We at the Office of
International Studies would like to welcome you back to campus
and let you know that we understand how you must be feeling.
Most of you probably enjoyed the best semester/year of your
lives at your off-campus study sites, and now may be finding it
tough to re-enter the Wesleyan community and educational system.
Some of you have apprehensions about course work, or feel that
you are being expected to revert to a system that you have
outgrown, or feel restricted by the rules and limitations of
campus living, or are tremendously excited to be back here Ė or
some combination of all of these. However youíre feeling, these
pages provide a guide for what to expect as you settle in and
readjust to life at Wes. Youíll be able to relate to much of
what is written, and even if you arenít feeling these symptoms
now, you may want to refer to these pages later in the semester
when youíll probably hit another phase... usually the
I-want-to-go-back phase. Here are resources to help you begin to
cope with, well, everything.
Many students find
that returning home is just as difficult as, if not more
difficult than, studying off campus. Just as there is culture
shock when you go to a place that is unfamiliar, there is
reverse culture shock when you return to a place thatís familiar
if you have changed. While there is always an element of
excitement at getting back into things and seeing old friends,
returning students are also keenly aware that they have missed
out on what has been going on at home, at school, and with their
friends for the past semester or year. This can all prove very
disconcerting and sometimes downright depressing. If you couple
anxiety about coming home with missing the new friends and the
new way of life you found off campus, coming home can be
emotionally quite difficult. The more you invested personally in
your off-campus culture, the harder you may find it to return.
Below you will
find explanations, definitions, tips and resources to help you
deal with what we call Re-Entry Shock or Reverse Culture Shock.
Even if you feel that you are not experiencing any unusual
symptoms, take a peek at the resources and tips for how to bring
your worldly experience back to Middletown. And feel free to
stop by the Office of International Studies if you have any
questions or concerns.
Now that youíre back
home, you are probably observing the minute details of your
previous lifestyle and making cultural comparisons in much the
same fashion that you did when you arrived at your off-campus
study site. The contrast of old and new may come as a shock. You
probably changed a great deal while away, and it might be hard
for family and friends to accept and understand some of these
changes. In addition, you may not have anticipated changes that
have taken place at home, and might feel that you need to become
ďreacquaintedĒ with your own surroundings. As a returnee, you
face the difficulty of adjusting to the crowd again while
longing for the friends you left behind. Friends and family may
not seem as interested in the details of your off-campus
experience as you feel they should be. This may cause you to
experience conflicts in readjusting to family members and old
friends, and you might find yourself frustrated by the inability
to describe adequately the depth and nature of your experience
abroad. Complications of this sort contribute to the perplexity
of the initial re-adaptation process.
As a returnee, you
must begin to involve yourself in new activities at home and to
plan a life built upon the future rather than the past. This
doesnít mean you should forget your recent off-campus study
experience; on the contrary, you should use it as a reminder of
how much you are capable of achieving. You coped miraculously
with a variety of complex challenges and struggles as you made a
niche for yourself abroad. Keep those challenges in mind:
independent living, cooking for yourself, using public
transportation, adjusting to a foreign culture, learning a new
language, meeting new people, experiencing a place built on
unfamiliar customs, money management, etc. Once you assess how
much youíve accomplished and decide what parts of your
experience abroad you can use to your advantage in the future,
youíll be able to integrate the leassons of the recent past and
be productive in the present.
Do you remember the
onset of culture shock? Since humans are creatures of habit much
more than we realize, transplanting ourselves into another
culture results in a loss of those cues that guide our daily
actions and decisions. Regardless of your tolerance,
broad-mindedness, and empathy for the new culture, the loss of
familiar props will result in some degree of frustration. Maybe
your return feels similar to the culture shock you experienced
when you first went off campus because your expectations for
life at home did not account for all of the cultural comparisons
you made and all of the personal growth you did while adapting
and coping with a new environment.
Exposure to a
different culture, different environment, new ideas and
unfamiliar behaviors leads you to re-examine your own culture.
For most people, study abroad is a unique opportunity to compare
various forms of government, systems of education, values and
lifestyles. This may result in a changed perception of your home
country or city, leading to more critical attitudes, more
positive attitudes, or both, and to an altered perception of
your own country, hometown and even Wesleyan. (Not only is this
natural, but it is an integral part to developing as a human
One student who went
to Germany noted: I now understand the word ďculture.Ē Common
knowledge isnít ďcommonĒ everywhere... No book could adequately
describe what it means to have your own cultural identity the
way my experience abroad defined it. And I am not talking about
the hamburger and cola stereotypes but rather the way I could
connect with other Americans without explaining something that I
thought was common knowledge and practice. For instance,
American humor seems so obvious to me, but to my German friends,
well, letís just say it took a lot to get them to laugh.
What happens with
reverse culture shock?
