Did you find yourself at various points on the cultural adjustment curve while abroad? The same thing can happen when you return home, too! Here are some things to think about and resources that may be helpful when it comes to readjusting to life back home, and continuing to reflect on your experience abroad.
- Participate in a Virginia Lessons from Abroad Conference (a state-wide conference exclusively for study abroad returnees) to engage with other recent returnees and learn helpful tips and tricks for adjustment and reflection.
- Complete your program evaluation when prompted - this helps the program provider understand how you experienced the program, and provides an opportunity for you to think about your experience in depth.
Things to Consider
Preparing for Reverse Culture Shock
The cycle of overseas adjustment begins at the time you plan to study abroad. You may think that adjustment ends when you have successfully assimilated into the life of your host country, but, in fact, the cycle of cultural adjustment continues through your return to the United States or your home country. Culture shock and re-entry shock (more commonly known as "reverse culture shock") are not isolated events but rather part of the total adjustment process that stretches from pre-departure through reintegration at home.
Even while abroad, it is not too early to begin thinking about the day you will return home. Questions such as "Why did I choose to study abroad?" and "What do I want to accomplish during my time here?" can help you clarify how you are going to integrate your international experience into your academic, professional, and personal goals for the future. Preparing for the surprises that often greet travelers after an extended period abroad will enable you to turn what, for some, is a very awkward time into a productive one (and your photo album will hopefully reflect it all.)
Change and Adaptation
As one returnee explains, "Living abroad has a deep, broadening effect on a person--an effect that I didn't realize until my return." For some people, living abroad and having those changes occur outside of their home country can magnify those experiences, thus causing the return home to be a bit unsettling. In addition, some of the experiences are specific to being abroad and could not have occurred in the U.S. or your home country. While abroad you may have experienced a greater degree of independence, both academically and personally, than you previously experienced at home. You may have become increasingly sure of yourself and possibly have gained a more mature or focused attitude about your future. Some of these new views and attitudes may be in conflict with the views and attitudes of family and friends. They may question your new way of thinking and doing things or even pressure you to "reform."
You likely acquired some new skills while abroad. These may include discovering a new way to do an old task, a different perspective on your field of study, or increasing your foreign language skills.
These new skills will now become a part of your daily life. Increasing ease of use with your foreign language will probably have one of the greatest impacts. If you have learned to become dependent on these skills to communicate from day to day, then it may feel strange for you to revert back to your native language. You may feel frustrated and depressed if you cannot communicate your new ideas, skills, or opinions, and this can be distressing. Again, patience, flexibility, and time will be required as it was at the beginning of your sojourn.
Loss of Status
In your host country you may have been seen as an informal ambassador from the United States or your home country. This gave you a certain status of being "special." When you return home, you are just like everyone else and the loss of feeling a bit "special" can be a factor that you must deal with in your readjustment. One returnee describes it this way: "Being in a foreign country as a foreign visitor, you are to a certain extent a 'special person'; your new views, accent, and lifestyle are all interesting to your hosts. As such, you will receive a lot of attention, make friends, and, generally, be popular. However, when returning 'home', you become again a 'normal person'. I found it very difficult to make that transition."
Now that you have studied abroad, you obviously have a new circle of friends. Leaving your new friends can be, for many, the most difficult part of re-entry. Having to abandon intense friendships, girl/boyfriends, and/or cultural supports, frequently brings disturbing feelings characteristic of those associated in a grieving process. Though you may seem to make an easy surface adjustment once home, that adjustment may, at times, cover many contained feelings of uncertainty, alienation, anger, and disappointment.
Upon your return, friends at home will ask about your experiences and appear to be interested. They will often show a slight fascination with your adventures but this may quickly fade. You should be prepared for their cursory interest in your stories and pictures. After a while you may find that your friends are more eager to talk about what has gone on in their lives as opposed to hearing more about your life abroad. When you talk "too much" about your experience, people may accuse you of being elitist even though that may not be your intention.
People are often threatened by new and unusual points of view if they have not had a similar experience. As much as you need to talk about your recent time away from home, it is advisable to be sensitive to the attitudes and feelings of others. Be patient. If the friendship is worth maintaining, adjustment can and will be made; if not, developing new friendships can be as exhilarating as traveling.
The "changed you" will have to re-adjust to life back home, and, for some, this can be difficult. It can be a surprise to learn that you are not the only one affected by re-entry. Remember, and be aware, that people at home change too, so expect things to be different.
