Reverse Culture Shock: Side Effect of Study Abroad

Photo Courtesy of Jason Bachman, Flickr Creative Commons

Leaving home to study abroad can be hard; coming home can be harder.

Studying abroad — whether for a semester, a year or an entire degree can be a truly incredible experience. It often seems to bring with it adventure, images of world famous museums, historical sites, amazing cities and interesting cultures, the excitement of immersing into a new culture, and the experience of something different.

When parachuting in from Barcelona, London or Melbourne the unchanging comforts of a life left behind can be difficult. Students are always bursting with stories and experiences, but the audience is not always on the same wavelength.

Lauren Keller, a senior at Ramapo College, studied in Paris this past spring. After returning, she had a difficult time adjusting to life back in America.

“I didn’t feel ‘home’ again,” she said. “It was great to see my family and friends, but I felt like they didn’t want to hear my stories or see any of my pictures. They were interested, of course, but it felt more like I was burdening them than anything.”

When people think about study abroad, they often think of how the transition to a foreign society in such a short period of time can be difficult, but it seems that coming home from time abroad can also be complicated.

In 2013, an Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange reported that although the total number of U.S. students studying abroad is at an all-time high, fewer than 10 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students, including community college students, will study abroad by the time they graduate.

Those who go abroad bring back more than memories and pictures—they come home with mixed emotions and reverse culture shock.

Students find themselves again, in a transitional state, except this time they are not only adjusting to a new culture, but reverting to what used to feel like the normal rhythms of home.

According to the University of Minnesota's International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), many students struggle with re-entry on different levels, some find coming home to be an easy transition; others find it more difficult than when they went abroad.

Reverse culture shock sometimes hits harder simply because students do not expect it.

“I felt like an outsider in my own country,” Keller said. “I felt like people didn’t really understand me anymore and that no one could relate to my experiences. Everything that felt familiar before I left felt completely different.”

“According to professionals in the field of international education, 85 percent of people returning home have some kind of re-entry experience, and of those 15 percent have more serious difficulties adapting to their return,” the ISSS research stated.

Dr. Michael Paige, a professor at Minnesota wrote, "What you potentially can experience is the unexpected confrontation of the familiar."

Essentially, students do not expect their home culture, something considered known and precious, to change without them there. With that, students studying abroad are naturally prone to missing events at home.

“My relationship with my family and friends didn’t feel the same anymore; it took a while for us to click again,” Keller said. “Even coming back to Ramapo and being on the swim team, it was a lot different compared to what I had known before I left.”

Learning how to integrate a study abroad experience into life at home via neighborhood or educational outlets is essential. Coming back home after spending time abroad does not necessarily represent the end of an intercultural experience.

One aspect of returning from abroad is the emotional challenges associated with feeling out of place in one’s own country; one also might need to connect with others through social action or civic engagement.

To stay connected, Keller joined the Global Roadrunners at Ramapo. The group is for study abroad alumni who are passionate about their experience and want to advise and mentor other students who are interested in studying abroad.

The group is also an outlet for students who have studied abroad, enabling them to meet and share their experiences, both while abroad and then later, when they return home.

Writing a blog, sharing photos and videos online or even volunteering in your community with organizations that have a link to host country can also help make the transition a little easier.

Every student is different, as are the effects of reverse culture shock. After immersing themselves in their study abroad experience, some students return with a different opinion of American culture; while others are simply happy to be back in familiar surroundings.

Gianna Acevedo, a senior at Ramapo College, spent her time in Barcelona this past spring. For her, coming home was an easy transition.

“I was somewhat relieved because I missed home, my family and friends,” she said. “I think it's important to remember that I can always travel back to Europe in the future to continue on my journey.”

Acevedo said she did not experience reverse culture shock right away, but five months later, is beginning to feel some of its effects.

“I miss speaking another language and going to new places in Barcelona every day,” she said. “I also feel like I'm tired of the people around me and I miss being around my international friends.”

Keller and Acevedo both described their study abroad experiences as positive and would encourage others to consider the possibilities of spending a semester in a new environment.

Life After Study Abroad is a useful site for students coming home. Whether you're having trouble dealing with reverse culture shock or want to continue your adventures abroad by going to graduate school, it covers just about everything. It features seven sections including Intern, Teach, TEFL Certification, Jobs, Volunteer, Graduate School and Life After Abroad.