By Jill Yashinsky-Wortman and Bobby Van Cleve, Student Life
Many students will have the opportunity to study abroad while at Gonzaga, an experience that is truly life changing. Having the chance to study abroad will allow your student to experience another culture, discover more about themselves, and form relationships with people from around the world. This experience is extraordinary but can also be challenging and will test your student’s abilities to adapt and deal with change. For many students, the difficult part of their experience does not come until they return home.
While preparing to go abroad, students often hear about culture shock. Less frequently talked about is the idea of reverse culture shock, or the mix of emotions often felt by students returning to their home country after a long period of time away. While people are excited to hear all of the stories and may smile and listen enthusiastically, students are excited to share, but are often mildly frustrated that no one at home can fully understand their experiences abroad.
Reverse culture shock typically has four stages that students will go through:
1. Disengagement- this often starts prior to students leaving for home. They may start to feel sad about leaving their host country, the friends they have made there, and the experiences they have had there. Other emotions may include frustration about returning home or not having fit in everything they wanted to, reluctance to leave, or having been so busy prior to leaving that they haven’t had time to think about anything else.
2. Excitement- students are often very excited to return home to familiar surroundings, people, and food. Just as students are excited to see their family and friends, so too are the friends and family excited to see them. This stage can be short lived or last a long time, but typically comes to an end when students realize that others aren’t as excited about their experience abroad as they are about sharing it. This tends to be those first moments when students become frustrated that others can’t fully understand their experiences.
3. Irritability- once students begin to feel that others don’t understand their experience, they often can become irritable, sad, lonely, angry, disoriented, or lacking independence. These emotions are compounded by students not understanding why they feel this way. This is often when students want to go back to where they were studying abroad. Though students have a significant amount of independence at college, they often feel even more when they are abroad. Returning home may lead to their feeling like they have somehow lost their independence again. When students go abroad, their friendship groups may also change. They may feel closer to those students who have had a similar experience to them. Those friends who stayed at Gonzaga while they were gone have also had to readjust their social groups and may have made new friends who were previously part of their social circle. This can also cause some temporary frustration.
4. Readjustment/adaptation- students will gradually readjust to life back at home. Though things may appear to return to normal, students often feel like there is still something different. What it may take them longer to realize is that the thing that has changed the most is often them—their attitude, beliefs, values, and life perspective have been significantly altered by being abroad. Nelson Mandela said it best: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
We asked some of our students to share their stories of experience culture shock upon their return from studying abroad.
Bobby Van Cleve, Zambia, Summer 2008
For me, coming home from being abroad was a welcome experience. I had spent a good portion of my summer with the Comprehensive Leadership Program in Zambia and I had missed a lot of things. I missed being able to talk to my parents whenever I wanted, I dreamed about warm showers, and I was desperate to have ice and other luxuries of home. When I returned home it was a great feeling, but after a few days I longed to be back in Zambia. At first I thought home changed, which it had, but what really happened was I had changed. Before I left I could have eaten three helpings at dinner, now I was struggling to eat one. I began questioning my career path and what I wanted to do with my life. I loved sharing my experience with others but I knew that they would never understand what it meant to me. Spending the summer in Africa with fifteen of my classmates, people who became my friends and family while gone, was an adventure. Home did not seem to have that same excitement and it was tough to re-acclimate. After a period of time I got used to being home and developed a new routine. I continue to think of my time abroad, but now it serves mainly as a reminder of how fortunate I am for the opportunities I have been given.
Dominic Balestrieri Gonzaga in Florence, Fall 2010
The thing that I found most interesting about reverse culture shock wasn’t the return back to the United States that affected me the most, it was my return back to Gonzaga that really hit the hardest. When I first flew in to Boston in December I was extremely excited to be back, especially due to the fact there was a live NFL football game on television that I was actually able to watch! (Something I hadn’t been able to do since I left for Florence) All of the little things that I had taken for granted, such as ethnic foods, access to the internet via my phone, and something as simply as being able to speak English to every person I interacted with made the initial return easy. Coming back to Gonzaga, on the other hand, was a completely different experience. I had flown back to school with an unrealistic expectation of life here being similar to that abroad; always being able to see my close knit group of Florence friends, never having any down time, and spending every weekend in an exciting and new environment. Instead, I was faced with the realization that life back home moves at a slower pace, one that isn’t filled with new and exciting experiences every day and every weekend. But since those first few weeks have passed, I’ve started to adjust and get into a routine, finally able to settle back into my Gonzaga community and lifestyle.
