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Returning Home

After living abroad, people often return home with mixed emotions.  They may have missed home while they were away, but after returning, they can’t help but think of their host country and the experiences they had.  Reentry can be very difficult, especially when you do not expect the transitions and feelings you experience.

So, as you wind down your time here in the US, it’s important to anticipate some of the challenges you may face.  Below are some simple tips on what you can expect when you do go home and ways to respond.

Click on the headings below for details.

[wpspoiler name="Disorientation" ]

  • Problem: When you first get back, you just feel strange.  Your environment may look completely different than your time in the States, and may have even changed since last you were there.  The first several days, you may wake up in the morning expecting your Nashville bedroom, and then are disappointed when it’s not.  You may even be jet-lagging—having a hard time staying awake during the day, and waking up too early in the night.
  • You may also be taken aback by your own community’s way of life—this is called reverse culture-shock.  Having been away from your own culture for so long, some of your own customs may seem odd to you.  American students who travel to countries with different economies, for example, often feel uncomfortable going to Wal-Mart or a buffet upon their return to the U.S.  You may have your own version of this experience.
  • Response: These feelings are especially common for the first week after returning home.  Stepping off the plane can be the most extreme.  Know that the emotions will become milder over time.  After a while, though, think critically about your own culture.  Is there something you learned while abroad that you think your own community could stand to learn as well? Or, can you find a new appreciation for your culture now that you’ve been in another one for so long? Working through these answers can be your best tool for overcoming culture shock.

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[wpspoiler name="Un-homesickness" ]

  • Problem: Just like you may have missed home, your family and friends, while you were at Vanderbilt, you might miss the friends you made in Nashville just as much when you go home.  If you were here for a matter of years, Nashville probably started to feel like a new home for you.  These new relationships are particularly special because you bonded with them when you first felt homesick; they were there to help you as you first left your comfort zone.
  • Response:  Just like reverse culture-shock, this “un-homesickness” will eventually get easier over time. However, you don’t want to forget the friendships that you made just because it hurts to miss them.  Luckily, we live in the age of communication; Facebook and other networking sites will help you stay in touch. Moreover, video conferencing programs can also facilitate in staying connected with one’s friends.  If you aren’t intentional about it, though, it can be easy to lose contact.  Be diligent about maintaining your relationships, but also know that it’s natural for some friendships to dissolve.  You’ll learn the balance eventually.

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[wpspoiler name="Lost Relationships" ]

  • Problem: It’s quite possible when you’re away for four years to have lost touch with friends, some of whom may have been really close to you before you left.  Some of them may have changed so much that you no longer get along the way you used to. The opposite can happen, too: your experience has changed you in a way that makes it difficult for your old friends to relate to you in the same way as before.
  • Response: Know that not only is it perfectly normal for so many years apart to affect or even dissolve relationships, but exposure to other cultures often makes us grow up faster than our former friends.  Moreover, especially if you are an undergraduate student, you are in an age-range when you experience a radical transformation no matter where you are.  Seniors often graduate as completely different people than the freshmen they started out as.  You will learn to be able to distinguish which friendships are worth fighting to maintain, and which ones will healthily subside.

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[wpspoiler name="Lack of Interest" ]

  • Problem: Probably the most common frustration of reentry is that the community you return to doesn’t show as much interest in hearing about your experience as you thought.  They may ask you about it, but they seem bored after just a couple of minutes.  They may even get impatient with you as you talk because they want to tell you about what you missed back home.  In turn, you might share a similar disinterest in what your friends and family have to say. We feel like we have a lot to share with friends considering our time apart; however, it is important to realize that our friends also tend to feel the same way about their experience.
  • Response:  The best tool you can have when facing this issue is knowledge about it ahead of time.  Anticipate that your friends and family won’t want to sit and listen to you talk for an hour about the years you spent apart.  A good practical tip is to rehearse three different descriptions of your trip: a 1-minute version for passing conversations by people just trying to be polite, a 5-minute version for those who are slightly more interested and will actually sit with you a while, and a half-hour long version for close family and friends who want to hear all about it. You may even prepare a powerpoint presentation for more formal contexts. This will help you prepare for the different encounters you’ll have so you don’t get frustrated when people lose interest.  If you expect everyone to be impatient, it will be such a treat when someone is genuinely attentive!

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[wpspoiler name="Reintegration" ]

  • Problem: Sometimes when your family asks about your time abroad, it doesn’t matter how interested they really are because you don’t know what to say! You may start to speak but find yourself rambling incoherently, or you may only utter a few words.  You may feel unsettled at home for weeks because you don’t know what to make of the transformation that occurred in your life. There may be obvious changes for example your accent may have been influenced by your time in Nashville. There may also be subtle changes in your personality such as an increased sense of independence that your friends or family may find difficult to adjust to right away. Know that it may require some time for them to get accustomed to the new you.
  • Response: Processing your experiences abroad is probably the most important tip in reentering your home culture and learning the most from your time.  People process in different ways: some journal every day, some just ponder silently, and others need to verbalize all their emotions to anyone who will listen.  You need to figure out which mode suits you best and, no matter your choice, start as soon as you can.  If you are getting ready to leave in the next few weeks, begin now.  Ask yourself questions like: What was the greatest lesson I learned?  What was my favorite experience? What was my least favorite? How can I incorporate my experience abroad into my life at home? Being intentional about processing these thoughts will help you tremendously as you begin your return journey.

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[wpspoiler name="What Now?" ]

  • Problem: So, you may have planned all of your various reports for friends and family, and you’ve overcome initial culture-shock.  You may even have found support groups back home to help you keep in touch with your experience abroad.  But now you’re faced with the problem: what now?  I’ve just had possibly the most transformative season of my life, but I don’t know what to do with it.
  • Response:  The answer to this question is different for everyone.  You may want to pursue another degree, or maybe you’re starting a new job.  Whatever your future trajectory brings you, however, the key is to incorporate the things you learned abroad,  whether it’s academic knowledge that you need to apply for your career, or cultural awareness that will help you become a more responsible human being.  Anticipate that this will confront you soon after you return home and begin to think through your answers well before you return home.

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[wpspoiler name="Other Resources" ]

These other websites may have more useful information than the above.  We also encourage you to seek out what your home country has to offer that will be more context-specific in your reentry process.

http://www.gowithcea.com/alumni/reentry.html

http://www.ciee.org/study-abroad/advisors/return.aspx

http://www.worldlearning.org/5367.htm

http://www.whittier.edu/studyabroad/ReentryChallenges.html

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