Welcoming your student back as they return from an experience abroad should make you very proud as a parent or family member. Yet, whether you notice it or not, your student may be going through some changes known as readjustment (reentry or reverse culture shock). This readjustment may show itself through excitement and difficulties in resuming relationships, and adjusting back to UW-Madison both academically and socially.
Students often go through a phase of “reverse” or “reentry” culture shock when they return from studying abroad. Students expect to go through adjustments in foreign countries, but do not always realize that life has continued without them at home and there may be changes for which they were not prepared. For your student, returning to their home culture probably feels much like when they arrived to their host country. Home might feel foreign, or no longer feel familiar and natural. The stages of culture shock experienced abroad can repeat coming home, in reverse culture shock, which can sometimes be even more challenging
The best way to help your student with readjustment is showing genuine interest through listening to your student’s stories and concerns while encouraging them to not segment their life abroad. Faced with questions such as “How was your time in xxxx?” a student often can only answer “Great!” before conversation moves on to another subject. Encourage friends and family members to ask more specific questions like “What were the best things about living abroad? The most difficult? What places did you visit? Are people’s daily lives the same as in the United States? Do you have any pictures? etc.” Have a party where your student can show off food, customs and souvenirs from his or her travels. Not only will such questions and activities remind students they had a worthwhile experience and help them to readjust, it will help others in your community or family learn more about the world around us.
Reading through our section for returned students may help you understand what your student may be experiencing.
Each Student Readjusts Differently
The following questions may help you understand the mix of emotions your student is experiencing, but know that everyone’s experiences and adjustments may be different.
- What is reverse culture shock? Relearning the American way of doing things. Different cultural skills were learned in a new environment while living abroad. Readjusting back to a home culture can take time.
- What is being learned? Culture is a learned and deeply engrained type of knowledge – relearning culture takes time. Students slowly but surely adapt over the course of their experience abroad by both passively and actively learning a new culture. By the time they leave, many feel a greater sense of acceptance in the society than when they arrived.Ways of speaking, thinking, and interacting may need to be adjusted when coming home, though many students want to bring new knowledge with them, thus validating their experience. Common manifestations of readjustment are feeling like no one can understand your experiences abroad. Integrating new values and knowledge is harder than previously thought.
- How long does readjustment last? Days to weeks to months – whenever it starts or stops is normal. Readjustment can begin the moment your student steps off the plane or after some time at home. Readjustment is a highly personal and individual experience.
- What is there to adjust to? American ways of doing things. Culture is often so engrained that you may not understand that anything needs to be adjusted. Common points of stress for students include readjusting to American sense of time and pace of life, consumerism, and understanding of the world (or perceived lack thereof). Personal challenges can include expressing experiences to people who were not in their study abroad program, coming to terms with their new self, and returning to the academic and social norms of UW-Madison.
- As a parent or family member, what can I do?
Be there for your student. Your student may be going through a tough transition – help them along without being critical, especially when they are.
Be patient. Adjusting can be particularly hard in the first few days. Students may just need a less busy schedule and time to reacquaint. When these feelings pass, help your student refocus their energy to identify new goals or become more active in their newfound interests.
Be perceptive. Be open for listening on your student’s terms. Be there when they need to talk but also give them space. Accept that memories and stories may only come out at a much later time when the student feels ready to talk about them, or remembers them. Talking about your own life experiences to the student will help to open a line of communication. Giving a small gift like a blank photo album can be beneficial.
Be parental. Support and guide them as they readjust. Your student may be vastly more independent than before. If your student’s goals have changed, discuss them. If your student is worried about losing language or cultural skills, ask them about mapping out a plan of action to keep their skills fresh. Talk about strategies for managing reentry.If you notice any drastic changes that need to be brought to attention, you may recommend that your student contact University Health Service’s Counseling and Consultation Services.