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Reverse culture shock: MU students' silent struggle

By Emily C. Tate
On April 24, 2014

Just six months ago, during her semester abroad, junior Megan Valerio was staring up at the bright lights of the Eiffel Tower, riding a gondola through the canals of Venice and walking along what remains of the Berlin Wall.

Now, she is back in Ohio, with only the Beta Bells to stare upon, a bike to ride through Oxford, and the Phi Delt gates to walk past.

Valerio said it has been difficult to transition back to her Miami routine after living such a fast-paced, action-packed lifestyle abroad, and she is not alone.

While Miami students across the board treasure their time abroad and often return with new perspectives and altered worldviews, the experience can come at a cost.

Many students struggle with something called reverse culture shock, or 're-entry shock,' as they return from extended travel or study abroad. Essentially, this is the mental and emotional process of readjusting to your life back home and is often even more painful and frustrating than adjusting to culture shock in the host country.

However, few people are aware reverse culture shock even exists, including those who have experienced or will eventually experience it. Students are not fully prepared for the difficulties they will face when returning home, whether it be isolation, depression or otherwise, which makes the transition that much more distressing.

Junior Emily Houghton, who also studied abroad last fall in Luxembourg, underwent her own version of reverse culture shock.

"I think I underestimated how different it would be when I came back," she said. "The hardest thing was coming back to all of my friends on campus. When I was abroad they were always like 'Oh, everything is the same here,' but when I came back it felt like a lot had changed."

This feeling is normal for a student who has spent a semester abroad, Study Abroad Advisor Kevin Fitzgerald said. After they return, students often feel like they missed out on time with friends or that the relationships have shifted or changed.

"A lot of people have the 'I missed out' feeling, or you come back and can't get past the elevator speech with your very best friend," he said. "Sometimes all you want to do is talk about your experiences, which is a challenge when you can't get past 90 seconds of small talk."

Valerio identified with this, as she said she is always eager to share her stories from Luxembourg, but most people are not as interested in hearing them.

"I'm not sure if it was because they didn't get to experience it themselves or because they think I'm bragging, but no one really wants to hear about it," Valerio said. "Even my parents wanted to see two pictures and then they were bored."

Beyond changing friend groups and impatient listeners, study abroad veterans endure a number of other problems.

With overseas travel typically comes a better understanding and appreciation for other cultures, but not everyone has traveled abroad. Students who have never been immersed in another culture might be less tolerant of people different from themselves, which Valerio said she has noticed a lot more since she got back.

"[The other day] one of my friends was talking about the Asians on campus and said 'they're in America, they should learn to speak English,'" she said. "That honestly hurt me. I spent four months in a country and never learned the language.

"It just makes me realize that my friends and a lot of people who haven't studied abroad are kind of stuck in a bubble," Valerio said, "like they are so comfortable they just don't want anything to change."

Houghton has dealt with similar problems as well. While in Luxembourg, she took a class about Hitler and eventually got to visit Auschwitz, one of the biggest concentration camps from the Holocaust. Experiences like that one have changed the way she looks at certain things, she said, and now, she said, she notices small-minded comments from her peers that she doubts she would have noticed before.

The professionals at Miami's study abroad department are aware of the struggles returning students face and have various resources to help ease the adjustment process, Fitzgerald said.

One such resource is a sprint course called IDS 156: Study Abroad Reentry, in which students are able to reflect on their time abroad.

"We consider it the unpacking of the emotional side of the experience," Fitzgerald said. "A lot of students come back and they realize they need help processing their study abroad experience, so it is a great resource to have for [them]."

Fitzgerald also suggested returning students get involved at school because many of them come back and feel like something is missing. Through activities like the International Peer Orientation Leader (IPOL) program or Global Buddies, students get to feel like they are giving back, which can help with the emptiness they may be feeling.

"[When you're abroad], you get pushed so far out of your comfort zone that it breaks," he said. "That's where the reverse culture shock comes in - because you have changed so much.

"Then all of a sudden you have to leave, and when you get home it's not right," he said. "It wasn't quite right when you were there and it's not quite right at home anymore when you get back."

This state of limbo is painful when students are experiencing it, but Fitzgerald said it ultimately contributes to the growing up process, as does the entire study abroad program.

"When I'm advising students, I tell them to stay true to their experience," he said, "whether that's keeping a journal or writing down key moments and turning back to those when you need them."

Having something tangible like photographs, videos or journal entries allows students to stay connected with their experience. Many people return from study abroad and declare that it 'transformed' or 'changed' them, but unless they actively keep up with the culture and country in which they were immersed, Fitzgerald said most students revert back to their former selves within months of being back home.

"You could follow [the host country's] news, keep up on your language skills, stay in touch with the people you know still living there," he said. "I'm not saying it's by any means easy to do that, but it is a lot easier than it used to be, just with resources like Facebook."

Students may not be able to remain on their study abroad trips forever, but they can bring back stories, memories and some of the lessons they learned and incorporate it into the lives they have back home. It takes effort, but it is possible, Fitzgerald said.

He also said study abroad advisors try to teach mindfulness, which is the idea of being true to yourself and living in the current situation-wherever you are, whatever you are doing. He also said that committing to a study abroad program is committing to a unique kind of stress-the stress of being uncomfortable in a foreign place, of not understanding what the people around you are saying, the stress of trying unusual food items.

"And with stress comes reverberations," Fitzgerald said. "It's like Newton's law, 'for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,' and I think reverse culture shock is just a part of that, a part of the emotional process."

When students are abroad, he said, they are being pushed and pulled by the realities of their situation, and it causes them to examine their lives and themselves.

"While abroad, you have to look at what is most precious to you, what is real," he said, "like throwing certain items out of your backpack because it's too heavy. And while it's tough, the benefits do outweigh the costs."


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