Homecoming

Leah

For some students who study abroad, the greatest culture shock they encounter is when they return home.

When Sayre Weir ’15 left the U.S. to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last fall she says that she was prepped and packed for the anticipated transition to a foreign culture. Her new vocabulary included terms like “culture shock,” and her suitcase contained an adjustment guide, courtesy of the Middlebury Study Abroad Office, which fit snugly alongside her Patagonia jacket and spring sandals. Yet while Sayre’s transition to this foreign city was jarring and difficult, she expected it. What surprised her was how difficult it was to return to Middlebury.

When asked about her re-entry experience, she took a deep breath and said, “I was overwhelmed. Walking into Proctor dining hall was probably the most over-stimulating experience during my the past three years here.”

Sayre’s remark reflects the surface of a deep-rooted struggle for many Middlebury students: reverse culture shock, an equally if not more powerful experience than foreign culture shock—the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Every year, roughly half of the Middlebury junior class studies abroad, traveling to more than 40 countries and enrolling at more than 90 different programs and universities. Just over half of these students study at Middlebury Schools Abroad—in 37 cities in 17 countries, where Middlebury students will live and learn among native speakers. Prior to leaving, students are debriefed on their program’s requirements and realities at country-specific pre-departure sessions featuring both study abroad advisors and previous students. Most programs students attend, including both Middlebury Schools Abroad and externally-sponsored programs, also include on-site orientation in the destination country. Often one of the most emphasized concepts in these orientations is “culture shock.” Repeated forewarnings of the overwhelming adjustment to foreign cultures, social codes, food, climate, and politics are logical and internalized. However, the reality of students’ post-abroad re-entry contains its own set of hurdles.

Jeremy Kallan ’14, who studied in Alexandria, Egypt, agrees with Sayre in articulating his own frustrations in returning to Middlebury. “Being abroad is an emotional roller coaster,” he said. But coming back can be just as hard. When you return, “everything’s the same and normal and it seems boring. And I kind of felt depressed, purposeless, like home and Middlebury are not everything I thought they were [when I was away].”

Students and institutions alike are working to devise helpful solutions to this taxing, yet inevitable experience. Like other colleges and universities, Middlebury has employed a number of re-entry events—writing workshops, speakers, lunchtime discussion series—throughout the year. And at the start of the fall semester, International Programs holds a “welcome back” reception for students who have studied abroad the previous academic year.

“The challenge,” says Stacey Thebodo, the assistant director of International Programs, “is at events other than the fall welcome back reception, we have seen very poor attendance.” She said that only a small fraction of the 350 students who go abroad each year have attended the organized events, which has left her office puzzling over how to support students returning to Middlebury.

“Though we know that the students who come to these events need the support, we also believe there are others out there who could use advice. Every year I have a few students come into my office individually saying that they are struggling with the transition. Research shows that reverse culture shock can be much more difficult than the culture shock experienced abroad, because after studying abroad you are a changed person – you probably have a new world view – and it can be difficult to figure out how to fit into your old environment. You start to question your cultural identity and what “home” is. At the same time, everyone is asking you, “So how was X country?” and they really only want a quick response (“It was great!”). When students return to Middlebury, they also tend to experience challenges with academic adjustment. Students get used to a lot of independence abroad, and in other countries there is much less continuous assessment throughout the semester, so readjustment back to the Middlebury/US system and the workload can be overwhelming. We encourage students to try to find ways to incorporate their study abroad into their academics back at Middlebury—for example, into their senior theses, or participating in the research symposium, or continuing to take language and/or area studies courses.”

 Among the main frustrations that students report are extremes of experience (“I go from living in Botswana in the spring to interning at a New York City publishing house in the summer to returning to Middlebury in the fall, where I fall into all of the same routines that existed before I left”) and lack of understanding among peers how difficult studying abroad can be.

“I struggle when anyone asks me what it was like abroad,” says Milou Lammers ’15. “For many people, I find myself limiting my response to ‘I loved Paris.’” For those she knows better, though, she allows that while she loved the city, she found the program to be arduous, and not the glamorous American in Paris story that people who haven’t been abroad seem to expect. “I find it difficult to be one of the few people I know who didn’t necessarily enjoy their study abroad experience. I have to make the distinction that I loved France and my language skills really improved,” but loving the program, she says? No.

Thebodo says, “When talking about study abroad, students often do not talk about it being difficult, and it is difficult. It is supposed to be challenging! If you are not experiencing some discomfort, then you are probably having a very surface level experience and are not immersing yourself and challenging yourself to meet people and engage with the culture. This is also true when you come back home – adjustment is a process and is not easy, and it takes time. This is where a lot of growth and learning comes from; often it takes awhile after being back home to realize how much you learned abroad.”

