Some say it's like riding a roller coaster. You're glad to be back and then sad that your exchange has ended. Because it resembles those bumps of culture shock, folks call this reverse culture shock. You might hear it referred to as reentry. Both terms are used interchangeably. Both describe the ups and downs which those returning from an extended period overseas have in common.
The process begins as you say good-bye to new friends and prepare yourself for the return home. Reentry can bring about feelings of alienation, and you may be uncertain how to integrate the experience overseas with the life you "left" back home. While abroad, you understood that coping with a new culture and a new language can sometimes be unsettling. At least home is a familiar place. Yet, some aspects have changed during your absence, and some changes may be more notable than others. Most students report feeling as though they returned--greatly affected by their period overseas--to a place that, in comparison, has stayed much the same.
So, what steps can be taken to make the adjustment easier? The first is quite simple - acknowledge this transition which is both a normal and expected part of returning home after a prolonged absence. Realize that you are not alone. Your IPC advisors are one resource; they have lived overseas and know that readjustment can bring about difficult moments. You are one of many returning from a study abroad program, and there are others experiencing the same things. These are people with whom you can be nostalgic, with whom you may share new interests, or who have similar questions.
Before you left to study abroad, you may have attended a pre-departure orientation, and many concepts discussed then are applicable now. Some of the things which you did in anticipation of an extended stay in another country might prove helpful as you prepare to return to your own country.
- Just as you familiarized yourself with current events in the host country, you should keep up with developments back home. Read newspapers or magazines to maintain an awareness of the latest news or even popular trends.
- Before leaving your host country, allow yourself enough time to say good bye to those you met. Your last weeks may be filled with packing, last-minute academic details and the like—but set aside a few moments to say "thank you". It need not be too detailed-perhaps a nice note to a helpful professor or a cup of coffee with a classmate who often shared notes with you. For friends you know better, plan something a little more elaborate. Maybe a dinner or one last trek to a favorite place in town. Give yourself this sense of closure. Say good-bye to those who became a regular part of your overseas life. It is a healthy first step in readjusting to home.
- For most students, home offers one advantage which was not available as they prepared to arrive in the host country. That advantage is the network of family and friends, a potential source of great support. Keep in contact with home not only to share your experiences but to keep up with what your friends and family are doing. You will learn that you were not the only person to change during your study abroad absence. It will help if you are more familiar with each other’s changes.
- And, you should probably make note of your own changes. In other words, keep a journal and record your impressions while they are still "fresh". It will be interesting to see your ideas and perceptions develop. Such a log will prove invaluable because your written experiences demonstrate how and why you changed during your time abroad. Upon your return, it may be interesting to jot down your first impressions of life here.
- Many study abroad alumni recommend treating your return in the same manner with which you treated your initial departure. Adopt that same flexibility, and prepare yourself for some surprises-especially if you became well-assimilated to life in your host country. Now that you are home, the changes which you have undergone will become more noticeable. It is a continuation of the exchange process which helps further your own understanding of the home and host cultures. The challenge is to blend old and new.
- Remember the advice to get out and keep busy? Those same words apply to Greensboro. Most students who have gone overseas recommend activity. Fill your time with school, work, family and friends. Remember that involvement and exploration were keys to your study abroad successes-why not apply those same methods now?
How do you imagine your return? Do you picture a grand homecoming like those found in a Hollywood movie: you rush down the exit ramp, towards friends and family who are anxiously waiting at the arrival gate? Or, do you imagine a reception a bit more low-keyed? Perhaps you have spent more time questioning how to keep in touch with those whom you met during your exchange than your first moments back home.
FAMILY: For most, the challenge of readjusting first surfaces within one’s own family, and because of this, you may wish to share this publication with your family. You lived and studied very far from home which both required and cultivated a strong sense of independence and self-reliance. Sometimes it was lonely, but, because of this distance, you were able to live as you wished, to determine your own schedule, and to set your own demands. For these reasons, it’s often difficult to return to your former role-whether it be as the youngest sibling or the only child.
Even if you lived with a host family, readjustment to your own family life can be a challenge. You were a member of a different household-perhaps where slightly different values and norms prevailed. Just like your own parents, your host mother and host father were concerned with your welfare and expected certain things from you-to be home at a certain hour, for example. Now that you are back in the U.S., your stories make reference to this second set of parents and your own parents may find this reference difficult to accept. Because of time away from home, you may find yourself less willing to accept long standing practices within your own family. Perhaps it’s too much television. Too much of this, and too little of that. Temper your criticisms-especially if you are the only one in the family to have such an extended stay overseas. Your family may not have the perspective which life in another culture grants and may therefore be unprepared for changes in you which, to them, seem abrupt.
FRIENDS: Experience and time change people. This phrase applies to both you and the group of friends whom you left at home. Before your departure, you had several things in common-similar taste in music or similar career goals, for example.
And now? You may discover that you have grown apart. Perhaps your old best friend now considers someone else their closest chum. You have spent time away from each other, and because of this, you need to catch up with what the other has done.
Sometimes old friends are a bit reluctant to talk about how they spent the past few months. They may have assumed that such details pale in comparison to your time overseas. Perhaps you believe their stories just can’t measure up to the eye-opening experiences you now hold.
When you are together, they talk about camping trips and other events that took place during your absence. You hear private jokes which may not be as funny simply because, as your buddy says through a chuckle, "you had to be there." And when you speak, your stories inevitably circle back to the time you spent traveling by train through Eastern Europe or that incredible view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower.
