“I have been packing and unpacking for nearly 9 years now….the transitions are never easy. Just recently, I moved my belongings from cardboard boxes in the trunk of my car to a dresser in my very own room. This was both thrilling and terrifying.”
I was bit with the travel bug after visiting my older sister during her college Study Abroad Program in London, England. Based on that visit, I signed myself up for a similar experience and soon found myself wondering the streets of London, collecting adventures and stories of my own. This was in the fall of 2002. I graduated from college in 2004 and knew I wanted to see more of the world. The time period of 2004 until now has been an incredible journey in my life- I became certified to Teach English as a Foreign Language in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and stayed there for 5 months, I volunteered on a farm in Costa Rica and backpacked through much of Central America, I met and married my husband, we worked in Denali National Park in Alaska for 2 summers, we taught English in Thailand, and finally we served as United States Peace Corps Volunteers in the mountains of Nicaragua.
While it has been an amazing ride, and I wouldn’t change any of it – there were many gaps of time when I struggled and questioned many of my own decisions. With such a transient life style come many unique challenges. I like to break these challenges down into two main categories- short term homecomings and long term homecomings. Short term homecomings are the small periods of time I found myself on US (or at least the lower 48 states’) soil but already knew I would be leaving again shortly. Long term homecomings are either time periods of greater lengths such as a year or more, or a permanent stay.
Short Term and Long Term Homecoming Challenges:
Emotional/Social: My emotions were all over the place during short term visits home- intense joy each time you saw an old friend or any family- followed by an intense sadness at the realization that this was just a quick visit and you will be saying bye again shortly…It was not uncommon to feel some guilt at the notion of leaving these people behind once again. Socially, you may make a mad dash to see as many friends and family as you can- which can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. Then comes the disconnect you may start to feel- your life being so much different from many of the people you love, it makes it tough to communicate sometimes. It varies greatly from person to person- some may want to hear all about your life- where you’ve been, what you’ve done and seen, while others may shoot you a quick “How was it?” and that’s it. Sometimes, not everyone in your life is supportive of your decisions- but that is okay as it makes you question your own motives and, in the end, may strengthen instead of weaken your resolve to follow your own path.
Technology and social media have made maintaining important relationships no matter where you are in the world so much easier. This helps a great deal with all of these short term homecomings because you can stay in touch and have an idea of what has been going on in people’s lives before your plane even touches the ground. Of course, there is a flip side to that-knowing about and seeing all of the events at home you are missing out on while you are abroad. Sometimes, technology can also hinder you from immersing yourself and being present in the moment- something to be very cautious of while living abroad. Be sure to limit the amount of time you spend online!
Your Work and Professional Life:
There were many short gaps in between many of my stints abroad- making it tough to find work and earn money, as well as experience that aligned with my career goals. Admittedly, in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what my long term career goals were- but had to pay bills. During these times, I would take on whatever jobs I could- from call centers to coffee shops to organic farms, I did a little bit of it all. I was always living as cheaply as possible, saving for the next plane ticket. Eventually, I did develop a path and started to seek out jobs that made sense- I knew that I wanted to be involved in International Education and Cross Cultural Exchange. During my short term stays at home, I sought out advice from professionals in these fields- which led to excellent hands on experience. The best part of these jobs was that the experience, while temporary, started to make sense on a seemingly “all over the place” resume. Also, I was able to be completely honest with all of my employers about my interests, goals, and length of time I could commit to the position. If you have a hard time finding short term work that matches up with your professional goals, you can always work to save some funds, but volunteer on the side in your area of interest.
While there are many similarities to the emotional and social challenges of returning home from abroad for the short term or long term, it is different in many ways. You may jump into mad dash mode- rushing about to see everyone, before realizing that you don’t need to put so much pressure on yourself to do so anymore. After returning from two years plus in Nicaragua, I would find myself hugging everyone good-bye so tightly still- not used to being able to say “see you soon” instead of “see you in two years”. I find that some people question your resolve to stay- and may even insinuate that you have “fallen behind” in life due to the non-traditional path you have chosen. In these situations, it is difficult to express how much you have gained in terms of maturity, independence, relationships, and perspective. Fortunately, I have also gained a wealth of applicable professional experience.
