Returning Home from Studying Abroad Can Cause “Reverse Culture Shock”

The number of United States students studying abroad is up 8.5 percent and has increased four-fold in the past two decades, according to Open Doors 2009: U.S. Students Studying Abroad. With more students than ever studying overseas, many will feel out of place when they return to their college campuses.

reverse culture shock_pic-resized-600Although most colleges help prepare students for study abroad experiences, few help students readjust when they return home, sometimes resulting in reverse culture shock.

Reverse culture shock is the real learning experience of study abroad, says Scott Manning, director of cross-cultural programs at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.  “That’s when students are able to see the growth that they have made while they have been away,” he says. “They can compare their beliefs, values and ideas against those they held before they left.”

Manning had his own experience with re-entry shock as an undergraduate after returning home from studying in France. “Nothing in Kansas was going to be good enough,” he says. “Like many students, I came back feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere anymore. Not in my home country, but also not in the country I visited.”

He wound up flunking out the year of his return – and hopes to prevent similar outcomes for the students at Susquehanna.

All students there are required to participate in GO: Global Opportunities, a program that requires each student to study off campus in a cross cultural experience for a minimum of two weeks.  Students are then required to take a two-credit reflection course on their return to campus.

“The reflection course aims to change that feeling of ‘I don’t fit in anywhere,’ to ‘I fit in everywhere,’” Manning says.

It’s not enough to just experience new cultures, he says. It’s necessary to think about what effects those experiences create.

“We give students an organized forum in which to process their experiences with other students, so they can get the beneficial learning that comes from ‘reverse culture shock,’” Manning explains. “They get the advantage of a built-in support network in case they really do have problems.”

What else can students do to make the most of their return from study abroad?

First, think about how to extend the learning experience.  “Spend some time thinking about the things that you will miss the most and the things you’ll miss the least,” Manning advises. “These are important clues to what has seemed really different and where some of that reverse culture shock will be focused.”

Also, consider how to keep in touch with the new culture, such as learning a language, reading online media from that country, or starting a service project to strength connections between the two cultures.

He suggests students also offer to share their adventures with other members of the campus community.  “Talking about it is the best way to learn more from it,” Manning explains.  “Students who give presentations on campus or in the community do a great service, but it also helps themselves to process their experiences.”

Finally, share your new empathy with international students on campus or immigrants in the local community.  Experiencing culture shock and re-entry shock helps students learn more about themselves and the people around them, Manning says. “Having experienced those feelings can make you more empathetic to the needs of those who are new to your own culture.”

What advice do you have that can help students returning home from studying abroad with the transition process? Comment & share below!


For those of you who are still contemplating whether to study abroad or not, check out the top 9 reasons why you absolutely should!!

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