You may resist
adjusting to your home country because you feel that if you
adjust to this place, then you will have to stay here. Not
true! Traveling is becoming more and more accessible and
affordable. Even working abroad is an option. Both the OIS and
the CRC can help with this.
equate readjusting with a rejection or at least an undermining
of the personal and professional growth they experienced while
they were away. Instead, remember that your growth can be used
to your advantage because it is proof of your courage and
believe that readjusting would mean that your experience
off-campus never happened: that you would revert to the person
you were before you went abroad. Youíll eventually find a
healthy mix of old and new.
Then... you start
to admit that certain things about home are rather nice, and
if the truth be told, certain things about living abroad
werenít really all that pleasant. (Comparisons are natural.)
You begin observing
through foreign eyes.
You are critical
until you get enough hindsight to see everything from a
or frustrations you might expect to feel include:
The lifestyle off
campus was so different from that at Wesleyan.
I got used to a
laid-back atmosphere and now must adjust to the fast pace of
had so much time while I was off campus and now I have so much
I canít travel
conveniently and frequently anymore
I canít go anywhere
special or exotic or experience anything completely new in
Americans have so
many material possessions
energy and donít care about conserving valuable resources
I miss my friends
I miss the quality
and freshness of fruit and vegetables
I miss good-quality
products for low or reasonable prices
No one from home
seems to care; they donít comprehend my experience
My stories from
abroad seem to bore people here
Iíve changed and
grown a lot
My experience now
seems surreal or as if it never happened
Iím not sure if I
can cope with the hard-core work load and the heavy duty
papers back here
Any one of these
reactions is normal and expected. It is important to realize
you are not alone and there are some healthy steps you can take
to relieve some of this anxiety and malcontent.
The word HOME has
lots of definitions. Most likely, home has a more profound
meaning to you than just a simple referral to a place of birth
or your address. For most individuals, home refers to an
atmosphere, a set of routines, familiar faces and expectations.
Itís a place where you are known and trusted and, conversely,
where you know and trust others. And itís a place where most
people and events are predictable without many unexpected
surprises, so that you are able to feel safe and secure. At
ďHomeĒ you are comfortable enough to trust your instincts, relax
and be yourself. Maybe your study-abroad site began to feel like
ďhomeĒ after you began to establish routines, developed reliable
friendships, and became familiar with your surroundings. But
now, even though your home in the States or in Middletown is
familiar and you recognize many features that have not changed,
you still find yourself surprised, offended or even shocked by
other features. You may begin to respond to your home much the
way a stranger would.
is in facing what you expect home to be like
that you experience
difficulties in readjustment.
So how does it happen
that you can become a stranger in your own land? The answer is
quite simple: it involves the same adjustments that occur when a
person moves overseas and adapts to a foreign country or even a
new city in America. Adjusting to another culture is a process
that begins with the encountering of all manners of behavior and
living conditions that are different from what one is used to
back home. Do you remember some of those emotions that may have
floated through your head upon arrival in your off-campus
location? They might have included confusion, frustration,
disgust, disapproval, etc. Those sorts of feelings can accompany
you back home. While abroad, you had to simply concentrate on
surviving. Over time, after you established a few routines and
thereby rendered certain aspects of your life predictable and
controllable, and began to get used to more and more (but not
all) of the unusual behaviors and living conditions you found
around you. As for the new behaviors and mannerisms that you
encountered, you even started to adopt a few. These phenomena,
the way people act and the circumstances of daily life,
gradually become norms, and you begin to expect-- and therefore,
to depend on-- them. In due course, you find yourself judging
new behaviors and circumstances using these norms as the
Dorothy was wrong! It is hard to come home!
If you were
off-campus in a place that doesnít experience extreme weather
such as tornadoes, maybe you were able to relax more during
heavy storms. Or maybe you expected a dog to obey your English
commands even though the dog was used to responding to commands
in another language. These situations and numerous other
scenarios of your own should prove to you that we all have
become accustomed to certain habitual reactions when dealing
with our familiar environment. So what happens when you come
back home? Wherever you turn, you are confronted by behaviors
and circumstances that now seem as different to you as many of
those you encountered when you first went abroad. You may find
much of your environment confusing, frustrating, disgusting and
just plain wrong. Returnees miss the cues and reinforcers they
got used to abroad. While there may be a voice in the back of
your mind telling you that this doesnít make sense, that these
are the same behaviors and circumstances you once found normal,
you still canít help reacting the way you do even now that
You want to tell
your stories and show your pictures because you realize that you
are now something of a stranger to friends and loved ones. You
have been changed rather significantly by your experiences and
unless you can tell people about them, how can they know and
understand this new person who has come back to them? And if
they canít know you, then what kind of relationship can you have
When you canít
tell your stories, you are in effect forced to remain a stranger
to the people you love...The intense feeling of loneliness many
returnees experience upon reentry comes from the perception that
close friends and relations no longer know who they are.
