International Center Re-integration
What will it be like when you return?
Let's start out with a list of common expectations students have when returning from off-campus study.
Everything will be the same
Everything will be great
People will be interested in my stories
I will fit back into life no problem
I can pick up my relationships where we left off
People will be open minded
People around me will recognize and applaud my personal growth
I have the same needs and goals as before
Reverse culture shock is a common phenomenon among world travelers. It refers to "the temporal psychological difficulties that a returnee experiences in the initial stage of the adjustment process at home after having lived abroad for some time." (Uehara in Raschio, 1987).
What does this mean?
When you prepared for going abroad, somewhere along the line somebody probably told you about the U-curve of cultural adjustment in the host country. First you could expect excitement, then disgruntlement, and then you would go upward again toward adjustment to your host culture. After careful observations, researchers have come to the conclusion that the U is only half of the picture. In reality the adjustment curve has two dips, making it a W-curve. The second half sneaks up on the unsuspecting traveler when returning home. The tricky part of this is that it comes to us as a surprise. We expect to slide right back into our old familiar life in the United States. Because we are often thoroughly unprepared for the homecoming blues, this phase more often than not causes greater stress than the initial culture shock in the host country. Why, you ask, after all we are just going home?
In one of the books dedicated to the topic of re-entry, Craig Storti reflects on the concept of "home". Home is not necessarily that place where you grew up. Instead, home is where the heart is. (The expression embroidered on many a kitchen towel actually holds true.) Home is the place where there is a high degree of familiarity, constituted by familiar faces, places and routines. It is a place where you don’t have to think about many of life’s daily tasks (where the garbage goes, which side of the street to drive on, how you greet people, what language to speak, etc.) The more successful you were at making your place abroad your home, the harder it will be to readjust to your old environment.
Acculturation to home life may cause some stress and frustration at first, but when we follow the W curve, we see that there is light at the end of the tunnel: After the each dip, we do get on top. Let’s look at the return part of the curve a little more specifically to understand what is going on. Using Craig Storti’s four-stage model of re-entry the following pattern emerges:
Stage 1: Departure: Characterized by mixed feelings of sadness to end your adventure abroad and excitement to see family and friends again.
Stage 2: Honeymoon: Lasts one hour up to a couple of weeks. You may be excited to see family and friends again, tell everyone your stories, get your pictures developed, eat your favorite American meal, chew your longed-for favorite flavor of gum, etc. A good time.
Stage 3: Reverse Culture Shock: The length of this stage depends on factors such as duration of stay, depth of involvement with host culture, variance between cultures, and your personal disposition. It ranges from several weeks to over a year.
This is the working phase of re-entry. You may be hit with feelings that you are not part of the same culture/society anymore. You may resist readjusting because it is as if by embracing your home culture again you are discarding your foreign learnings and personal growth. After such a hopefully incredible adventure, you are probably not too happy to be back. This discontentment often reveals itself by having strong reactions to certain home situations and particular events. Keep in mind these reactions stem from turmoil within, not from the outside stimuli. Studies have shown that even physiologically speaking, reverse culture shock can be physically debilitating and make you more susceptible to illness.
If all this does not sound like fun, you are partially right. On the other hand this can be an exciting time for personal growth. In the next chapter we will go into details about the specific aspects of re-entry. You will see that by merely recognizing the areas of struggle, you’ve won half the battle.
Stage 4: Readjustment: You have found your balance again. You have created a new sense of home and have established routines in your work, school and social life.
Now that we’ve run through the more theoretical side of re-entry, let’s take a look at what this all means for you in daily life.
Being back at the College can be a shock in itself.
You’ve grown accustomed to the ways of operation at your host institution and maybe even grown to like these. So now you are having to deal with adjusting back to the old ways. Maybe you find classes to be less challenging now, or the reverse, too rigorous. Probably the teaching styles and classroom structure were different and you have gotten used to having either more or less freedom.
Always an area of frustration is the disinterest in your experiences abroad and your foreign learnings on the part of your fellow students and your professors. Only rarely are you encouraged to speak at length about aspects of your journey, even though you most likely have very valuable contributions to make.
Social and Cultural Adjustments
This can be a pretty tough one. The routines, norms and values of your host country have become part of your expectations. Whether it is driving on the left side of the road, drinking wine with every meal, or speaking German, you are used to doing things a certain way and now you are expected to slide right back into the American habits. Furthermore, after having been exposed to a different culture, some of the customs you never paid attention to before all of a sudden seem really odd. Common reactions include abundance of "stuff" in the US, fast pace of life, superficiality of interactions, and favoring individuality over sense of community.
Most people are quite frustrated at first as a result of the conflicting attitudes and values. You are blessed with knowing two value systems now and have to figure out for yourself which parts of each you like best to live your life by. This may not come easy, but it is a privilege only traveling people have and can use.