And then there is the race to catch up with those who have been here all along, the unrealistic expectation of picking up right where one had left off several months prior.

So, what is the solution? More structured programs upon returning to campus? Mandatory on-site reverse orientation? Perhaps the first step is just talking more about how difficult returning from abroad can be. As Thebodo says, her office is there to listen and to help. And it appears that there are more than enough people experienced with this issue to start a dialogue. The learning curve may be steep, but the opportunity is there to be seized.

 Leah Fessler ’15 studied in Buenos Aires last fall. She is a contributing editor to Middlebury Magazine.

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17 comments
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  1. I studied abroad as well and it was an adjustment returning to the US. I had to make the adjustment myself. Mandatory on-site reverse orientation is a ridiculous idea. I’m an adult. I can handle myself and I don’t need to be told to do something when I just spend a year on my own in foreign country. I understand that the culture shock returning is a real thing because I experienced it, but it’s not up to Middlebury to get anyone reacquainted with life at Middlebury.

  2. Like Milou Lammers, I, too, studied in Paris during my junior year and found that living in the French metropolis was fraught with difficulties. I found the Parisians dour and stand-offish, the long commutes in the metro depressing, my accommodations cold and clammy due to insufficient heat. I missed my friends and the cozy comforts of the college campus. Not having enough money to feed myself properly was another downer. When I returned to Middlebury, I was overjoyed. It felt as if I was returning to a kind of paradise. I resolved right then and there to enjoy each and every moment of my senior year and to make the most of it. Never had I so appreciated all that

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    Middlebury had to offer. Many years later, I find myself living in Europe again and glad of the year abroad experience, but with such fond memories of my years on the Middlebury campus, memories made all the more precious due to the contrast between campus life and the struggle that was my year in Paris. Returning to the college was anything but reverse culture shock: on the contrary, it was more a case of falling in love with Middlebury all over again.

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  3. Back in the misty eons of time, I returned to Middlebury after a life-changing summer in Japan, and I still remember my reentry shock and adjustment. But the seeds of my lifelong career in international education had been planted. I eventually earned a masters in TESOL and a doctorate in int’l ed, became director of international services at Teachers College Columbia, and taught a graduate class in international educational exchange. Included was discussion of theories related to the intercultural sojourn and best practices in assisting students make the most of their experience. One of the most successful is enlisting the help of returned study abroad students in the orientation of new international students.

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    If Middlebury doesn’t do this already, I encourage the staff to consider it.

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  4. Like many others, I studied abroad at a Midd school for a term in my junior year. I can sympathise very well with the sentiments in the article above (“How was Germany?” How can you answer that in fewer than five minutes? “It changed my life!”). The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder whether or not reverse culture shock needs to be managed at all. Yes, it can be difficult, but having seen the world and become a different person is an irreversible process; MIddlebury is always going to seem small. Having itchy feet and feeling confined for a year can be a very good thing – it can make you

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    want to get back out there and see the world. It can light the fire and make you realise where you want to be, and where you don’t. My first term back at Midd was definitely a shock, but like many others who studied abroad, I promptly left the States after graduating and haven’t been back since.

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  5. I totally agree with John Flemming. I would get questions like “How was Germany?”, where I had been for a year. How could I answer that in three sentences? I would have needed an hour. I don’t remember specific reverse culture shock (of course my parents had moved out of my childhood home in year I was away, which was a shock too). However, after learning exactly where to put a comma in a German sentence, I didn’t know anymore where to put one in an English sentence. Plus unusually for a senior at my college, I lived in a dorm for my first quarter back, and felt very distant from everyone else in the dorm.

  6. This is a most interesting article. Way back in time, 1960-1961, I spent my third year in Madrid. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, the first experience for me in living in a large city. I do not remember anything that could be called culture shock experienced in Spain; I simply accepted things as being different. My shock or discomfort was in returning to the United States and particularly to Middlebury. It was as though I had gone back in time to a childish environment when compared to the independence and more formal atmosphere at the University of Madrid and the family I had lived with for a year. Back then, there were far

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    fewer students who left for the Junior Year, and some faculty actually criticized us for leaving. Times certainly have changed!

