Reverse Culture Shock

By Madeline Christensen

When students go to a different country to study abroad, they anticipate some life adjustments. Students are generally prepared for different food, different weather, and different customs. When it comes time to return home, many students look forward to getting back to life as usual. Some students effortlessly transition back to life and school at Tufts, but those who find that settling back into American college life takes some getting used to are certainly not alone. 

Many have dubbed this phenomenon “reverse culture shock” or “reentry shock.” For some students, daily facts of life – the weather, for instance – might be a cold, wet slap in the face. Aisha Farley returned to a New England December after her fall semester in Ghana. “It was really hot, no lie, but I was in good weather,” said Farley. “I was used to the sun every day, which really does affect your mood . . . When we got off the plane in Amsterdam we felt the cold and everybody was just upset.” 

For other students, the change in academic style is most unsettling. Many programs are light on homework but emphasize experiential learning or field-based study. Others have rigorous workloads but use different educational systems based more on seminars or tutorials. “Readjusting to having class every single day was very hard,” said Chelsea Ongaro, who spent her junior year on Tufts in Oxford. 

With about half of the junior class going abroad each year, students at Tufts can look forward to finding friends and acquaintances with stories of their own. But it can sometimes be hard to relate experiences back to friends and family. “It was a culture shock to come back and to have people have these misconceptions of Ghana, I was annoyed by people’s stereotypes of the continent [of Africa],” noted Farley. 

Students who go abroad for the year may see fewer familiar faces on campus when they return. Often, social dynamics shift during junior year, and the atmosphere at Tufts is new. “Things reset and you feel like Tufts is how you left it, but things are different now because people have changed and you’ve changed,” said Hannah Wellman, who spent the year with Tufts in London.

Brian Libby, director of non-Tufts programs in the Tufts Office of Programs Abroad, pointed out that much of the shock of returning home might have more to do with students’ personal discoveries. “Study abroad is a transformative experience. It’s an opportunity to learn a lot about a culture, but also to learn a lot about yourself,” he said. “Coming back can be difficult for that reason because you’re coming back to.your life as it was before you studied abroad, which can sometimes be a big difference for people.” 

Reentry shock might actually be the most intense for students who adjusted very successfully to their host countries. “I think it’s really a sign that you’ve immersed yourself and really taken part in your own abroad experience and been an active participant in your experience,” said Libby.

As Libby also noted, studying abroad can bring students new perspectives for their entire lives. Students might approach going home as yet another adventure, one that calls for the same enthusiasm, flexibility, and open mindedness that helped them make a home in another corner of the globe. Jumbos might find these reentry tips helpful: 

Anticipate. Try to reflect on your semester before you return home. Know in advance that home might not be exactly the way you left it. 

Keep busy. Your favorite European bar might not be an option right now, but try to rekindle your love for quirky Tuftonian traditions. Use the plentiful resources and opportunities at Tufts to explore interests you developed overseas. Explore new things on campus, in Boston, or even New England.

(Selectively) share your adventures. You probably have some awesome stories. Try not to share too much right away. Ask questions. Let your friends fill you in on life at home. Most people like a good listener. 

Actually do share those stories, though. Seek out the situations where people would love to hear your stories. Students considering going to your country will likely lend an ear. People who also went to your country might be eager to swap travel tales. Blogs allow friends and family to peruse your adventures at their leisure, and on-campus publications like Tufts Traveler will even print them. 

Keep in touch. Call up your host mother. Shoot your friends an email once in a while. Keep up those valuable relationships you began abroad.

Plan your next trip. It might not be easy to live and work in the country where you studied abroad again, but there may be ways to make it happen. Fulbright offers research and teaching grants abroad— notify Tufts and start planning months before the internal September deadline. There are many opportunities to teach or volunteer abroad after graduation. 

Students do not always feel “ready” to return home from abroad. “When it’s your first time in Europe and traveling around and seeing all these things and not having a lot of work, you’re never ready to stop that,” said Toka Beech, of her semester in Paris. But students coming back from abroad have a lot to look forward to—old friends, new people, and everything they missed while they were gone. It may take some time to feel completely at home again, but students returning to Tufts can learn an enormous amount about themselves and their own community from the process. O

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