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.