Studying abroad is the experience of a lifetime. For many of you, it was your first opportunity to navigate a foreign culture. You stepped out of your comfort zone and courageously discovered new things about yourself. And with such a bold adventure came culture shock.
However, many people don’t realize that returning home can be just as challenging. In fact, the feeling can be so jarring that many of us who return from a study abroad experience refer to it as “reverse culture shock.” You may feel lonely, disoriented, frustrated or simply bored out of your mind! For many of us, this experience is only exacerbated by the warm reception we received during our homecoming: Those who missed us were excited to have us back, and we felt guilty that we didn’t always feel the same way.
Luckily, even though study abroad re-entry often feels incredibly lonely, it is something that thousands of students experience. With that much experience, there is also a lot of great advice. With that in mind, here are some of our thoughts on how to make the study abroad re-orientation experience more comfortable.
Reach Out to Others
When you study abroad, you typically do so with a group of other students, many of whom are from the same institution as you. Unfortunately, you don’t return straight to campus, since you generally come home right before either summer or winter break.
Make sure you are being proactive before you depart your host country. Make sure you are connecting with those who you shared this amazing experience with by getting their appropriate contact information. Collect a list of phone numbers. Make sure you have their email addresses. Become Facebook friends.
When you get home, sometimes you will miss those frank, aimless conversations that made studying abroad such a remarkable experience. So get someone on the phone and relive those moments together. Not only will chatting help you recapture a portion of that experience, but you’ll also have an opportunity to unpack the experience with someone who knows exactly what you’re going through.
To make connecting easier, we’ve set up a community on Facebook and developed a BCA alumni page full of resources for those who have returned from studying abroad. Take advantage of these resources and get in touch with people who are going through the same things as you.
Be Prepared for Things to Be Different
Unfortunately, even though you shared a wonderful experience that you will remember forever, things won’t be the same when you get home. This includes those friendships you made abroad. Study abroad programs involve small groups of students that grow to depend on each other within a completely foreign culture. This is not how most relationships are formed.
So when you get home, don’t be surprised if you and your best friend from your program don’t feel quite as close. This isn’t because the friendship you shared abroad was fake. It means it was forged within a very specific context. When you were abroad, you might have made plans to be in each other’s wedding. Now you feel like you don’t really even know each other.
While these changes may be disappointing, give yourself the freedom to let them be what they are. You might not be best friends with these people any more, but they’ll never stop being the people you shared an incredible adventure with. So don’t try to force the issue. Think fondly on those things you shared and feel free to let them define the friendship that remains, even if it is different from what you expected.
Be Active in Sharing Your Experience
One of the easiest ways to reclaim the excitement of studying abroad is to share that excitement with others. There will be numerous opportunities to tell people about your experience. Your family will want to see your pictures — even the ones you think are boring or embarrassing. Your friends back home will want to hear the exciting details. So don’t be shy. There are a number of ways to share:
- Present a slideshow of your adventures, complete with representative music and commentary.
- Make a meal of some of the cultural dishes that you grew to love (and miss).
- Prepare a presentation for prospective study abroad students at your school.
- Be a guest speaker in a high school or college language class.
- Contact BCA and write a blog entry reflecting on your experience or express interest in corresponding with prospective students.
Studying abroad is powerful because it changes you in wonderful ways — don’t be afraid to let your family, friends, and community hear about how you’ve changed. You’ve done something that most people don’t get to do.
You will find that every time you retell the story, you get to relive the experience, even if just for a little bit. The feeling may be bittersweet. You might find yourself shedding a few tears. But the stories will remind you of what you gained as much as they will remind you of what you miss. That bittersweet feeling is normal and is a sign of transition. Don’t be afraid of it.
Know That Some People Won’t “Get It”
Unfortunately, when you return home, not everyone will understand how transformative studying abroad can be. You will have hours of stories to share, and sometimes people will only want a quick 10-minute recap.
You have spent months engaging with a foreign culture and were profoundly transformed. Sometimes in describing those experiences, you will fail to translate just how incredible your experience was. Perhaps friends assume studying abroad is little more than like an extended vacation. They don’t understand that for every exciting adventure, you were also learning more about the world and more about yourself.
When people don’t get it, it can be very disappointing. It hurts when you share something exciting and others don’t seem to be as excited as you.
First, remember that even if someone doesn’t seem to share in your excitement, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about you. They just didn’t go through what you went through and they may not have ever had a comparable experience. It can be really hard to relate when someone has never done anything similar.
Second, someone else’s lack of excitement doesn’t take away from what you experienced. Your memories are yours and they can’t take that away from you. And just because one person doesn’t get it doesn’t mean the next person won’t. Think about family members and friends who have also traveled. You might find it is easier to share with them.
