Transitioning Back: One Student's Perspective
By Rachel Hepkins Thompson
I had the opportunity of studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador (Fall 2006) and Barcelona, Spain (Spring 2007). When I came back to the United States, and especially Messiah College, I faced reverse culture shock. What exactly is reverse culture shock? Wikipedia describes it as “returning to ones home culture after growing accustomed to the new culture which may or may not last longer than the initial culture shock.”
Before leaving, I read so many books and heard so many stories of severe culture shock when entering a country. When I got to the country I was well aware of the difficulties I would be facing and could easily cope with the slight culture shock I faced. I thought going home would be similar, but I was completely wrong. I did not anticipate reverse culture shock to be as severe as it was. I thought reentering my home culture would only affect a certain portion of my life. I thought I would be able to segment it. I was wrong. Every area of my life was affected greatly by reverse culture shock. Here are some major areas in my life that were affected:
- Fitting back in. I knew I changed and wasn’t sure how my family would react to my differences
- Readjusting to manners and food
- Being treated like a child after having experienced a lot of freedom and independence
- Example: I was frustrated coming home because I felt like I didn’t have any freedom. While in Barcelona, my friends and I planned several trips on our own including Rome, Venice and Paris. However, the following month when I came home I constantly had to ask permission to leave my house – even to go to the local convenient store. I was so frustrated and didn’t know how to respond or react to such differences. This was neither my parents fault nor my fault, but an example of difficulties readjusting to life at home.
- Reaction of your old friends to the “new me.” Some friend may not react the way you want them to.
- Having to make new friends with younger classes because old friends have graduated
- Difficulty being able to pick up old friendships when you’ve changed and/or they’ve changed
- Friends may seem uninterested when you talk about your experiences
- Example: Some of my friends initially seem interested. When I showed them pictures they were engaged for the first three pictures, but the last 1,997 they lost all interest. It may seem like they just don’t care about your experience. It can get frustrating trying to communicate how important the last 4-5 months were for you to some one who seems to care less. This may produce some
- tension, but try to be understanding. Ask them about their past semester too.
- Feeling like you need to make up a missed semester or year
- Example: Sometimes I feel like I skipped a year. In the beginning of the year when people asked me what year I was, I responded by saying “Junior” instead of “Senior.” That year was such a big part of my life, but it seems like now that I am back at Messiah I should just pick up where I left off. It takes some adjusting to after being away for a semester or a year.
- Adjusting to coursework and course load and American teaching styles.
- Getting used to multiple choice tests was an adventure for me! After spending a year writing papers (in Spanish) and writing essay questions for tests (in Spanish), the idea of a scantron just seemed foreign to me.
- Mixing foreign language (Spanish) with English.
- Example: About a week after I came back from Barcelona, I went up to the window at the Wendy’s drive thru and began speaking in Spanish. They did not respond and I was so confused why they weren’t taking my order. It eventually dawned on me that I wasn’t in Spain or Ecuador anymore. Needless to say I was asked to leave the restaurant because they couldn’t understand me. I could only laugh at myself after that!
- Losing the ability to speak Spanish well. I just wanted to speak Spanish all the time just like I did when I was abroad. Over time I felt like I was losing it and I had to understand that I would have to work harder now at keeping up my skills.
- Missing host family and friends
- Wanting to maintain new attitudes amidst the shock
- Catching up on missed news and developments
- Feeling more like the host country than your home country
- Missing foods, favorite items/events and the way of life in host country
After being challenged with some of these experiences I felt:
- Depressed: wanted to be alone. Feeling like no one understands how you are feeling.
- Uncertain: changing goals and priorities. Studying abroad opens your mind to the world. Thus, sometimes it may affect how you prioritize and set goals for yourself.
- Confused: so many emotions towards your new surroundings whether it be your Messiah, home or the USA.
- Restlessness: reverse homesickness – wanting to go back. May be frustrating because you looked forward to coming home to reunite with family and friends, but now you want to go back.
CULTURE: Rachel's suggestions for transitioning home
I had to deal with these issues and tried to find ways to adjust to my home once again. I came up with the acronym: CULTURE which are some helpful hits to remember while trying to cope with reverse culture shock.
C: Constantly dealing with reverse culture shock.
U: Understand that your friendships and relationships might change due to your new experiences.
Explore new places and people with whom you can share your international experiences.
A lot of my friends graduated and some of my relationships changed. At times I felt like an “outsider.” I became really good friends with the people I studied abroad with. We try to stay involved by joining clubs, going to ethnic restaurants, reading books about our host country and visiting other friends nearby that studied abroad with us. This has helped us hold on to the great experiences we had and relive the adventures.
L: Learn to incorporate this new way of thinking into your life.
T: Try to keep in contact with host families and friend you made.
U: Understand that you need time to adjust to the hectic pace and pressure of life here at college.
Learn to gradually increase the pace of your academic studies and extracurricular activities. Maybe the “old ways” of managing your time and stress do not work anymore. Talk to advisors, study abroad alumni or other close faculty and staff. Even if they can’t give you advice, talking is always good.
R: Realize that you are not alone!
E: Embrace your experiences abroad!
For more information about transitioning back to the US after studying abroad, check out Here toThere . . . and Back Again: Tips to Returning to Campus Life After Studying Abroad, a web resource from the Engle Center.