Sometimes the most challenging aspect of a student’s study abroad experience can be returning home. The list below from Professor Bruce La Brack at the University of the Pacific details some of the most common re-entry challenges for students returning from study abroad from this site.
After all the newness and stimulation of a student’s time abroad, the return to family, friends, and old routines (however nice and comforting) can seem very dull. It is natural to miss the excitement and challenges that characterize study in a foreign country, but it is up to the student to find ways to overcome such negative reactions and keep in mind that a bored person is also boring.
2. "No One Wants to Hear"
One thing students can count on upon their return: no one will be as interested in hearing about their adventures and triumphs as they will be in sharing those experiences. This should not be considered a rejection of them or their achievements abroad. However, once others have heard the highlights of students’ experiences, further interest on the audiences’ part is probably unlikely. Students should be realistic in their expectations of how fascinating their journey is going to be for everyone else. They should be brief in their descriptions.
3. They Can’t Explain
Even when given a chance to explain all the sights and feelings of their study abroad experience, students are unlikely to be able to relay them coherently. It is very difficult to convey this kind of experience to those who do not have similar frames of reference or travel backgrounds, no matter how sympathetic they are as listeners. Students can tell people about their trip, but may fail to make others understand exactly how or why they felt a particular way. This is okay.
4. Reverse "Homesickness"
Just as students probably missed home for a time after going abroad, it is just as natural to experience some "reverse" homesickness for the people, places, and things that they grew accustomed to as a student overseas. To an extent, this feeling can be reduced by writing letters or email messages, telephoning, and generally keeping in contact. Feelings of loss are an integral part of international sojourns and must be anticipated and accepted as a natural result of study abroad.
5. Relationships Have Changed
It is inevitable that when students return, they will notice that some relationships with friends and family will have changed. Just as they have altered some of their ideas and attitudes while abroad, the people at home are likely to have experienced some changes. These changes may be positive or negative, but expecting that no change will have occurred is unrealistic. The best preparation is flexibility, openness, minimal preconceptions, and tempered optimism.
6. People See the "Wrong" Changes
Sometimes people may concentrate on small alterations in returned students’ behavior or ideas and seem threatened or upset by these changes. Others may ascribe any “bad” traits to the influence of their time abroad. These incidents may be motivated by jealousy, fear, or feelings of superiority or inferiority. To avoid or minimize such reactions, it is necessary for returned students to monitor themselves and be aware of the reactions of those around them, especially in the first few weeks following their return. Normally, this phase passes quickly if students do nothing to confirm others’ stereotypes.
7. People Misunderstand
A few people will misinterpret students’ words or actions in such a way that communication is difficult. For example, what students may have come to think of as humor (particularly sarcasm, banter, etc.) and ways to show affection or establish conversation may not be seen as wit, but aggression or “showing off.” Offers of help in the kitchen can be seen as criticism of food preparation, new clothing styles may be seen as provocative or inappropriate, references to their host country or use of a foreign language as boasting. Students should be aware of how they may look to others and how their behavior is likely to be interpreted.
8. Feelings of Alienation/Critical Eyes
Sometimes the reality of being back "home" is not as natural or enjoyable as the place the students had constructed as their mental image. When real daily life is less enjoyable or more demanding than they had remembered, it is natural to feel some alienation, see faults in the society they never noticed before, or even become quite critical of everyone and everything for a time. This is no different than when they first left home. Mental comparisons are fine, but students should keep these observations to themselves until they regain a balanced cultural perspective.
9. 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. To avoid ongoing annoyance, students should adjust to reality as necessary, change what is possible, be creative and patient, and above all, use the cross-cultural adjustment skills they acquired abroad to assist their own re-entry.
10. Loss/Compartmentalization of Experience
Being home, coupled with the pressures of job, family, and friends, often combine to make returning students worry that somehow they will "lose" the experience, that it will become compartmentalized like souvenirs or photo albums. Students do not have to let that happen. They should maintain their contacts and also talk with people who have had similar experiences. They should practice their language skills and remember and honor both their hard work and the fun they had while abroad.
Adjusting to life back home can be a process, eventually though, it's possible to reconcile your new self and your old life, and identify ways in which to keep your study abroad experience alive. Don't feel like study abroad has to go in a box on a shelf! Give yourself time to reflect on your abroad experiences and think about ways to integrate what you cherish from your time abroad into your life back home and moving forward. You've had an amazing experience, gained new skills, knowledge and perspectives, and grown in ways that you might not yet even recognize. Find ways to harness that energy and to integrate what you've gained from your time abroad into your path moving forward.