Returning home is the final step in the study abroad process, and there is more to consider than the simple logistics of the move. Returning students know the language, the ways to get things done and, most likely, will be returning to family, friends, and a familiar setting. What they may not be aware of is the degree to which they have been changed by the experience abroad. While many transition smoothly, others may experience varying degrees of re-entry shock. Re-entry shock, also called reverse culture shock, most often occurs once students have been home for a while. This page contains information about re-entry shock and tools for easing back into life at home.
Stages of Re-Entry Shock
Students may be very pleased, even euphoric, to be back in their own country, and others may be equally delighted to have them back. But after people express their pleasure at seeing them again and listen politely to their stories for a few minutes, returned students may suddenly and/or painfully realize that they are not particularly interested in what happened abroad and would much rather prefer to talk about their own affairs.
Irritability & Hostility
Returned students may find themselves entering Stage 2 more rapidly than initially while overseas. Support systems they encountered when first arriving overseas may not be accessible back home. People may help if asked, but returned students may feel embarrassed about being so dependent — especially in their own country. Suddenly they may be irritated with others and impatient with their own inability to figure out why the way they are doing things doesn’t work. Underneath resentment, loneliness, disorientation, and even a sense of helplessness may pervade. Depression and relationship stress may also be associated with reentry shock. The gap between the returned student and his or her family and friends may be a source of significant irritation.
Gradual Adjustment & Adaptation
While some people move readily into the adjustment and adaptation stage, others continue to feel alienated, even though they put on the outward appearance of doing well. Returned students will learn many new things while abroad: a foreign language, some local folk dances, or how to bargain in a market. But there may be no outlet for them at home. Ways to use newly learned skills can be found, but it takes effort and patience, and the frustrations tend to mount. Students may feel let down because daily life in the United States does not readily provide the opportunity to meet as many kinds of people as they knew overseas and those they may meet might seem uninterested in global issues.
Dealing with Re-Entry Shock
Once you recognize that re-entry shock is a common experience, you can begin to take steps to reverse it. The battle is mostly won when you begin to understand that returning home involves an adjustment process similar to the one experienced when first going abroad. It is important to embrace new feelings and work to integrate old and new personas. Patience is also key: significant changes cannot happen overnight. Be as open-minded and creative through the re-entry process as you were while studying abroad. We recommend the exercises below to ease the transition home.
Share Your Feelings
Start your exploration of home through sympathetic friends or family members. Share with them some of the feelings you have had while living overseas. Sharing feelings instead of experiences sounds less like bragging.
Be the Learner
Find informants about the United States just as you did about your overseas country. Be the learner. Ask questions about current issues: the price of common products and services, popular entertainment, politics and U.S. foreign policy, and the effect of recent changes on the society. Don’t let your new attitudes, values, and perceptions block that learning process.
Continue studying your host language. Explore places where you might find others with international experience, or seek foreign nationals with whom you can speak the language you’ve learned and continue to share common experiences you’ve enjoyed. Contact OIE to see if there are students at Carnegie Mellon from the country you visited. You may want to connect with these students in an informal way to continue your connections to that culture, maintain your language skills, and generally extend your abroad experience back in the U.S..
Talk to a counselor from Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) or meet with a study abroad advisor.
Plan Your Future
Meet with your career consultant in the Career & Professional Development Center to discuss integrating your new interests into your future career goals.
Reflect on your experiences abroad by creating a photo or scrapbook or writing in a journal. Share your photos and stories with others through OIE.