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Returnee Resources

Returning home from study abroad can be challenging. It can be helpful to know what types of problems to anticipate and to review tips and resources for dealing with re-adjustment. 

Reverse Culture Shock and Coping with Re-entry

The idea of experiencing culture shock while living abroad is widely accepted and understood. However, the idea of experiencing culture shock in your own country is often more challenging to understand (especially by those who have not lived abroad). The thinking often goes that if you've spent much of your life living in a particular country or culture, how can a shorter experience of living abroad change your experience of 'being home'?

The reality is that your time in Japan has changed you--perhaps in ways you do not even realize yet! The cultural adjustment you experienced while abroad, the personal challenges you overcame, the friends you made and exchanged ideas with -- all of these will have shifted your perspective in some way or another. When viewed through this new lens, things in your home country that once seemed obvious, familiar, and even comforting can suddenly feel confusing, odd, frustrating, and possibly even threatening in ways you've never perceived before.

While these feelings can be alarming for students returning from study abroad (and for their loved ones excited to have them 'back home'), it is a common phenomenon often referred to as Reverse Culture Shock or simply 're-entry'. 

Just as adjusting to life abroad took time (and had its ups and downs), readjusting to life after study abroad will take time and can be challenging. How each student experiences this readjustment period can vary in terms of length and the symptoms they notice. Do not be surprised if it takes you a several weeks or months. Also know that it's common to experience increased feelings of restlessness, isolation, boredom, and even depression.

Below are some key recommendations for dealing with the stress of returning home (based on input from other JCMU alumni):

  • Know That It's Okay to be Stressed! Perhaps the most important thing is to recognize that what you are going through is normal and a very common result of spending time living abroad. Expect a period of stress and know that it is a natural part of the re-entry process and returnee experience. It's a process--You won't always feel exactly like you do now! Give yourself the time and space (mentally, emotionally, and physically) to work through this life-altering experience you had abroad and to process how it's changed you, your perspective, and your values. 
  • Keep in Touch! It's a great idea to stay connected with your friends you made while in Japan: fellow students, host family, teachers, and so on. Other recent JCMU returnees can be especially helpful to talk to! They are more likely to understand what you've been through and will generally be much more willing to listen to your many stories about Japan. All of us at the JCMU East Lansing office have spent time studying abroad in Japan ourselves (some of us through JCMU)! We would also love to hear about your experiences!
  • Stay Involved! Let JCMU know if you would be interested in speaking with prospective study abroad students, writing about your experiences, or helping with pre-departure meetings and other international events. Continue your language and cultural studies. Talk with others who want to learn more about what study abroad is like from a student's perspective. Staying involved can be a wonderful way to keep your study abroad experience alive.

Other Resources

Top 10 Immediate Reentry Challenges

Sometimes the most challenging aspect of a student's study abroad experience can be returning home. Professor Bruce LaBrack from the University of the Pacific compiled a useful list of the Top Ten Immediate Reentry Challanges (as rated by university students). The challenges include:

  1. Boredom - After all the newness and stimulation of your time abroad, a return to family friends, and old routines (however nice and comforting) can seem very dull. It is natural to miss the excitement and challenges which characterize study in a foreign country, but it is up to you to find ways to overcome such negative reactions.
  2. "No One Wants to Hear" - One thing you can count on upon your return: no one will be as interested in hearing about your adventures and triumphs as you will be in sharing those experiences. This is not a rejection of you or your achievements, but simply the fact that once they have heard the highlights, any further interest on your audience's part is probably unlikely. Be realistic in your expectations of how fascinating your journey is going to be for everyone else. Be brief.
  3. You Can't Explain - Even when given a chance to explain all the sights you saw and feelings you had while studying abroad, it is likely to be at least a little bit frustrating to relay them coherently. It is very difficult to convey this kind of experience to people who do not have similar frames of reference or travel backgrounds, no matter how sympathetic they are as listeners. You can tell people about your trip, but you may fail to make them understand how or why you felt a particular way. It's okay.
  4. Reverse "Homesickness" - Just as you probably missed home for a time after arriving in Japan, it is just as natural to experience some "reverse" homesickness for the people, places, and things that you grew accustomed to as a student in Japan.
  5. Relationships Have Changed - It is inevitable that when you return you will notice that some relationships with friends and family will have changed. Just as you have altered some of your ideas and attitudes while abroad, the people at home are likely to have experienced some changes.
  6. People See "Wrong" Changes - Sometimes people may concentrate on small alterations in your behavior or ideas and seem threatened or upset by them. Others may ascribe "bad" traits to the influence of your time abroad. These incidents may be motivated by jealousy, fear, or feelings of superiority or inferiority.
  7. People Misunderstand - A few people will misinterpret your words or actions in such a way that communication is difficult. For example, what you may have come to think of as humor (particularly sarcasm, banter, etc.) and ways to show affection or establish conversation may not be seen as wit, but aggression or "showing off."
  8. Feelings of Alienation - Sometimes the reality of being back "home" is not as natural or enjoyable as the place you had constructed as your mental image. When real daily life is less enjoyable or more demanding than you remembered, it is natural to feel some alienation, see faults in the society you never noticed before, even become quite critical of everyone and everything for a time. This is no different than when you first left home.
  9. Inability to Apply New Knowledge and Skills - Many returnees are frustrated by the lack of opportunity to apply newly gained social, technical, linguistic, and practical coping skills that appear unnecessary or irrelevant at home. 
  10. Loss/Compartmentalization of Experience - Being home, coupled with the pressures of job, family, and friends often combine to make returnees worried that somehow, they will "lose" the experience; somehow becoming compartmentalized like souvenirs or photo albums kept in a box and only occasionally taken out and looked at.

