For any study abroad student, returning home can be a bittersweet experience; short-term students may be having an amazing time full of enriching experiences but are starting to feel homesick and ready to return, while long-term students have spent an entire semester learning to live away from the United States. For them, their study abroad location has become another home, and while they will certainly be excited to reconnect with beloved friends and family, they have developed a bond to a particular place and the people they’ve met while they were there. Leaving that place and those people is a difficult experience.
Re-entry into the United States carries with it a unique set of challenges for a study abroad student, especially one who has been abroad for a semester or longer. While parents of short-term study abroad students likely will not run into these challenges, parents of long-term students may find that their son or daughter has returned a changed person. Their career plans are totally different. Their outlook on life is totally different, and while your son or daughter may have been excited to see you immediately upon their return, you’ve noticed that they’re behaving unusually. Rest assured; this is all part of the re-entry process, and it’s completely normal.
Some students have found that adapting to life back at home can be almost as difficult as adapting to life abroad. This process is called reverse culture shock and it can be real for any student arriving back in the US. Similar to the cultural adjustment phases they experienced while abroad, their adjustment back home will follow a fairly common cycle:
- Honeymoon – At first, your son or daughter will likely be thrilled to be back. He or she will be able to reconnect with family and friends, all the things that they missed will be easy to come by again, and they will be comforted by the familiarity of the situation they’ve come home to.
- Irritability and Hostility – While they were abroad, your son or daughter had the chance to examine other cultures, which often causes people to think critically about their own. After the honeymoon phase wears off, your son or daughter may be openly and actively critical about America and frustrated with what they consider the boredom of everyday life. The result is that, for a brief period of time, your son or daughter may be irritable or hostile to you or others. We ask you to take this in stride, as it is perfectly normal and only temporary.
- Adjustment – Eventually, most students are able to adjust to the return home. While time abroad often permanently alters a student’s worldview, most students eventually become comfortable with the fact that they don’t have to agree with or ascribe to all aspects of American culture, and that being openly critical of these things doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t belong here. Reverse culture shock isn’t an exact science; the symptoms and length of time that a student experiences this will vary on the student, their experiences, and the support given from friends and family before, during and after their study abroad experience. Some students return home with very few major adjustment issues; others consider their time abroad to be a life-changing or life-affirming experience and have major issues returning home. Your support as a parent will be vital to smoothing out any re-entry issues that may arise. Sharing Their Experience One of the most common complaints about students’ returns home is that they don’t believe that anybody really wants to hear about their experiences in great detail. They will likely come home and want to talk about your time abroad for hours on end but are concerned that friends and family will only listen for so long. We encourage you to really listen to your son or daughter; they may have a wealth of experience that they’ll want to share with you, if you give them the time to do so. Don’t be surprised, either, if your son or daughter is slow to begin sharing their experiences. The return home often brings a sense of shock with it (as well as considerable jet lag), but students returning from study abroad will almost always want to talk about it sooner or later.