Another aspect you may need to get used to again is the environment. Have you gotten used to Mexican weather, or a larger urban setting with constant background noise? Everything around you is likely to be different, including smells, noise level, humidity, hours of sunlight, proximity to nature, racial make up of population, size of things, etc. Some of these may be an improvement over your foreign situation, but changes always need getting used to. Speaking of changes, not everything in your hometown has remained the way it used to be before you left either.
Friends and Family
This probably proves to be the most frustrating issue of re-entry. You have just come back from an adventure abroad and are overflowing with stories to tell. The first days people are excited to see you and listen to your account of how wonderful it was in Spain, France or the UK. Pretty soon, however, a brief synopsis is all you can get across before the other person’s eyes glaze over. This is really tough. You may feel that your experience was insignificant, since others aren’t interested. Of course this is not the case. Your experience is very valuable, especially for your own growth. This value, however, does not extend itself to those around you, which is why they need far less time to digest your experience than you do.
During your absence, changes have occurred in other’s lives too, and they are eager to share those with you, because those are important to them. Unless you have a chance to relay back and forth what has happened in each person’s life, no one has the background information necessary to understand the changes that have occurred in each individual.
A common remark by returnees is that having been surrounded by international people makes those in the United States seem shallow and narrow minded. When you were abroad you could relate to others who were in the same situation and you could experience culture shock together. When coming back, your circle of friends consists of people who may not have traveled abroad and cannot sympathize with your re-entry struggles, or understand the transformed you.
It is only natural that during your foreign stay you have gone through some changes. Maybe this was the first time away from familiar grounds by yourself and you developed a greater sense of autonomy. Maybe your ability to conquer the trials and tribulations of a strange city while mastering a different language has raised your level of self-confidence. Whatever your case may be, you have surely gained at a personal level from your experience. Examine the following list of common experiences.
Improved foreign language proficiency
Know more about another culture/lifestyle
Understand more fully my own strength/weaknesses
Am more confident and at ease around strangers
Am more confident and assertive in new situations
Have a greater capacity to accept differences in others
Have more curiosity and respect for new ideas
Am more flexible and able to adjust
Am more acceptant of others’ values and lifestyles
Better ability to see myself and others objectively
Am more aware of opportunities in life
Feel greater respect and appreciation for my family
Am more independent in my relationships
Have a greater need for diverse experiences/friends
Am less judgmental
Am more confident about decisions I make
Have a greater awareness of world affairs
Though your gains are mostly beneficial to you, the resulting transformation will meet with some challenges. Your environment expects you to be the same person you were before you left. Because we all like our lives, including the people we interact with, to be predictable, your friends and family will prefer you would change back. This may evoke the feeling that all you have gained at a personal level during your foreign stay is being denied. Not so. Give them a chance to adjust to the new you, and you’ll see your personal growth will be accepted and encouraged to flourish.
University of Iowa students said the following about personal changes:
- "My attitude towards luxuries I enjoy has changed" (India)
- "I solidified my desire to work with other cultures while abroad" (Spain)
- "I have changed in general, in becoming a more "global" citizen. I really feel that travel is the key to understanding humanity" (Italy)
- "I feel that I am more open to other people and situations and less judgmental." (Costa Rica)
- "I am more aware of how different other cultures are from us and how oblivious other people are of this fact" (Spain)
- "I feel that I have changed for the better. I have taken even more to heart the saying ‘think globally act locally.’ Some of the events that people get uptight about, I no longer find to be such a 'life or death situation'. I also hope to make an impact in the profession in which I will make my living based on some of the feelings and ideas I have gained from India." (India)
- "The biggest change is that I not too concerned anymore about what other people think of me. I've also become a more understanding person and feel a bit more empowered." (UK)
- "I have matured, become more open-minded, able to see situations from varying perspectives, and become more focused in my goals in life. I am more confident and independent. Over the course of the semester abroad I realized that I really like who I am and I am much more together. I find myself laughing a lot more in situations where one could get frustrated." (UK)
- "I learned to appreciate my family more. Also I don't let myself get as worked up about things as I used to. I've generally learned to let myself chill out once in a while and not feel like I'm wasting time." (UK)
- "I think the most important thing I learned was independence. I also learned that patience and kindness go a long way, even in a culture you don't understand anything about." (UK)
This is also a time to reflect on your own readjustment priorities. Some aspects of what you have gotten used to in your host country you may have to give up, such as the excitement of being abroad and the slight celebrity status of a foreigner. But some of the perspectives you have obtained in the course of your experience you don’t want to shed. Upon return you have to re-shape yourself to some extent, but also try to mold your environment around your new form. This last part may not be easy. You will have to be patient with the people around you while you encourage them to take small steps. Stay focused on the small accomplishments you make and see yourself as a role model to inspire others.
