Olivia studied in Rome through SAI Programs during the Spring 2014 semester. Upon her return home, she was accepted as an SAI Ambassador on her home campus of Gustavus Adolphus College. Below she talks about ways to cope with reverse culture shock.
It is that time of year again – time to begin contemplating the end of your SAI program. Whether you are currently abroad or have been back for several months, this is a difficult transition to make. This transition is referred to as “reverse culture shock” and is as valid a concept as the culture shock you likely experienced upon entering your country of study. There is no one way that reverse culture shock presents itself. Those who experience it may be home for five minutes or five months. It can strike at any time. The most important thing to know is that your feelings are valid.
Dr. Bruce La Brack of the University of the Pacific cites the following as the top ten challenges for returnees:
- Boredom: After all the newness and stimulation of your time abroad, a return to family, friends and old routines can seem dull. Try to find ways to overcome it by trying new things, travelling domestically or continuing cultural studies.
- No one wants to hear: One thing you can count on up your return: no one will be as interested in hearing about your adventures and triumphs as you will be in sharing those experiences. Be realistic in your expectations of how fascinating your journey will be for others to listen to. Be brief.
- You can’t explain: Even when given a chance to explain all the sights you saw and feeling you had while studying abroad, it’s likely to be a bit frustrating to relay them adequately. It can be hard for others to understand who haven’t had such an experience. It’s ok to fail to make them understand.
- Reverse “homesickness”: Just as you probably missed home for a time after arriving overseas, it’s as natural to experience the same for the people, places, and things that you grew accustomed to while abroad. While writing, calling and keeping contact can help, but this is a natural part of study abroad.
- Relationships have changed: It is inevitable that when you return you will notice that some relationships with friends and family will have changed. Just like you have changed while abroad, so have things at home. Openness, flexibility, and minimal preconceptions can help prepare you.
- People see the “wrong” changes: Sometimes people may concentrate on small alterations in your behavior or ideas and seem threatened or upset by them. These reactions can be caused by any number of things, but be aware of people’s reactions and monitor yourself, and it will likely pass.
- People misunderstand: A few people will misinterpret your words or actions in such a way that communication becomes difficult. Things that may have been normal or acceptable abroad, are seen as offensive or odd at home. Keep conscious of how you look and behave to others and it is interpreted.
- Feeling alienated/seeing with “critical eyes”: Sometimes the reality of being back home is not as enjoyable as how you imagined it. Some develop a tendency to see faults at home that you didn’t notice before. Mental comparisons are alright just keep them to yourself until you regain a balanced perspective.
- Inability to apply new knowledge and skills: Many returnees are frustrated by the lack of opportunity to apply newly gained social, linguistic, and practical coping skills that appear to be unnecessary or irrelevant at home. However, you can use all the cross cultural adjustment skills to assist your own re-entry.
- Loss/compartmentalization of experience: Being home, combined with the pressures of job, school, family, and friends often conspires to make returnees worried that they might somehow “lose” their experience. By maintaining contacts abroad, practicing cross-cultural skills, sharing with others you can remember and honor your time abroad.
Remember, if you are experiencing any symptoms of reverse culture shock, you are not alone! Try to be proactive in combating or embracing these emotions. Get together with other SAI participants or discussing your experience in your home university study abroad office. Writing is an important tool for thinking. Try writing in a journal or contacting your university newspaper to contribute an editorial. In many cases, study abroad returnee conferences correspond with the end dates of programs. Universities will often subsidize the cost to attend one of these conferences.
Upon my own return, I enrolled in a re-entry class for credit. I also accepted an internship with the Center for International and Cultural Education and became an SAI Ambassador (look for these applications!). There is no single right way to process your study abroad experience. Do what is right for you and utilize all of your available resources.