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  7. I didn’t study abroad, but came to Midd from abroad, being the daughter of a diplomat. I experienced America first as a foreign country, then with reverse culture shock. There’s a concept called “Third Culture Kid” which describes people like me. I think it probably applies at a slightly less intense level to the study abroad experience. On the one hand your frame broadens so much. On the other hand a bigger frame gives you a totally different picture of the familiar when you return. I think it’s useful to study this topic as our world becomes increasingly globalized. I believe the seeds of a truly global unity are in it. But right now we don’t have a set of

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    “Third Culture” norms established, and individuals are left to feel their way through it as best they can. Great topic for a senior thesis!

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  8. I studied in Moscow, and coming back to Midd and regular food was awesome! What was difficult was picking up my social life where I’d left it…choir, Mischords, etc. It was very hard to deal with how others had moved on and done stuff without me around. I’m only on one Mischord recording, because it was done while I was away. It’s almost like I didn’t exist for six months. I’m sure athletes must find it just as difficult to come back to a team that’s won games without you, that has new members who have no idea who you are…it’s tough for a while.

  9. I didn’t study abroad but came to Middlebury as an international student. I don’t think I suffered much culture shock at Midd itself where everybody was so friendly and helpful. The real shocker was returning home to Mumbai after having gotten used to life in the Middlebury ‘bubble.’ When I first started working in Mumbai, I remember feeling quite out of place. After all not many people were familiar with the liberal arts education system and often assumed it was less rigorous than say a bachelors in science or engineering.

    It probably took me more than a year to realign my beliefs on workplace etiquette – things like addressing ‘seniors’ at work with an honorific, getting used to much less

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    personal space etc. Socially too, I realized that I had diverged from friends who had not had a similar kind of international experience.

    Over time though I feel that I have reintegrated successfully. I would advise Midd students who will be in similar situations in the future to accept that life moves to a different tune in different cultures.

    Certainly do carry with you all the important lessons you learn at Midd but be flexible in their application. Do not try to impose your ideas on others but rather, start a conversation and logically persuade them to look at things from your perspective.

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  10. Marion makes a very valid suggestion: “One of the most successful (practices) is enlisting the help of returned study abroad students in the orientation of new international students”. I would add “enlist the help of returned study abroad students in the orientation” of future study abroad students.
    My international experience includes three years as the daughter of a diplomat in Buenos Aires, one year of college in Bogota and two years in Rome. I have lived the last twelve years in Milan. The shock of “re-entry” into the old atmosphere for high school, college, and now work and family can be unsettling. Connecting with peers with the same passion and inquiry

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    is key to understanding the dual existence of studying and living abroad. If there were one rule to live by abroad it would be “ask first.”

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  11. I’m glad that Middlebury is working to address the issue of reverse culture shock. While I didn’t have a hard time readjusting to life at Midd after a semester in France, I do remember feeling that the campus had become smaller while I was away. However, I never “became” French during my semester abroad. I still very much retained my American self.

    My real experience with reverse culture shock was after serving in the Peace Corps in Ghana. I felt like I had been dropped back into my old life, in which everyone expected me to just pick up where I had left off. But I had changed, my worldview had changed, and I had left my friends and family

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    – my entire support system – of the last two and a half years behind. It took me a full three years to feel like I belonged in the US again.

    Peace Corps held a mandatory conference at the end of my service during which we discussed difficulties with readjusting to life in the US. While our training made me aware of reverse culture shock, I think it would have been much more helpful after I had returned home and experienced reverse culture shock for myself.

    Should Middlebury Schools Abroad implement mandatory reverse orientation events? No. But there should be some sort of support group on campus for students who are having difficulty readjusting to Middlebury life. The best way I found for getting through my readjustment was talking about my experiences. It’s surprising how many people don’t truly let you share your stories with them. I don’t think students who struggle with readjusting need welcome back events. Instead they need people who will listen to their stories and let them know that they’re not alone in their experience.

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  12. As a retired foreign service officer, I’ve experienced reverse culture shock many times. The first time was returning to the U.S. and Middlebury from a semester in Colombia on a very unstructured program where, among other things, I lived with a family in an urban slum for several months. The wealth of the U.S. overwhelmed me; I couldn’t believe how spoiled we were and how much we took for granted. At Middlebury, I was unprepared for how much life had gone on without me in just a semester away — new relationships had formed, old relationships had faded and, without benefit of modern technology in those days, I’d received little word from friends about these changes so

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    I was left to figure them out for myself. I could have benefitted greatly from some warning ahead of time to expect some of these things (would I have been able to hear it in the excitement of preparing to leave?) — and from knowing that someone was available for me to talk to on my return, if I’d needed it.

