“Life is lived forward, but understood backwards.”
~ Søren Kierkergaard
Study abroad is an educational experience can profoundly impact your life, now and in the future. Maybe you’ll be asked to elaborate on your experience in a job interview that will kick off your professional career and impress your potential employer. Maybe something you experienced abroad will form the core of your graduate school application essay and that program will determine where you live and what you study. Maybe you found or renewed motivation to volunteer your time to a cause that will provide meaning to your life. Maybe you’ll make different purchasing decisions which will influence your lifestyle. Maybe you caught the travel bug which will affect how you spend your vacation time. The possibilities are endless.
For now, though, returning home after a study abroad program can be challenging. You are coming off of an intense, possibly life-changing experience. You’ve encountered another reality. You’ve been invited to re-examine your previous life experience with a new lens. You’ve deepened your knowledge, you’ve honed your skills, you’ve been emotionally touched. At least we hope so.
You put a lot of energy and effort into making your experience the best it could possibly be. Now, allow yourself some time to de-compress, relax, and REFLECT on all that has happened. Reflection is the process of forming thoughts, ideas or opinions based on a careful consideration of life experiences and new knowledge. You do something, review it, and then consider how you will apply your new knowledge, how will you change as a result of your experience.
Consider structuring your reflection around some questions. What did I learn academically? Was I exposed to material that I wouldn’t have learned at home…or that was presented in a different way? How did my learning this past term contribute to my overall education or the classes I will choose going forward? Was I personally impacted by the experience? What was most precious to me about my time abroad? Most difficult? Easiest to share with others? Hardest to understand? Who do I want to stay in touch with? How will I make this a priority in my busy life back home? How about my daily routine? Will I allot more time to reading the news from my host country or international news more generally? Will I pay more attention to how much waste I generate in a day? How did this experience influence my future plans? Will I immediately try to find a way to go back? Will I seek out jobs that are international in nature or that require the language skills I’ve developed? How about my social relations? Can I relate better to some people in my life, or has the gulf between us widened? How can I communicate the essence and importance of my experience to people in the short time I’ll have before the conversation moves the next topic?
In addition to the materials provided by your program, there are many resources designed to help you unpack your experience. Some professors and counselors at your school are trained in helping students navigate cross-cultural reentry. Seek them out. A number of books and websites have been published on cross-cultural transitions. Read them. Study abroad professionals have teamed up to organize day-long returnee conferences around the country. These events help you to process your experience and give you valuable tools, leads, and resources for carrying your experience forward. Attend one. You’ve invested in yourself by studying abroad. Now make sure you get the maximum return by doing the reflective work necessary to achieve your learning goals.
Transitions Abroad http://www.transitionsabroad.com/
This publication contains numerous resources on finding international employment, volunteering overseas, and travel.
The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti (book)
This book offers the solid advice you need to reduce the stress of the transition experience.
What’s Up with Culture http://www2.pacific.edu/sis/culture/index.htm
This interactive module helps students process their intercultural experience.
Regional Study Abroad Returnee Conferences: Designed specifically for returned study abroad students, these regional events (about a dozen of them in the US), feature speakers, sessions, discussion groups, and contests to help you REFLECT on your study abroad experience and maximize its impact on your life. Search for study abroad returnee conference in your area and you’ll find websites with details.
Naomi Ziegler holds an MS in Counseling and a PhD in Comparative and International Development Education. She currently advises students on study abroad programs at Carleton College in Minnesota and helps to organize the Minnesota Study Abroad Returnee Conference.