Why arenít people more interested?
Part of the problem
is the sheer amount of catching up thatís needed. Most people
can sit still for half an hour or so of listening to your
stories, but then they get antsy. This doesnít mean they donít
care about you anymore, only that their attention span, even for
listening to you, is limited. Do not take this personally. Take
a moment to think of how friends and family may perceive you now
that youíve returned:
- You may have
left the impression that you were the only one leading an
- Those who
stayed behind might feel threatened by you or jealous of your
- They may
resent that you had an opportunity that they didnít have.
- They may
regret passing up a similar opportunity.
- They may feel
inadequate or inferior in comparison to you, given all you have
seen and done.
- Friends and
family may feel rejected and unappreciated if you carry on about
how wonderful everything was abroad.
- They may not
respond the way you would like: if they have not had a
particular experience, especially one that is out of the
ordinary, they canít always understand what you mean, or
appreciate what the experience meant to you and feel what you
must have felt.
- They question
you, but when you reply, they see it from such a different point
of view that the event as you viewed it is incomprehensible to
Being back home means trying to get used to not being
You miss the
friends you made off campus, some of whom you may feel closer to
than any of your friends back home right now. You may also miss
the climate, the food, favorite amusements, and favorite cafes.
Maybe you went to Venice or the ocean or to a forest or a
bustling city for the weekend, whereas now your choices are
somewhat limited to the movies, movies and the Americanized
international cuisine of Tuscany Grill and Thai Gardens. Life
isnít as exciting as it used to be.
what returnees miss most about being off-campus is the sense of
adventure and excitement, the stimulation of being surrounded by
everything that is new and different.
sparkled with exotic sights, out-of-the-ordinary experiences,
new and sometimes profound insights into yourself and your own
and host culture, and the countless small triumphs that are part
of learning how to function in a new country and city, a new
culture, and perhaps even a new language. There was always
something striking or unusual happening, and you felt everything
with an intensity absent in normal life. Experiences sometimes
demanded of you strengths or qualities that you didnít know you
had, or had to that degree, or were obliged to develop on the
spot. You could feel yourself growing. Life back home canít
match the intensity of life off campus and you will miss that
intensity, satisfaction and those mind-blowing experiences that
you had while away.
Back home you melt
into the crowd; you are anonymous again. No one turns to look at
you, thinks your accent is remarkable, or marvels that you have
traveled a great distance to be here. People donít find you
interesting merely because you are from America. And you donít
dazzle people with your command of French, Swahili, or Chinese.
yourself time to adjust. This is a transition. Remember
how long it took you to adjust when you first arrived at your
off-campus location? Expect the same readjustment period now.
have to reenter if you hadnít gone off campus... but if you
hadnít gone abroad, you would never have had the wonderful
adventures and experiences that you now sometimes long for,
never have met the people you now miss, and never have learned
those invaluable lessons about yourself and the world that have
changed both you and home forever.
Readjusting is a
process that takes time, patience and some active
participation. With enough hindsight and perspective, you will
see, to your great relief,that you can readjust and still hold
on to many of the new values and attitudes you acquired off
Humble Further Suggestions
Have you noticed that your friends and family donít seem to
appreciate photos of people they have never met as much as you
I separated photos of
my friends from other pictures after I realized that people at
home flipped carelessly over my off-campus friends without ever
realizing how significant my friendships with these people had
been. People looking through my pictures seemed only interested
in the breathtaking scenic views, the uncommon architecture and
the monuments. Everything else that was significant to me, like
a photo of the disgusting bathroom or my kitchen facilities or
the bus station that I frequented or the not-attractive
university buildings/dormitory/job site. Well, I made a collage
of those significant things plus all the pictures of my friends.
That way, I can look at these places and people daily, and my
guests can ask about the one or two pictures that catch their
eye from the collage hanging on the wall. And then I can give a
lengthy explanation about why these certain pictures were so
significant to me. As for the rest of the pictures, they have a
place in a scrap book full of written descriptions, tickets
stubs, and information, all of which is no less significant to
me, but is definitely more geared towards the person who wants a
quick overview of what I did and saw while abroad.
you feel out of touch with people that you left behind?
Donít wait for them
to contact you. Theyíre probably waiting for you to send word of
your safe arrival. So go ahead and take the initiative. Let them
know you miss them. Tell them about all of the unexpected
differences you are encountering. Buy a telephone card. You can
also find competitive international rates online. Check out
online newspapers from the place you left. Sometimes even the
campus newspaper has a web address so you can even find out
whatís being served for lunch in Japan from your computer at
Wes. I had a favorite TV series that I followed obsessively.