Preparing to Return Home - Quick Tips

Reentry into your home culture can be both as challenging and as frustrating as living overseas, mostly because our attitude toward going "home" is that it should be a simple matter of getting resettled, resuming your earlier routines, and reestablishing your relationships. However, world wide research has shown that reentry has its own set of special social and psychological adjustments which can be facilitated by being aware of the reentry process and following some advice from those who have already returned. The following List of Quick Tips for Preparing to Return Home (compiled by Dr. Bruce LaBrack) may be helpful. All of the tips come from returnees who offer these ideas in the hope of making your reentry easier for you and for those at home.

  1. Prepare for the adjustment process. The more you consider your alternatives, think about what is to come, and know about how returning home is both similar to and different from going abroad, the easier the transition will be. Anticipating is useful. As one psychologist put it, "Worrying helps."
  2. Allow yourself time. Reentry is a process that will take time, just like adjusting to a new foreign culture. Give yourself time to relax and reflect upon what is going on around you, how you are reacting to it, and what you might like to change. Give yourself permission to ease into the transition.
  3. Understand that the familiar will seem different. You will have changed, home has changed, and you will be seeing familiar people, places, and behaviors from new perspectives. Some things will seem strange, perhaps even unsettling. Expect to have some new emotional and psychological reactions to being home. Everyone does.
  4. There will be much "cultural catching up" to do. Some linguistic, social, political, economic, entertainment and current event topics will be familiar to you as new programs, slang, and even governmental forms may have emerged since you left. You may have some learning to do about your own culture. (Note: most returnees report that major insights into themselves and their home countries occur during reentry).
  5. Reserve judgments. Just as you had to keep an open mind when first encountering the culture of a new foreign country, try to resist the natural impulse to make snap decisions and judgments about behaviors once back home. Mood swings are common at first and your most valuable and valid analysis of events is likely to take place after allowing some time for thorough reflection.
  6. Respond thoughtfully and slowly. Quick answers and impulsive reactions often characterize returnees. Frustration, disorientation, and boredom in the returnee can lead to behavior which is incomprehensible to family and friends. Take some time to rehearse what you want to say and how you will respond to predictable questions and situations; prepare to greet those which are less predictable with a calm, thoughtful approach.
  7. Cultivating sensitivity. Showing an interest in what others have been doing while you have been on your adventure overseas is the surest way to reestablish rapport. Much frustration in returnees stems from what is perceived as disinterest by others in their experience and lack of opportunity to express their feelings and tell their stories. Being as good a listener as a talker is a key ingredient in mutual sharing.
  8. Beware of comparisons. Making comparisons between cultures and nations is natural, particularly after residence abroad; however, a person must be careful not to be seen as too critical of home or too lavish in praise of things foreign. A balance of good and bad features is probably more accurate and certainly less threatening to others. The tendency to be an "instant expert" is to be avoided at all cost.
  9. Remain flexible. Keeping as many options open as possible is an essential aspect of a successful return home. Attempting to resocialize totally into old patterns and networks can be difficult, but remaining aloof is isolating and counterproductive. What you want to achieve is a balance between maintaining earlier patterns and enhancing your social and intellectual life with new friends and interests.
  10. Seek support networks. There are lots of people back home who have gone through their own reentry and understand a returnee's concerns - academic faculty, exchange students, international development staff, diplomatic corps, military personnel, church officials, and businesspeople. University study abroad and foreign student offices are just a few of the places where returnees can seek others who can offer support and country-specific advice.