Before going abroad, you may have prepared for—or at least been aware of—the ways in which you would go through a period of cultural adjustment, sometimes referred to as culture shock. However, you may not have prepared yourself similarly for your re-entry to U.S. culture, a period sometimes characterized by reverse culture shock. Indeed, for some students, the return home can be more challenging than the culture shock experienced abroad.
As you re-integrate into your home life, be aware of some common challenges returnees often face and strategies you can use to combat them. We also have a lot of Tips for Families and Friends (below) for you to share to help them understand what you are going through.Hear what Cal Poly students have to say about their re-entry experiences.
Stage 2: Initial Euphoria. Your first weeks home will likely be exhilarating. You'll experience the thrill of rediscovering your home and reconnecting with those you love. Friends and family will make you the center of attention, meaning there may be many opportunities to talk about your experiences abroad. For those who adjusted well to their host culture, this stage may be brief, whereas for those who had a harder time adjusting abroad may not experience much reverse culture shock beyond this stage.
Stage 3: Irritability and Hostility. After those first few weeks, as life begins to settle back into its routine for both you and those around you, you will begin to slide into this stage. Things that were previously normal and familiar now may seem strange, and you might find yourself feeling frustrated, alienated, and critical of your own culture. You may find yourself feeling "homesick" for your life abroad and resist or resent the way that you are expected to fall back into the routines of home, work, and classes.
Boredom: Studying abroad was characterized by newness and almost daily challenges that kept you engaged and on your toes. Compared with that, life back at home can seem dull. While it is natural to miss the excitement and sense of discovery that characterized your time abroad, you can use the sense of adventure and skills you developed to seek out and try new challenges back home. Join a new club, continue working on your language skills, make connections with international students studying at Cal Poly, or share your experience to inspire other students. Be creative and look at ways to stay engaged at Cal Poly.
No One Wants to Hear (or You Can’t Explain): Your time abroad was filled with discoveries and new experiences—and you want to share them! But it can feel as though your family and friends just aren’t interested in hearing about them. Or maybe they do want to hear, but you can’t find a way to distill your experiences or to express their emotional and psychological power. Be realistic both about other people’s reactions and about what you can say. Those who have not been abroad may have a hard time relating to your experiences, so seek out other returnees and international students. You can also convey some your experience by bringing a part of your host culture back to share with others: for example, cook a favorite dish from your time abroad for friends or family. And rather than trying to explain verbally what your time abroad was like, try capturing your experiences in another form—artwork, journaling, scrapbooking, or some other method that will give you time to reflect and that you can share when you feel comfortable doing so.
We offer some helpful tips to share with family and friends (below) to help them help you re-adjust.
Reverse Homesickness and Feelings of Alienation: You worked hard to make a place for yourself while abroad. You made new friends, established new routines, discovered new favorite places or foods, so it’s natural to miss those when you return home. At the same time, you might find yourself being more critical of or frustrated with your home culture. You now find yourself questioning things that once seemed “natural” or “logical.” Counter those feelings of homesickness by making an effort to remain connected with people (and not just through quick chats on social media) and to integrate some of your new routines into your old ones (make time for a fika, brew yourself a nice cup of tea, go to a museum). And for that sense of alienation, remember that you likely felt something similar in the early days of your time abroad. Give yourself space to adjust, remember that difference is neither good nor bad, and embrace the parts of both your home and host culture that speak most to you.
You’ve Changed/They’ve Changed: Your time abroad changed you. But time didn’t stand still back home: the people you know have also grown and changed. Initially, you might find it difficult to relate with people close to you—but this is normal. You might also find that some people see the growth that you have undergone as a negative thing. While that can be hurtful and confusing, be aware that their reactions may be motivated by jealousy, fear of being left behind, or an unwillingness to acknowledge change. Be patient, flexible, open … and maintain your sense of humor. If the negativity doesn’t go away or is too intense, then take a step back.
Compartmentalization and the Inability to Apply New Knowledge/Skills: One way that returnees can deal with the difficulties of re-adjustment is to compartmentalize their time abroad—to put it in a virtual shoebox. This tendency can be exacerbated when students feel there aren’t opportunities to use the social, linguistic, and practical skills developed abroad. It’s up to you to keep your time abroad relevant, and to stay connected to it. There are lots of opportunities to stay engaged at Cal Poly, market your new-found skills, and find ways to go abroad again.
