STEP 4: Helping Your Child Through the Delicate Reentry Stage
What Is Reverse Culture Shock?
Reverse culture shock is a way of describing the difficulties that many students have in readjusting to their home, resuming relationships with friends and family, and getting back into the routine of school and other activities upon return from an education abroad experience. Like culture shock, it is often experienced as a sometimes volatile set of emotional ups and downs that can be bewildering to the student who is experiencing it, as well as to those around him. As with culture shock, reverse culture shock varies a great deal from student to student. Some students are completely happy, even relieved to be home again, and experience very little if any reverse culture shock. Others may find it extremely difficult to get back into their routine, and may take a long time to readjust. It depends a lot on the student, and the nature and length of the experience abroad, as well as other factors.
Reverse culture shock is another normal and natural part of the study abroad experience. Much of what the student may find difficult in the readjustment period has to do with important personal, emotional, and intellectual growth he has experienced, and learning he has done while abroad. He may feel he is a different person than the one who left, and may feel frustrated with being treated by friends and family like someone he no longer feels he is, and doesn't want to be.
He may feel disappointed that no one really understands the depth and intensity of the experience he has gone through, and-worse-no one seems interested enough to really listen to him talk about his experiences He may feel "homesickness" for the study abroad location he has left behind, or unhappy about returning to aspects of his life at home that he may not have liked in the first place and likes even less now.
You can help your child through this period by listening to him, showing genuine interest in hearing about his experiences, and urging him to incorporate his study abroad experience into his present and future life in ways that he finds attractive. Encourage him to maintain contact with the friends he made while abroad, both American students and foreign ones. If he talks about wanting to study abroad again, encourage him to search for opportunities that will fit into his academic plans and will further his career goals and objectives.
In this period, too, the office of education abroad or international education on your child's home campus can be helpful. Study abroad professionals are very familiar with the difficulties of reentry: some programs offer workshops, seminars, or other planned activities for returning students that can help ease the transition. If your child is having exceptional difficulty, urge him to seek counseling either there, or through the on campus counseling services. In some cases, more extensive help from mental health professionals may be appropriate.
Academic and Career Development: Following-Up
Some students return from study abroad with vastly changed ideas about what they want to do in their careers and in their lives. If this is the case with your child, listen to her and see if you can help her find her way through the process to a practical and satisfying conclusion. Getting to know oneself better and finding or solidifying career goals are two main benefits of the study abroad experience. If her experience abroad has caused a change in her career plans, she may have to earn additional credits before graduating, and this may mean extra semesters. But is that really so bad? Isn't it worth the extra time spent now if it results in her career satisfaction over a lifetime?
Increasingly, businesses look at study abroad as a positive item on a student's resume. However, they are also increasingly interested in knowing exactly what skills and abilities the student acquired through their study abroad, and less impressed with a mere listing of the fact that the student has studied abroad Some study abroad programs are now coaching students in how to articulate what they have learned, and enumerate the skills they have gained, in such a way that employers will more clearly see what they have to offer as a result of their experience abroad. Encourage your child to think about what she learned through her international experience, and to list as many of the specific skills and abilities she can think of that she acquired while she was away. This is a good activity to help her through the reentry period and will come in handy when she fills out job applications and updates her resume. The campus offices of career development and study abroad or international education can help her get started with this task, and can probably also offer other useful suggestions for ways to gain the maximum benefit from her experience abroad.
Managing Expectations: After
Expect change, and expect the change to be positive. Even when the period of study abroad has been relatively short, the child who returns to you will probably not be the same one you sent away. Almost always, the one who returns is a "new and improved" version, full of new passions and energy, and often with inspiring new ideas about his future possibilities. Recognize and celebrate the change, marvel at how even a short time abroad can inspire incredible intellectual and emotional growth in students this age, and appreciate all your child has gained from this experience.
Expect that your child may take a while to readjust to life at home. During this period, she may express impatience with or intolerance of her family, home community, school, or nation. Try not to be defensive. Listen to what she has to say, and show her that you are interested in hearing about the new thoughts and perspectives she's absorbed while abroad. You can add tempering observations, but try not to just shut her down-an important part of the intercultural learning takes place after the study abroad experience, and questioning one's own country and its ways are an important part of the process. She's not really rejecting you, or her country; she's making meaning of a very meaningful experience. It takes time to sort it all out, and there are often moments of extremes along the way.
Acknowledge and appreciate the tremendous changes your child may have gone through since he left home. Let him know you can see how much he has matured (and avoid the temptation to instantly draw attention to some of the ways he may not have). Above all give him the chance to tell you about his experience. Most students say that their experiences studying abroad were "life-changing." Don't push or pry, but do encourage him to share that important and special feeling with you, if and when he's ready.
Office of International Programs
Farrington Building, Suite 116, Huntsville, TX 77340