It can be tough to find your place during a permanent homecoming—but it is nice to feel a sense of community and build long-term relationships. It helps to find avenues to talk about your experiences, such as contributing articles like this one, speaking at informational events, writing a blog, or connecting with groups that share your interest whether it is via social media or in person.
Your Work and Professional Life:
There are a myriad of sites and articles about how to translate your Study Abroad experience into transferable skills aimed at long-term careers. The key is to know what your goals are and to mold your experience accordingly. It is frustrating to return from abroad and be unemployed. I have been there so many times, and each time is just as difficult. You question your decisions, your worth, yourself. Everyone around you has their routine in place. Stay strong, give yourself a break from the job search every now and then, and seek out volunteer opportunities that align with your professional interests. If you are lucky, you may have obtained work even before you return- or at least planned your next step. In my case, I had applied for Graduate School before returning to the US- but had yet another awkward gap of time to fill before school began. Fortunately, I had received good advice during one of my short term homecomings, which was to check out temporary work pools on university campuses. This is a great option for anyone with an atypical amount of time available to work-especially anyone with an interest in working in a university setting. Now I am settling in- preparing to learn and gain momentum towards continuing to build a solid career path.
Challenges to Returning Home from a Developing Country:
While returning from any trip or significant amount of time spent abroad is difficult and filled with typical reverse- culture shock, coming back from places where everyone has far less than most people you know presents its own unique set of challenges.
I am so grateful. That is the best way to describe how I feel about life now. But I also feel moments of guilt and even a little embarrassed sometimes by how much I know I have. As a citizen of the United States, I have the freedom to go just about anywhere, I have access to good transportation, medication, hot water, running water, potable water etc. I have constant electricity. I walk into a grocery store and am guaranteed to find just about anything I need. I have moments when I am brushing my teeth or taking a shower, when I flash back to my life just a few months ago- brushing my teeth outside and grabbing a bucket to bathe. I recall visiting my host sister in the local hospital’s maternity ward- one room with six cots and a couple fans that did nothing to alleviate the heat if there was no power that day….I think about my Nicaraguan family and friends all the time- most of them have never seen a dish washer, washing machine, or dryer.
This has perhaps been the toughest part of this particular return home. I easily admit that I love all the luxuries that come along with living in this country. I don’t pretend not to enjoy my hot shower or my air conditioning. But I appreciate it on a whole other level now. I believe it is important to share with others how lucky we are—without being condescending or judgmental. It’s also important to note that I saw genuinely happy people- people that value and understand the importance of relationships more than stuff-people that enjoyed life with a zeal and vitality I sometimes feel can be lacking in this modern world of technology and gadgets. I will never forget my experience, and I am still very much connected to my Nicaraguan family and friends. I will support and promote projects that enhance the quality of life for the people from my most recent home as long as I breathe.
- Be prepared to deal with reverse culture shock when you return home. You can find several great articles about this online such as here
- Try to choose your international experiences based on your future career goals.
- Even when accepting a paid position abroad, save some initial funds before you go.
- If you are going to be stringing together several adventures abroad, consider making some financial investments, such as contributing to a Roth Ira, a great option for someone without a traditional career path (follow your heart but use your head!).
- Stay connected to your experience in ways that work for you- incorporate all your experiences into who you are and what you do.
As a result of all of my personal experiences, I am now pursuing a career in International Education and graduate studies in Higher Education Administration. I am ready for this next chapter, and though I will always love to travel, I am ready to unpack my bags and help others pursue their dreams.
*The views and opinions in this article are the author’s own and in no way reflect the views of the US Government or the Peace Corps.
Julie Westerman graduated from Texas Christian University in May 2004 with a BA in Sociology. During college, she studied abroad and interned in London, England. After graduation, she became certified to Teach English as Foreign Language in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Since then, she has taught English in Thailand, volunteered on a farm in Costa Rica, backpacked through much of Central America, worked in Denali National Park in Alaska, and most recently served as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin in the hopes of helping others fulfill their dreams.