“So, how are you doing?”
That question, posed to me by a friend I had not seen for many months over a couple of chai lattes, left me at a loss for words.
How could I begin to explain the challenges and the hard-earned personal victories from my time abroad? Furthermore, to sum all of those experiences up into my current emotional state seemed an impossible task. I could have started by describing my classes or the incredible trips I took. Or perhaps I could have kicked off the conversation with a gallant tale of how I braved new foods with eyes and tentacles. Or even about my volunteer experiences with the homeless population of Sevilla. Yet I found myself unable to coalesce those experiences with my new reality: feeling strangely anxious when ordering in my favorite restaurants, unable to formulate cohesive and intelligent speech in my native tongue, and out of place among my friends and family. I felt like a foreigner in my own home.
That conversation took place many years ago, yet I remember the anxiety and inner conflict of those days vividly. I now work for the same program with which I studied in Spain, and I have the privilege of guiding students through the process of re-entry and reverse culture shock. One of the ways in which I help frame the re-entry process for my students each semester is through a quaint simile.
Picture yourself as a potted plant, nestled in a nice small round flowerpot. This little pot represents your culture, your comfort zone, your home. You have put down roots and settled in to fill the shape of the pot. When you study abroad, you are forcibly transplanted into a foreign pot. This new home is big and strangely shaped with new soil, and with your roots shaped as they have been, the transplant brings with it much instability. Eventually while abroad, you adjust to the new culture and your new surroundings, and your roots grow to fill the shape of this big, new pot. In real life, this not only looks like adjusting to the culture, but also growing as an individual, maturing and gaining wisdom. Then your time abroad ends, and you find yourself being transplanted back into your old “home” flowerpot. The problem, however, is the incongruence between the shape of the place you call home and the new larger and more complex root system you have developed during your time abroad. This dissonance often makes “home” feel a lot more foreign than students expect.
The issue, then, becomes finding a healthy balance between returning to the life you once had before study abroad and living that life as a different person, changed by your experiences overseas. While finding this equilibrium is no small task, and one that looksdifferent for every person, allow me to offer three strategies that have proved effective throughout my years of counsel.
Embrace the struggle.
The first step is admitting you have a problem. Trying to plaster on a smile and return to life as normal diminishes your ability to integrate your study abroad experiences into your new life. Acknowledging that you are wrestling through these changes is a big first step in working through them. If you are having a hard time adjusting, consider it a positive sign that you have indeed grown and changed while abroad. Rather than sweeping your difficulties under the rug, so to speak, facing the battle head-on and proactively seeking to work through the challenges will prove to be much more beneficial to your personal growth. Consider asking a trusted friend or counselor to be your sounding board or recording your experiences in writing, such as a journal or blog. One of my students even started a tumblr where she posted gif images and memes that comically and accurately portrayed her experiences through the culture shock process.
Bring your life abroad home with you.
While you can’t necessarily replicate every detail of your time abroad, there are feasible ways to integrate things you love about your host culture into your everyday life. Try out a recipe for that really awesome noodle dish your host mom made, experiment with fashion and add some European styles to your wardrobe, or change up your apartment or dorm décor to reflect your experiences abroad. There are also some less tangible ways to incorporate your life overseas, simply by reflecting cultural aspects you value. Be more assertive, make time to be more relationship-focused, or slow down your pace of life. These are all small ways to assimilate your experiences abroad into the next chapter of your life.
Use the changes you have undergone to better your surroundings.
If you became frustrated by poverty, materialism, ignorance, or social injustice while abroad, do what you can to fix it, starting with where you are now. It is so easy to let study abroad be a selfish experience: “I’M studying abroad. Where do I want to travel next weekend? What do I want to buy? I’M here to better MY language skills.” etc. However, you have the opportunity to put your incredible new experiences and skills to work, to make the world a better place.
In the end, I don’t remember precisely how I responded to the question my friend asked at the coffee shop. Knowing me, I probably strung together a somewhat believable answer with a smile because trying to unpack my thoughts and feelings in a public space didn’t sound ideal. I do remember that navigating my first months back in the United States were difficult, filled with times when I felt out of place and bored with “normal” life. After working through my re-entry process, I realized that I could successfully and joyfully apply to my daily grind the things I learned abroad about the world and myself. As you grow and adjust to life after study abroad, may you learn to thrive wherever you find yourself, and amidst squished roots and unfamiliar soil, may you choose to bloom wherever you are planted.
Katie graduated with a degree in Spanish from Cornerstone University and is currently the Student Ministries Coordinator for Semester In Spain, a program of Trinity Christian College. She is pursuing a Master’s in Counseling for Student Development Administration at Indiana Wesleyan University, focusing on reverse culture shock and re-entry counseling. One of her professional goals is to reform the way the American university system approaches study abroad to include more comprehensive support before, during, and after off-campus experiences.