Yes, it is natural to feel left out, but good friendships will survive the awkward moments. Be sensitive to what’s going on in each other’s lives. Plan a few things to do together-visit an old hangout, go see a movie, but listen to what your friend has done. Soon enough you will field questions about your time overseas.
So, how can you maintain contact with folks--your roommate, the host family, your closest friend--from your time abroad? This is one of the more difficult bumps in the readjustment process, to be sure.
There’s e-mail which allows quick correspondence, but the good old fashioned method works wonders, too. It may be interesting to clip out local newspaper articles about the place where you lived and mail them to your friends. Let them see how most Americans learn about current events or popular culture in their country.
Keep up with birthdays, and other important dates. Send a card for those uniquely American holidays of Halloween or Thanksgiving. You could mail those Valentine’s Day conversation candy hearts with those ever useful English phrases like "Be Mine" or "Hi, Cutie". It’s up to you. Sometimes returning students feel as though readjusting to life at home leaves little free time. You don’t have to write pages-you can just drop a post card in the mail.
Friends from overseas want to hear about your life back at home. They want to know how you are doing and what you are doing. And, it is not impossible for your paths to cross in the future.
Sometimes returning students have invited their overseas pals home for a school break or have arranged to return to their host country for the summer. Other study abroad alumni return overseas after landing internships. You may begin the search for such opportunities while overseas or you can use the Career Service Center at UNCG which keeps listings of various domestic and international practical training programs. You may also want to check with your academic advisor or someone from your department; they might know of other possibilities or resources to guide you in your search.
Study abroad might be - and can be - the beginning of a lifetime of adventure! You should maintain contact with those you met during your exchange. You never know when you might meet again - whether it will be a social occasion or a business affair!
As you begin to talk about your experience, you will catch yourself alluding to how things were done in the host country. Remember the warning given during pre-orientation against constant comparisons to how things are done "at home". Now, endless references to your host country can appear as though you are criticizing your own culture or reminding others of your overseas experience. As your nostalgia grows, your urge to talk about your host country grows right along with it. Some might consider such behavior arrogant.
How should you treat questions about your time abroad? Should you offer a quick "it was good" and then drop any further discussion? Or, should you arrange a twenty-five hour slide show complete with music, lights and local dishes? Perhaps a little moderation is in order. The best recommendation is to share those things about which people are curious—how you like the food, popular music, or a few photographs of friends you made while abroad. If friends and family want to know more about your stay, let them ask.
A well-organized photo album is also a great way to show friends and family what you did and where you were. Furthermore, your friends and family can peruse this scrapbook at their own pace. If you cut and paste those ticket stubs and other treasures along side snap shots from your first train ride, not only will you portray that first trip but the excitement which it created, too. And perhaps, then, you can convey how much it meant to you.
If you studied overseas with a group of students from UNCG or another local university, you have people close at hand who share similar encounters. You can support each other as you readjust to life at home, plus you have an outlet for when you need to reminisce. Because they have also experienced life within a different culture, you might find that your stories are quite similar.
However, this common bond between you and your well-traveled colleagues may not be appreciated by others. Those friends who have not gone abroad could grow uncomfortably silent when you meet up with other study abroad alumni and swap stories. Exercise a bit of care and try not to reminisce to the point of exclusion.
After you return and get back into the routine of campus, your nostalgia for your host country may surge. Despite a busy schedule, you can’t stop thinking about or missing your time overseas. This is both an understandable and even normal part of the study abroad experience. You are readjusting. Many students believe the more they acclimate to home, the further they are from the friends, the experiences gained while overseas. The task of integrating that experience with the life you lead at home can prove stressful, but often times the act of just talking with someone eases this stress.
This someone can be a good friend or family member. You might prefer to confide in someone else about the way you feel coming home, and this is understandable. Schedule a counseling appointment, by contacting the Gove Student Health Center (336-334-5340).
So, how do you merge old and new?
You have lived among a different group and experienced different approaches and values. Remember, the longer your stay, the more likely you will have adopted some of these "new" methods as your own.
The "trick" for you is to find a balance. Don’t forsake habits acquired while on exchange in an effort to ease the transition to life back home. This denies you from getting the most out of your experience and from being a "multi-cultural person" in the truest sense of the phrase. If you grew accustomed to bringing your own bag to that small shop beside your apartment building, then you may still prefer to bring a bag to the twenty-four hour super store five miles down the road.
Another strategy: find other people here which share your interests and your experiences. One of the best meeting points is the International Programs Center. We ask returning students to drop by and talk to us about their exchange. Often times they have questions about transfer credits or want to meet new exchange students from their host country. Orientation is the best way to meet these folks.
At the start of each semester, we have an Orientation week for new exchange students. Returnees make up a large percentage of our PAL (Peer Advising and Liaison) staff which volunteers to introduce exchange students to life on-campus and around Greensboro during this week. You now know what it is like to adjust to a new country, a new culture, and a new education system. Because of this understanding, returning students play a vital role in our efforts to welcome exchange students.
During the school year, returnees help "get the word out" about UNCG’s Study Abroad Programs: many refer friends to IPC or help us staff Information Tables which are set up in the atrium. Folks considering a semester overseas are inquisitive types, and because you have been there, t hey will ask you questions about your own time and experiences abroad.
If you want to return overseas, you may choose to investigate avenues which are different than study abroad. You may decide to teach English overseas, for example. Perhaps you seek some kind of practical training in your field of study or you want to work overseas after graduation. Try the University’s Career Services Center or talk over your ideas with someone from your academic department. Another resource is the IPC library which lists various agencies to help you find employment overseas.
We do hope to hear about your adventures! Please drop by our office or contact us.