Even from home, I can access a summary about the show each day
so I can keep up with it. If you had an employer who you were
fond of, let them know how you are doing and your plans for the
future. If youíre hoping to return to your off campus location
someday, go to the Career Resource Center for advice or look
into job offerings on the web. Donít wait!!
you missing certain activities or places or a particular
Maybe you can find a
place in Connecticut that seems somewhat similar. Itís not that
youíll find something to replace your unique findings abroad,
but if youíre looking for a cafe, a club, a disco, an ice cream
flavor, a park, a forest, a mountain-- look around. Create your
own lively dancing atmosphere with music that you brought home
from abroad. Walk more and bring your friends along. Use the
university lawns to sit under a tree and relax. Plan to take
some friends on a weekend to experience the outdoors. Go
canoeing or horseback riding. Hunt for Connecticutís scenic and
historic places. Pretend that you are a foreigner in America...
you practically are. Keep observing with the same
open-mindedness that got you adjusted to your off-campus site.
Try new things just like you did abroad. And remember that
foreign films are available at both the Sciences Library and
Looking for people who you can talk to about the way you are
Try telling your
tales to a professor interested in your host country or a
subject you studied there. Establish a weekly lunch in the
language you learned. Choose courses that will allow you to
expand on research you did abroad. Spend time with the
international students at Wesleyan this year and try to see
Connecticut and Wes through their eyes. Help the Office of
International Studies by talking to students interested in
studying abroad. Find kitchens in which to cook the food you
miss. Invite your friends so they can share in the tasty
experience. Check out books from the library or through
interlibrary loan about your country or in a foreign language.
your friends and family are not showing you their attention the
way you would like, maybe you need to focus on how you are
presenting your stories.
not be able to comprehend what you went through or how it felt.
Explain the transitions you went through in terms that they can
understand or make comparisons to how it felt to leave everyone
behind after high school and come to college. The more
comparisons to your friends and familiesí lives that you can
make, the easier it will be for them to understand. I used to
assign nicknames to the friends I met abroad-- descriptive
nick-names like Captain Future (to describe my bizarre, sci-fi
friend) or simply "Iceland" to refer to my friend from Iceland
whose name was too hard to spell. When you are describing events
or people, try to relate them to events or people that your
friends from home can understand. Again, compare and contrast to
give your home friends a way to understand what you went
through. It doesnít help them to say, "I had a really good time
abroad, everything was really different, you had to be there to
understand." Explain Explain Explain! The more details you can
provide, the clearer the perception of your story will be.
Describe a food or flavor or atmosphere saying: it was a cross
between this (familiar thing) and that (familiar thing) or it
reminded me a little of that one time when we.... or every time
I did this, I thought of you because.... Pull your listeners in
by involving them and making them ask you more questions. And
remember that your friends have grown a lot too during the last
year. Make sure you are interested in hearing their tales too.
Sources and Other Useful References
Austin, Clyde, ed.
Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Abilene, TX:
Abilene Christian University, 1986.
"Transition Shock: Putting Culture Shock in Perspective."
International and Intercultural Communication Abroad IV.
(December 1977): 92-93.
Greencastle, IN: DePauw University Press, revised March 2000.
Kauffmann, Norman L,
Judith N. Martin, Henry D. Weaver with Judy Weaver. Students
Abroad: Strangers at Home. Education from a Global
Society. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1992.
Storti, Craig. The
Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc.,
article by Thea Miller, a freelance writer
Some participants returning from extended international study
find no one willing to relive those fascinating, cultural
memories. Family and friends are waiting to greet you open arms,
but not always with open eyes.
Facing the unbelievable "newness" of home and the unwillingness
of friends to listen leaves returning participants feeling more
like strangers in their own country.
According to Judith Martin, an associate professor of
intercultural communication at the University of Minnesota, it
is more difficult to come home. When you go abroad, she says,
"you expect it to be different; when you come home, no one
expects you to have changed."
Some universities have begun to offer classes to help students
make sense out of their experiences abroad and recognize the
impact it has on them. The differences between cultures and the
changes you undergo will affect you the rest of your life, your
future academic work, and your career.
Integrating the study-abroad experience into your life is the
most important step to overcoming the culture shock. You sought
international study to broaden your understanding of the world -
now use it to help others achieve that understanding.
you feel a need to work through some re-entry shock, or just
want to share your foreign experiences with others, here are a
- Ask high school foreign language
instructors if you can give short guest lectures, illustrated
with photographs, slides, or videos.
- Many local civic and children's
organizations enjoy speakers who share their foreign travel
anecdotes. Audience members often add their own stories to the
- Kiwanis, Rotary clubs, Girl and Boy
Scout troops may be able to utilize your experiences through
- Talk about your experiences with others
who have recently traveled abroad and who may be experiencing
the same feelings you're having. They may be able to share
some tips with you on how they learned to deal with their
Solutions to re-entry
shock are numerous and unique to each individual. Most
important, remember that the time, energy and expanse spent
studying abroad was well spent.