How to Deal With Reverse Culture Shock After Studying Abroad

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Studying abroad can be one of the most exciting and life-changing experiences you’ll have. But like all good things, it will come to an end. In How to Make the Most of a Study Abroad Experience, I shared what I would have done differently in my own semester abroad in Florence, Italy. But going away and exploring a foreign land is only half of the experience. Coming home is the other. You’ve just spent a few months to a year assimilating into another culture, and now you have to reassimilate into your home culture. It’s called reverse culture shock. This period of re-entry taught me more about myself than the semester in Italy had. Here’s my best advice for those returning from studying abroad.

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Keep your expectations in check.
One of the toughest things about coming home is mitigating your expectations against reality. You only have memories of what life back home was like, with whatever communication you upheld with friends and family. But while you’ve been away, the world has still been turning at home. Your friends have been living their lives and perhaps growing a bit distant from you. You’ll be surprised by changes in your university or community. Even things that didn’t change will seem strange. After months as a pedestrian in Italy, with its narrow, centuries-old streets and compact buildings, I was struck by how wide open the landscape was in Texas as my family drove me home from the airport. 

A view of Florence from the top of the Duomo

A view of Florence from the top of the Duomo

Approach your return with fresh eyes. Don’t expect everyone and everything to be the same. Understand that your perspective has changed, and take note of what surprises you. 

Recognize that few will care about your travel stories.
The is the ultimate irony: Everyone’s going to ask what it was like, but no one’s going to hang on the details of your answer. Most are being polite and mildly curious, but more than a few sentences, and their eyes will start to glaze over. Many people simply have little context for understanding what this experience must have been like for you or how you might have changed as a result. This often works out because it can be tough to sum everything up in conversation anyway. Oblige their questions with short and sweet responses. For those who truly want to know more, share a unique or interesting story of something that happened to you that never would have occurred at home; a specific story will be more interesting than platitudes about how much you’ve learned and grown as a person.

Florentines watching the Easter parade in Piazza del Duomo

Florentines watching the Easter parade in Piazza del Duomo

Channel your experiences and memories into something productive.
After you’ve unpacked and settled back into your life at home, it can be frustrating that this experience you had is suddenly in the past. You still feel connected to your host country and want to hold onto that.

In this stage, it can be helpful to find a productive way to channel that energy. In my case, I found a job as a student assistant at my university’s Study Abroad Center. I not only helped my fellow students research programs and options; I assisted new incoming exchange students with adjusting to American college life. It was a great way to stay connected to my experience while building work history.

Think about other ways you could use this experience to boost your resume. If you began learning a new language as part of your time abroad, why not join a language club or find a conversation partner to practice with? It would be a shame to lose what you learned. Did you travel to a developing country that could use an advocate back home? Research interest groups and nonprofits you might volunteer with.

The best side effect of any of these options is that you’ll likely find new friends who understand your experience and your appreciation for your host country’s culture.

Frescoes inside the Duomo in Florence

Frescoes inside the Duomo in Florence

Incorporate parts of your host country’s culture into your life. 
After you’ve been back for a while, you’ll probably have strong opinions about the cultural differences you’ve faced. Returning to Texas, I was acutely aware of our always-busy, stressed-out work culture versus the more relaxed lifestyle I’d lived in Italy, with amazing food and a more leisurely pace. On a personal level, this played out as an internal struggle: My intense perfectionism, ambition and constant desire to improve things around me (one of the most American cultural traits) were at odds with my new desire for a more relaxed and epicurean lifestyle. While I’ll probably always struggle with this to some degree, I did learn to find a bit more balance.

If you’re struggling to assimilate back into your home culture, identify what it is about the life you lived in your host country that you miss so much. Can you incorporate some elements of this into your life at home? While it’s not realistic to expect to return to your old life nor re-create exactly how you lived abroad, some balance of the two should be possible and will likely make you happiest.

Graffiti spotted outside my apartment in Florence, Italy

Graffiti spotted outside my apartment in Florence, Italy

It’s easy to look back on your study-abroad experience with rose-colored glasses, especially in the height of your frustration back home. But in time, you’ll understand that while your experiences studying abroad gave you another perspective on the world at large, your return taught you about home and yourself — and that you’re better for the entire experience.

All photos by Megan Van Groll.

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