenomenon among returning study abroad students.
Most people are quite frustrated at first as a result of the conflicting attitudes and values. You are blessed with knowing two value systems now and have to figure out for yourself which parts of each you like best to live your life by. This may not come easy, but it is a privilege only traveling people have and can use. Once you realize that reverse culture shock, whether mild or intense, is a natural and commonly-felt occurrence, you can start taking steps to reverse it.
Friends and Family
This probably proves to be the most frustrating issue of re-entry. You have just come back from an adventure abroad and are overflowing with stories to tell. For a while, people are excited to see you and listen to your account of how wonderful it was to study off-campus. Pretty soon, however, a brief synopsis is all you can get across before the other person’s eyes glaze over. This is really tough. You may feel that your experience was insignificant, since others aren’t interested. But this is not the case, especially for your personal growth.
A common remark by returnees is that having been surrounded by international people makes those in the United States seem shallow and narrow-minded. When you were abroad you could relate to others who were in the same situation and you could experience culture shock together. When coming back, your circle of friends consists of people who may not have traveled abroad and cannot sympathize with your re-entry struggles, or understand the transformed you.
How can you reverse culture shock?
Here are some suggestions from CIEE, the largest U.S. non-governmental international education organization:
- Seek out new places, people, and experiences
- Stay connected to your study abroad friends
- Find others who share similar experiences, such as study abroad alumni or international students
- Use available study abroad and counseling services both at home and on Wabash's campus
- Volunteer with local international service organizations, including Wabash's International Center -- we'd love to have you!
- Attend and help out with re-entry events
- Continue studying your host language
- Talk with someone in the Career Center if you think your future goals may have changed
- Reflect on what your experience has meant to you by writing, organizing a photo journal, or creating a scrapbook
- Be as open-minded and creative during re-entry as you were while studying abroad
Wabash students said the following about study abroad changed them:
“I learned how important community is, and how little we value it here in the US as we are super individualistic.”
– Trey Harnden ’18, Morocco
“I learned how a minimalistic type lifestyle can be a good thing”
– James Shultz ‘19, United Kingdom
“Not speaking English, in a place where no one wanted to speak English, opened my eyes to a different way of life”
– Zach LaRue ‘19, Chile
“While studying abroad in Shanghai, I tried my best to eliminate preconceptions and stay interested and engaged with the people and, through that, forged relationships and mutual understanding that will benefit me – and perhaps them - for life."
– Kasimir Koehring ’18, China
This is also a time to reflect on your own readjustment priorities. Some aspects of the life that you have gotten used to in your host country may have to be given up. But some of the perspectives you have obtained in the course of your experience you don’t want to shed. Upon return you have to re-shape yourself to some extent, but also try to mold your environment around your new form. This last part may not be easy. Stay focused on the small accomplishments you make and see yourself as a role model to inspire others.
Integrating your foreign experience
This section includes links to help you highlight your experience off campus can on your résumé and in a professional setting. Other links include opportunities to continue your travel and possible employment abroad.
http://www.lifeafterstudyabroad.com/faqs/ - Life After Study Abroad is a great resource for seeking opportunities to continue going abroad after undergrad
http://www.transitionsabroad.com/ - Transitions Abroad is a good for international employment
https://www.commerce.virginia.edu/career-services/marketing-your-study-abroad -Check out this site from Virginia University! It gives great examples on how to showcase your off campus study experience in a professional setting. Links to PDFs going in-depth on how studying off campus will impact one’s education and career.
Phi Beta Delta
Phi Beta Delta is a honor society that recognizes those who serve internationalism - the idea of a world connected, of respect for different traditions, of the need for education to enhance knowledge of the many cultures that are part of a globe that we all must share.