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  13. I’m impressed by both the honesty of this article and the comments. The most challenging aspect of returning to Middlebury after my year in Germany was trying to reestablish a sense of purpose and connection to the surreal rural campus environment. The “bubble” seemed to extend not just to the isolated physical boundaries of the quiet town and self-centered campus; even the classroom and dorm room conversations seemed confined to an echo chamber of lofty academic ideals and jargon about diversity and environmentalism. It seemed like the workload was designed to overwhelm students to a degree that they couldn’t digest and apply their studies. It was tough to understand why I was back, except to finish a degree.

    Thank goodness

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    for Geography. Being overseas had allowed me to fall in love with maps as a way to create my own context for any new place. I pored over maps of Vermont, Quebec, and the surrounding states. I took a class in GIS. I began to fill in the spatial and cultural gaps of the world just outside the bubble.

    Would a reorientation seminar have helped? Maybe, if it had been rooted not in celebrating campus life but service to others. My challenges stemmed from the incongruity of the ivory tower with life outside. What if a reintegration program was its own full-credit class, focused on connecting cohorts of returning students through a fusion of readings, discussion sections, and service projects? Discussions would allow students to explore the meanings of their experiences abroad as they relate to their study goals, and they would learn deeper concepts of immigration, international politics, social structures, and globalization from each other’s stories. It would act as a capstone for the Middlebury Schools Abroad, a way for students to return from their exploring and, like T.S. Eliot, “know the place for the first time”.

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  14. I found studying abroad in China do be a very, very intense and difficult experience. When I came back to Middlebury after 8 straight months abroad, I found it was gratifyingly easy to slip back into my closest friendships, despite not talking to any of them during that time I was abroad! (I was afraid of answering the question, “How’s China?” with a torrent of complaints). I was shyer around all other friends and acquaintances, though, worried about sussing out these relationships. These took work to pick up. I also found, generally speaking, some differences between my friends who studied abroad and those who had never left campus; the latter worried about lots of the same little things, whereas the

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    former had been through the adjustment many lifestyle complications, and as a result, seemed to have a higher threshold for complications. As a returning student, I found one class my senior spring to be particularly cathartic for sifting through my feelings and experiences in China: Tom Moran’s “Literature and Culture in Post-1949 China.” This class was largely made up of upper classmen from my cohort and a subsequent one, so most had been abroad and were now back. The subject matter was open enough that would could discuss any cultural product or themes in Modern China, and analyzing their roots, help unravel some of the puzzle. I can’t recommend everyone take a certain class (offered every other year), but perhaps a solution is semi-formal/informal discussions/gatherings for returning students of a single department led by a professor.

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  15. I “only” knew Middlebury as a master’s student way back in 1972/73. My year in Mainz, Germany, was an eye-opener and a truly a life changing experience. Coming from a conservative Christian (undergrad) college, the culture shock I experienced on arrival there actually morphed into a declaration of independence. I didn’t need to worry about return culture shock; I stayed here instead. No regrets!

  16. I heartily agree with Charles Chapin’s suggestion of creating (or maybe requiring?) a full credit course for returning students from abroad. It would provide an outlet for students to process and synthesize the global learning that took place in the previous year. I spent my junior year in Paris and also struggled. Before I left, I spoke with a returning senior and got many pieces of advice – one of which was “It’s hard”. This, of course, was not what I wanted to hear and I took in the information much the way a first time pregnant woman hears the words “Your life will change forever!” “Yes, yes, yes,” I wanted to say – “but

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    it’s so exciting!” I simply couldn’t comprehend how hard it would be. Perhaps if the Midd Language schools offered a course while abroad, for adjusting to the new culture, it would be helpful as well – as a way to normalize the process. A course such as this would not just be about the new politics or where to find the best Camembert cheese – but a creative way to acknowledge: what do you notice? What feels different? How does one cope and adjust?

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  17. I am so happy to hear about Middlebury’s official acknowledgement of what I called (in the Fall of 1986) “Re-entry Disorder.” My first semester after returning from Middlebury-Paris was what taught me about Middlebury’s counseling center. Many of my friends felt the same way. I remember walking into a party at a fraternity, seeing traditional fraternity fun, and thinking, “Why did I think I missed this? What else can I do?” My time in Paris was wonderful and I learned a ton, both officially and unofficially (Diet Coke available at the Marines’ Friday Night parties!), but going from a major metropolitan city to a wonderfully small liberal arts college in the wilds of Vermont was

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    more emotionally difficult for me than vice versa. I like the idea of sharing the possibility of the “Re-entry Disorder” with the voutbound students. They, of course, won’t believe it, but at least they would have been made aware of it and know there will be resources available to help, if they need them. Yet one more way Middlebury leads the way!

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