If you’re reading this while you’re still abroad and haven’t quite finished packing to go home yet, you’re one step ahead of the game.
Expecting some sort of transitional period upon your return home is essential in making sense of your time abroad, whether it be a knock-your-socks-off debilitating, eye-opening life-changer of a time, or just a tick off the ol’ bucket list. Of course, everyone deals with re-entry differently, but defining it as a “thing” that’s meant to be tackled, acknowledged, appreciated, and respected is what I’m all about. I maaay or may not have cried upon learning that re-entry was indeed a “thing” and that I wasn’t crazy, or alone, in thinking the world had flipped upside down Fresh Prince style when I returned from my first trip abroad over 10 years ago (And I’m not that old, I swear!).
My former students, after being abroad with me for four months, have expressed a deeper level of understanding and commitment to ending their experience with me while still abroad. Wrap-up exercises, creating spaces to process and reflect, and providing “what next” workshops, (and linking everyone to this site), are all but some of the things a provider, or coordinator can do. But what can YOU do, oh-self-sufficient study abroad-er, since you’re still away and therefore anxiously wondering what life after study abroad will be like? Here’s the breakdown of how to keep yourself sane through the rough patches:
1. Write things down.
Journal; blog; saturate your friends home and Twitter feeds with a mass of updates—whatever works for you. This goes without saying, but write about your experience as they happen before those memories have even the slightest chance to blur. This is a cathartic first step in making sure you capture those memories abroad. Writing facts, and feelings, and the directives your coordinators have given you in your courses help “get it out” and make your experiences concrete. Not to mention, setting you up for an arsenal of material to refer back to on the days when you’re home and thinking, “Was that just a dream?” I still to this day cherish the journals I wrote on my second trip abroad to Fiji, as if they were my only prized possessions. Having the chance to go back and get into my head as it was in that exact moment of being there is a priceless opportunity I’m so thankful I was diligent enough to do. That was, of course, before the days of Facebook and iPhone notes and it was perhaps my only choice of expressing what I was going through, but I didn’t know it at the time how valuable and precious those words have become. Likewise, often times the best travel guide is the one the traveler writes him or herself. Should you return (which undoubtedly you someday will!), think about how thrilled you’ll be to have that albeit messy, but handy map depicting the secret location of your favorite noodle shop or absinthe bar.
2. Write a letter to yourself.
This is one of my favorite activities to give my students as a practitioner. It sounds so basic and elementary, but those powerful words of encouragement you write yourself in that moment will help ground you and keep you on track in the future. It doesn’t matter if you have NO clue what to do with your life, what career you want to pursue, what country you’ll end up living in, what major you may now want to switch into—write a letter to your future self telling you what kind of PERSON you want to become and what makes you happiest. Write about how you are at that moment (ahem: “Dear Amanda, YOU are having the time of your life.”). Give yourself advice on the path your life will go on (such as “Never lose your optimism and never apologize for your unwavering enthusiasm for life!”). Not so shockingly, I also still have the letter I wrote to myself on that same trip to Fiji that my group leader mailed back to me a few months after I got home. The letter is not just evidence of how much I had changed on that trip; it’s a welcome reminder of the confidence and inspiration my trip gave me, and that fact still motivates me 10 years later. If possible, have a friend or a staff member hold on to the letter and mail it to you after 6 months have passed, or cheat and do it online. Emails count, too.
3. Start packing wisely.
Stock up on hot sauces you ate abroad that you won’t be able to get back home. Leave your unused or bulky clothes in your host country and donate them to a charity shop, local organization, or a community-relevant cause. Your stuff has carried you through your time abroad and hopefully you’ve learned that you really don’t need that much stuff to get on just fine. If you’re like me and have a penchant for collecting scarves and bracelets from other countries, make sure you hold onto your sentimental goods, and rid yourself (physically and mentally) of any excess. Likewise, bring some of these things you love to the ones you love back at home—few things can help make an experience more real than sharing some of the deliciousness or beauty you fell in love with. Who knows, your family or friends may become hooked as well!
4. Create a city favorites Instagram countdown.
Now, the form of how you do this via whatever social media you choose doesn’t really matter, I am just an Instagram addict and therefore can’t get enough of it. The basic idea is this: in the days leading up to your departure (let’s say the last 15 days) you post each day as a hashtag like, #15daystogo. Each post is a part of life abroad, be it big or small, that you’ll miss about your new city/country. Each day can be a coffee shop, a skyline, a view, the people, whatever you will truly cherish about the place you’re still in. Bonus, you’re tasked to focus on those minute cultural details that you might’ve otherwise skipped over in the last few days of packing/goodbyes/finals/chaos that ensues. This can also be used as a pre-departure tool—I’m currently preparing for a life move to London, and my #15daystogo is helping me categorize and appreciate the things I’ll miss about where I’m at right now.
There’s a period of time right before re-entry physically happens, a transition to the transition, when classes wrap-up, and you’re faced with the inevitable fact that this experience has an end, and will end, and it’s approaching far too quickly. From my practitioner point of view, that is THE most important time (besides initial orientation) to make the most of your learning abroad, and really, truly reflect on that “What just happened?!?” thoughts that eventually catch up to you. As a study abroad traveler while you’re looking ahead to what’s next and looking back on your transformational few months, hopefully you’re also enjoying where you’re still at, soaking up the present, truly being in your last few seconds of this (amazing) experience abroad. Got any other tips for that transition to the transition period? I’d love to hear them! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @amandachriss.
A graduate of SIT Graduate Institute with a M.A. in Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management with a focus in International Education, Amanda Batista is an enthusiastic world traveler. Dedicated to facilitating life-changing international experiences for the next generation of travelers and students, Amanda is a food and culture lover who still gets overly excited people-watching at the arrivals halls at JFK. Now pursuing a career in international education, Amanda is happy to answer your questions and comments by email at email@example.com.