By: Angela McNutt
When your student jetted off for their semester or year abroad, they left with a suitcase full of possessions to see them through their months away from home. Now your student is returning, and alongside their possessions is a suitcase brimming with experiences. As students reacquaint with the home environment, your encouragement and support can help them unpack their study abroad experience.
Similar to the emotions a student faces when arriving abroad, the feeling of culture shock, or rather, reverse culture shock, hits when returning home. It may be a euphoric feeling to be home, but home may start to feel a little off or different. Stemming from the intellectual and personal growth the student underwent while away, these feelings are normal and common. This resettlement period may be short-lived as home will never feel as foreign as the environment experienced overseas. To ease the feeling, it is important for the student to process the experience and emotions of the time spent abroad. Realizing that this adjustment period of reentry is an on-going part of the journey helps balance what was gained abroad with life at home.
In processing the time spent abroad, it can be challenging to put into words the experiences a student has encountered when facing the immediate curiosities of family and friends. Responses may range from summarizations as simple as “awesome” and “it was the time of my life,” to responses of stories that include every single detail. Sharing stories is a large part of unpacking the experience. While some listeners may not have patience for each detail, ask your student about moments that stood out, or those that made deep impressions. In this digital age, an online photo album can be a way to share stories. Supply an empty photo album for your student to print out some of their favorite photographic memories. Allowing the student to do some internal processing first can lead to meaningful explanations of their time abroad. Overtime, events and situations will trigger memories, and the elements of reflection will maximize the impact of the experience and how it fits into their life.
Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying, “A mind that has been stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Students face the challenge of integrating their new self with their old self. New perspectives have shaped your student. Leaving the host country does not mean the student has to tuck away newly learned habits and cultural norms since returning home. Invite your student to share aspects of daily life abroad. What are things they would like to incorporate in their life in the U.S. that they picked up abroad?
There are several outlets for students to pursue newfound interests from their time abroad on campus, and in the community. The GU Study Abroad office always welcomes student stories and input from their time abroad. There are opportunities for returned students to become an ambassador for study abroad and share experiences with other students. GU has several clubs with an international focus, and the International Student Programs office runs a conversation partner program. For the student, even exploring home with new eyes is a way to figure out where the new you fits with the old you.
Your student is home, but the experience isn’t over. Think of it as the beginning of many more. Our interconnected world provides us with opportunities to be closer to other people and cultures. Keep the curiosity alive. There is no weight limit to the amount of experiences a sojourners suitcase can hold.