Danielle Demarais Gonzaga in Florence, Fall 2010
“You’re life will be changed forever,” this phrase was a common sentiment I heard before leaving for four months abroad in Florence, Italy, naïveté getting the best of me, I shook it off thinking how could I possibly experience enough extreme change to be a different person. Upon returning to normal life in the States, it couldn’t be more evident how abnormal I am compared to the person I was when I boarded my plane. The level of maturity, perspective on people domestically and internationally and sense of complete independence can almost be overwhelming at times. The rush of seeing improvement and growth in myself, while can provide stress, also supplies a sense of achievement. Not only did I survive living in a foreign country, but I came back a more complete person then I ever imagined possible. Adjusting to fitting the new personality acquired abroad back into life I departed from is still a daily struggle, but I find satisfaction in knowing that the end product of development in myself is something I wouldn’t change for the world, literally.
Robby Bernicchi Gonzaga in Florence, Fall 2010
After 24 hours of travel from Europe to Seattle, I don’t think I have ever felt any happier to get off an airplane. Once I got off that plane though, I knew I was definitely back in the old US of A. People around me were walking around with gigantic coffee drinks covered in whip cream. Walking past the sandwich shop, I saw a foot long sandwich piled with meat and cheese as it was thrown into the toaster oven. This is what made America first stand out to me. How did I get by without that “coffee” and big sandwich for four months though? The answer is simple, they aren’t necessities of daily life. Once I was thrown into Europe, I was literally forced to take a step back and live a much simpler life. The clash of my American habits and the European lifestyle were not easy at first. Now that I am back in the States though, I realize how much access I have to things now. While it may be a good thing, I try to keep the simpler ways I learned, and apply them to my lifestyle here. For me, there isn’t much of a reverse culture shock. Rather, there is a greater appreciation for the things I used to take for granted. I loved Europe, but now I realize how lucky I am to live in America.
Nicole Bene Zambia, Summer 2010
There was a level of frustration when I returned home to the United States and was presented with the question “How was Zambia?” Every adjective in the book couldn’t begin to describe the whirl wind of an adventure I had just been on so I would typically settle for response, “Indescribable.” With so many wonderful memories jammed packed into my brain, it became difficult to pin point one word or phrase that could encompass the humanity I encountered, the heartbreak I witnessed, the beauty that nature presented, and the comfort I felt while living there. Because of this, my favorite moments became when my friends and family members would simply say, “Tell me a story.” That I could do. I would tell them about the hundreds of little hands I held within seconds of arriving on the little charter plane, the birth that I witnessed in a remote mission hospital by a 15 year old mother who didn’t make a sound, or the majestic way the Zambian people moved their hips to the sound of drums. I would find comfort in sharing these stories for it was the best way I could connect my loved ones from home with my loved ones in Zambia.
Parents, ask questions. Lots of questions. You have the right to live vicariously through your students so don’t hesitate to be persistent. Sure they may be frustrated when trying to convey the exact taste of the caterpillar they ate, the deepness of the red they saw every night at sunset, or the heavenly scent of the Zambezi breeze, but don’t let that dissuade you. A time will come when we will be ready to share and it is such a relief to know someone is ready to listen. Sharing our memories with you becomes the next best thing to teleporting back to where we just were.
Tips for Parents
To help your student readjust, be prepared for them to show reverse culture shock. The confusion they often feel upon their returning is normal. Welcome them home and ask questions. Be supportive but don’t overwhelm; let them share the experience when they are ready. Encourage them to stay connected with their fellow travelers or seek out communities online that align with their recent trip. Incorporate some of your student’s new culture in your family. Encourage your student to stay involved by volunteering with local groups or sharing their experience with their home community. Becoming a conversation partner with someone from the country your student visited is often a rewarding way to maintain language skills while also teaching another person English. The most important thing is to be encouraging while your student readjusts. Know that any reverse culture shock they may have will pass, and your support will help it pass smoothly.