Last, but not least, before we go on to the next chapter in which different ways of keeping your experience alive are explored, take a look at the set of comments from past Iowa study abroad students in response to the question: What tips do you have for future returnees?
- "Do not expect your life to be exactly how you left it - I had to adjust back to my life that used to be so normal to me” (Spain)
- "Don't forget what you learned as you re-assimilate” (UK)
- "Keep in contact with those who remain in host country” (Argentina)
- "Don’t let your experience go. Its very easy to forget all the new things you have learned by returning to your normal routine when you get back home” (Australia)
- "Apply your accomplishments abroad here on campus” (Mexico)
- "Talk to people about the trip, don't just try to forget about it” (UK)
- "Take it slow and don't expect anything to be the same.” (Italy)
- "Try to separate your feelings for people from your feelings about your experience abroad. Don’t do anything impulsive or drastic as far as changing your relationships or life plan for at least a couple of months after returning.” (Mexico)
- "Don’t expect anyone to be interested in your trip” (India)
- "Relax, life will work itself out.” (France)
- "I’m not sure, but it's very nice to hang out with other returnees and hear their stories and music from abroad.” (Spain)
Integrating your foreign experience
This chapter is about how to keep your experience alive and incorporate what you have gained into your life here. The key is to find a balance between adjusting back to the US culture, much like you did while abroad, and retaining your status as an international person. Rest assured you are not alone in going through this process. Everyone who has ever lived abroad has had to deal with the challenges of re-entry adjustment at some point, and it is often reflected upon as a rewarding time of growth.
Recently returned Iowa students had the following to say about their integration:
- “I am currently volunteering at the United Nations Association and am looking for a job with some sort of international work.” (Costa Rica)
- "I listen to my Spanish music a lot and I just ordered a book from Spain to catch up when I have free time. I still think in Spanish. Next year for spring break, if the flights are cheap, then I’m dragging friends to Spain to travel a little bit! I can't wait, they have no idea what’s coming to them! They'll love it!" (Spain)
- "I brought stainless steel water cups from India for my family. We use these every day, it provides a great reminder on a daily basis of the resources and blessings we enjoy.” (India)
- "I've decided to go to Ireland after graduation, and I keep in touch with several people I met in Wales." (UK)
- "I try to give people some ideas as to how life happens in India, and to at some point help them to take a look at their own lives." (India)
- "Changed my major to Spanish, have more Hispanic friends, utilize the language when I can be of help to customers at work, talk with my grandparents who speak Spanish. Tutor my uncle in his Spanish class." (Mexico)
- "Mentally I compare a lot of things between France and the US. I also will glance at a French newspaper which they sell at Prairie Lights just to see it. I’ll write in French every now and then, and I talk about it a lot. I try to encourage as many people to study abroad as I can, and I share my journey with them as well. I keep in touch with a lot of people by letters, and I am constantly searching for a way to go back in the future." (France)
- "Once you change in relation to yourself it effects all the rest of the aspects of your life. Especially it effects my relationships with my family and friends. My relationships have seemed much more fulfilling than before. I have realized that sometimes you don't have to travel far to really go somewhere, if that makes any sense to you." (UK)
- "I did a presentation for a women's group about 10 days after I got back. I'm still in touch with about 5-6 people I met while studying abroad and one of them is coming to visit me later this year. I will often bring a different perspective to a conversation if asked, and lots of people are always asking me about studying abroad because it is something that they 'wished they would have done'. I talk about things that happened to me over there quite a bit with friends. If I know people who’re going to go to Europe and any other place that I have contacts in or know things about I try to help them out." (UK)
Tips for immediate gain
Talk to other world travelers. They are often excited to hear about your stories and share and compare experiences. Ways to get in contact with fellow globetrotters are: the internet, international students on campus, organizations in the community with international interests, and taking classes dealing with international issues.
Write an essay or short story on (an aspect of) your experience. This can be in the form of a paper for a class, an article for the campus newspaper of other publication, or as a letter to yourself for later. Help out at the Office for Study Abroad. For information sessions and pre-departure orientations, there is always need of returnees like yourself to talk about your experience to prospective study abroad students. This is a captive audience that needs to hear your stories! In addition, the office hires peer advisors to assist students who are interested in studying abroad. Spend time with your memories. You can do this by gathering a selection of pictures, ticket stubs, maps, label of favorite beer, etc. and put together a memory collage or book. Don’t forget to write some explanatory notes or funny experiences with it to complete your personal reminder. Communicate your experience to others effectively: Rather than a brief "show and tell" of places you have been and people you have met, although fun and important to you, try to explain some of the cultural differences. Offer perspectives on world issues. Give some details about the country’s customs. Compare and contrast certain phenomena, policies or institutions between home and host countries. Try to see the positive and negative points of both sides. Knocking the culture of your audience will set up walls and make people defensive. Surround yourself with understanding and encouraging people. And most importantly: be yourself, whoever that happens to be.