Take Plenty of Time to Reflect
Study abroad programs are often fast paced. When you only have a limited time, you don’t want to miss anything. Scheduled trips took up most of your weekends and you probably filled the weekends that weren’t scheduled with additional travel.
All of this running around will give you a wealth of incredible memories, but you likely didn’t get much time to really think about your experience. Now that you are home, spend time to really reflect.
There are a few helpful ways to aid your reflection:
- Spend Time Journaling
You might have started a journal when you first left to study abroad. If so, don’t stop now that you’re home. You may have written a thorough account of your travels, so be just as thorough documenting your experiences now that you’ve returned. If you didn’t journal while you were traveling, take some time to write out and process your feelings about returning anyways. As you adjust to being back home, you can look back on these reflections and see how you are processing your re-entry.
- Organize Your Photos
When you get home, you will have a lot of photos. Depending on how well you stayed on top of keeping them organized while you were traveling, you may need to get them organized. Thankfully, technology and digital photography has made organizing photos even easier.
But while sifting through photos helps makes sure you can easily access them later, the process will also help you reflect on what you’ve done. A collection of photos will help you see just how much you have changed over the course of your experience. You might be surprised just how different you look from when you first arrived to the last day you were there. Give yourself a good chunk of time so you can take care in reminiscing on what was happening when each photo was taken.
- Write a Memoir
Journaling helps you collect your thoughts over time. But sometimes it helps to condense all of those thoughts into one story. Sit down and really write out a recap of your experience. The act of taking your unorganized memories and turning them into a story will also help you sift out what was fun and what was truly transformative. Not every dinner at some corner restaurant in a foreign country is life changing. But one special night, when you really connected with those you were with, or truly began to understand the nature of where you were, will stick out as you write the story of your trip.
Plus, when you’re done, your collected, organized thoughts will make sharing your experience with others easier. Your story will be more impactful, ensuring that people understand how you’ve changed and why this experience is so important to you.
Live Out Your Experience
You studied abroad in order to transform the way you see the world. So don’t waste time in beginning your new life as a transformed person.
Here are a few ways you can start living the new life you’ve helped to create for yourself:
- Find ways to use your new language skills. Many study abroad programs include intensive language programs. You may have taken years of a foreign language, but you didn’t really know how to speak that language until you used it consistently in another country. Don’t let those newfound skills go to waste. Look into ways to use that language consistently. Volunteer to assist with ESL classes at a local community center, or connect with a community of native speakers of the language you studied.
- Engage with the international student community at your home institution. Schools work hard to make international students feel welcome. You can be a part of that. Remember how hard it was to get people to understand you when you first arrived at the country where you studied? That’s how international students at your home institution often feel. After your experience, you probably understand a bigger part of what they’re going through. Help make their transition to living in America a little bit easier. Plus, you might find that international students help reconnect you with the feeling of studying abroad.
- Think about how you can combine your experience with a future career. There are a lot of jobs that will allow you to apply your new skills. If you’re studying business, think about ways you can connect an enterprise with the culture where you studied. If you’re studying social work, consider the needs of people from that culture. As the global economy becomes integral to most businesses, employers are looking to hire people with real international experience. Think about how you can position yourself to be desirable for employers while also entering into a career that you will find fulfilling and edifying.
Use Your Lifechanging Experience to Fuel Your Goals
Returning home from studying abroad can be hard. In fact, it may be just as hard as adjusting to the new culture where you had studied. You may feel lonely, misunderstood and confused. You spent months adjusting and then growing to love a new place. Coming back home may be disappointing, especially if you anticipated your homecoming with enthusiasm.
But know that you are not experiencing something new. Reverse culture shock is common, and you are not alone in your experience. Your friends who you studied with are probably feeling the same thing. Reach out to them. But know that some things won’t be the same now that you’ve returned home.
After connecting with your travel partners, share your experience with the family and friends who weren’t able to join you abroad. Those who love you will be excited to hear about your experiences and share in your transformation. But also, be aware that not everyone will understand the full depth of your experience.
Dedicate some real time to reflection. You can’t expect to simply get home and have a seamless transition. Spend time really thinking about how you’ve changed. Journaling can help you process and collecting your memories in the form of photos will give you a chance to reflect.
Finally, start thinking about your next steps. You’ve been transformed, but how are you going to put that transformation into action? How will your experience influence your career choices? You have spent time becoming a global citizen — Start thinking about how to live as one.
And know that the feeling passes. Hopefully, this guide has made that transition a little bit easier, but it probably will always be a challenge. Remember, when you arrived in your host country, you had to get through some culture shock before you started to really experience the culture. The same is true when you return. You will have to adjust before home will start to feel like home again.