It is normal for you to desire to hold onto the person that you have become. The "new" you cannot be discarded or forgotten for the "old" you. However, you and your family must come to terms with that "new" you and continue to build upon your existing relationship from this point forward. It will require commitment to work toward mutual respect and understanding of each other's views. You may find that you have a totally different relationship with your family.
You may face a new set of re-adjustment issues upon return to academic life. If you have become very accustomed to a different type of academic system, you will have to readjust to UVA's way of handling things. For example, some students experience a greater amount of academic independence abroad than they had previously experienced. If you have found that academic freedom is particularly gratifying and challenging then the re-adjustment to a system that is more structured can be difficult. Returning to university life you may also feel a bit "removed" from your major and department.
Challenges of Readjustment
No readjustment experience is the same for everyone. You may go through re-entry much differently than someone else. There are several variables that may affect the degree of difficulty faced by individuals during re-entry. Some of these variables include:
- Expectations of difficulty upon return
- Length of time spent abroad
- Readiness to return home, to the United States, or to UVA
- Degree of cultural difference or similarity
- Changes and perceived changes in the home environment
- Support networks
The length of time that the readjustment phase lasts will, of course, vary from person to person, but it will also depend on the level of intensity you experience. If you experience a very high level of intensity your adjustment will most likely take longer than if you experience a very low level of intensity. One returning student said: "I have been back four months and I still find it very hard to communicate about my experiences and often I feel I must hide many of the new attitudes or knowledge I may have gained that seems at odds with my old life." In addition, the length of time the readjustment lasts depends on you and how you cope with the situations that occur.
The good news is this phase of readjustment to life in the United States does not last forever! Here are some suggestions of ways to make this phase a bit easier on you, your family, and friends.
Acknowledge your Adjustment
First, and foremost, acknowledge the re-entry phase as part of the study abroad experience. Just as you had to give yourself time while going through the culture shock phase (if you did experience culture shock) you must also give yourself time to go through the re-entry phase. As one returnee stated in a survey, "Don't blame yourself, give yourself time. I'd have felt less guilty and peculiar if I'd realized it was a common phenomenon."
Share your Adjustment
Educate your family and friends about this phase of adjustment. Many people have never heard of reverse cultural adjustment and are not aware of its existence. If the people around you know a little about what you are experiencing, then, hopefully, they will be a bit more patient and understanding towards you and help you to re-adjust. Remind those around you that you cannot unlearn what you have learned, but that you need time to re-integrate those sometimes conflicting components within yourself.
Stay in Contact with your Host Country
Keep in contact through letters (and, if possible, through telephone calls and email) with the friends you made in your host country. It will help you feel that what you experienced was real and not one big dream.
Get Involved and Seek out Others
Seek out other returnees that live nearby. The fact that they have gone through (or are going through) re-entry and can offer support and advice about how to cope will be helpful. Other returnees often want to hear of the overseas adventures because they have a multicultural and international perspective. Becoming active in events sponsored by the International Studies Office offers you an outlet to share your concerns and also your experiences. Review the Re-entry Checklist for more detailed information and ideas.
Set Goals for the Future
Now is the time for you to look towards your future. You have finished one phase of your life and are ready to move ahead. Think about your next challenge or goal. Begin to make plans and put those plans into action. Even if you will return to UVA to finish a year or two of a degree, you can develop goals for that period of time so that you will feel you are moving ahead rather than regressing. It is common for students who return to their university to feel they have gone "10 steps forward (their overseas experience), and now are going 11 steps backward (the return to university)." It is up to you to get the most out of that time by giving yourself new goals and challenges. Take the influence of your overseas experience and use it positively to help plan this next phase of your life.
There are many opportunities to study, intern, and work abroad. Build on this experience through continued international academic and/or professional experience.
Talk to Someone
If you're practicing the strategies above and you're still struggling, do not hesitate to reach out to a resource like CAPS for counseling and other strategies for managing your well-being: https://www.studenthealth.virginia.edu/caps.
Advice from Study Abroad Returnees
- "I think one of the best steps to take is to give yourself and your friends and family time. It was good to visit with people and catch up on their news and listen to them. Listening is important."
- "Don't be surprised- it will take time to re-adjust, but you'll feel at home again in time. Don't expect to view/see people or things as you did when you left. Try to look for the positive things in returning home, not the negative."
- "Try and reflect on the positive aspects of your stay away and the positive aspects of your here and now and how they compare and contrast."
- "Be patient with yourself and your mood swings. Keep in touch with friends you've met, but don't forget to build new bridges at home."
- "Try not to take yourself too seriously (if possible). Keep up your ties with your friends in the 'foreign’ country by letters and phone calls and email."