Students who study abroad go through a period of cultural adaptation when they arrive in their host country, and they go through a similar experience as they re-adjust to life back home.For some students, this re-entry period can be particularly difficult, as they seek to reconcile the immense personal growth and change they have experienced with was once familiar. See the discussion on Re-Entry (above) for more information on the stages of cultural re-adjustment. Students will slowly work their way through this stage, but as a friend or family member you can make the transition home easier. You’ll need a lot of patience, though. Some of the challenges students face when they return home include re-adapting to the pace of life in the U.S., reckoning with American consumerism, finding difficulty expressing the depth of their experiences, and dealing with how others respond to the ways in which the students have changed.
What to Expect When Students ReturnExpect change. Even if the study abroad program was relatively short, the student will come back different—often with more energy and enthusiasm, and with a greater interest in going abroad again. They’ll also come back with more confidence, more independence, and more maturity.
Expect that readjustment will take time. The longer the student was abroad, the longer it may take them to adapt to life at home. They may be reluctant to let go of habits and ways of living they developed abroad.
Expect comparisons. The student has dedicated significant time and energy into learning about, understanding, adapting to a new culture. When they come home, they will look at the U.S. with fresh eyes. They may be more critical or questioning of the world, but this is not a rejection: it’s a way of reconciling the two worlds in which they can now live.
How You Can Help(Adapted in part from “What’s Up With Culture,” Module 2.5.1)
- Understand that reverse culture shock is a real possibility and learn to recognize its symptoms so you can offer appropriate support to the returnees. Remember, too, that cultural (re)adjustment is not a predictable process and can be more stressful than either the returnee or you anticipate.
- Be aware of your own expectations of the returnees. Most students return from their time abroad in some way different than they were before they left home. You might wish that they would just "fit back in," but it is more helpful if you avoid forcing the returnees into old roles and relationships. Allow them space and time to readjust and reconnect. And avoid criticism, sarcasm, or mockery for seemingly odd patterns of behavior, speech, or new attitudes.
- Be an active listener: ask questions, show interest, and give the student the time to tell their stories at their own pace. Remember, though, that the returnee will struggle to find ways to capture just how transformative the experience was and so may respond to your questions with short answers. Be patient and find ways to help the student tell their stories. Perhaps, as you are preparing dinner, you can ask them to tell you about their favorite meal; or you can buy them the materials to make a scrapbook and then ask them to talk about items as they put it together.
- As the returnee struggles to reconnect with friends and family, remind them that people at home have also grown and changed. That doesn’t mean the returnee has grown apart from those they knew, just that for a period they have traveled another road. Help returnees to understand what has taken place both in the society and among friends and family. Even if they have heard about these events, the impact at home may not have been obvious.
- Returnees often experience a form of “homesickness” and grieve for what they have left behind. They may be missing overseas friends, a stimulating environment, the feeling of being special, experiencing greater freedoms or responsibilities. Acknowledge this sense of loss and don’t take it as a sign that the student prefers there to here or as a rejection of home.
- Encourage the returnee to stay in touch with friends they made while abroad. Some students respond to the difficulties of cultural readjustment by compartmentalizing their study abroad experience and trying to “get back to normal.” It can be easier for the student—and sometimes for the family—to do this, but it ultimately doesn’t help the student. Help the returnee to find ways to build on their experiences.
- Alternatively, some students respond to the difficulties of re-entry by focusing on “how to get back” or to go abroad again. For families, this can be particularly disconcerting: your student has just come home from a long absence and all they seem to want to do is leave again. Know that this is not a rejection of you or of the U.S., but a reaction born of discomfort. Enjoy their enthusiasm and help them strategize for the future.
- Finally, be patient. Bear with the phrases like, “It’s hard to explain” and “When I was in [host country].” Don’t bristle if the returnee is critical of American habits or values. And don’t be surprised if the student wants more independence. They have discovered a new cache or self-confidence and maturity, and may feel able to take on new challenges.