Carnegie Mellon University

Re-Entry Shock

What is Re-entry Shock? 

Some call it reverse culture shock. Once students have been home for a while, they may begin to feel bored, sad or even frustrated. The culture shock adjustment curve is somewhat similar for reentry, though the time frames will probably be different. The stages of the adjustment process are:

  1. Initial euphoria
  2. Irritability and hostility
  3. Gradual adjustment, and
  4. Adaptation

In Stage 1, 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.  Returned students may also find that the support systems they encountered when first arriving overseas is not accessible back home. People may help if asked, but returned students may feel embarrassed about being so dependent — especially in their own country!

Returned students may therefore find themselves entering Stage 2 more rapidly than initially while overseas. 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.

While some people move readily into the adjustment and adaptation stages, others continue to feel alienated, even though they put on the outward appearance of doing well. Underneath resentment, loneliness, disorientation, and even a sense of helplessness may pervade as they experience the kinds of culture shock symptoms identified before. 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.

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.

What can be done to counteract re-entry shock?

The battle is mostly won when returned students understand that returning home involves an adjustment process similar to the one experienced when first going abroad. Indeed, the exercises to explore transition that we recommend are similar to those suggested for overseas adaptation.