After studying abroad, readjustment difficult for some

Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Every year approximately one-third of the junior class spends a semester abroad — attending a foreign university, exploring a foreign country and adapting to a foreign culture. But by the time they return to Brown, it may have begun to feel foreign too.

Re-entry shock, the “reacculturation” process that occurs when students return home from a sojourn abroad, is a real phenomenon, according to the Office of International Programs.

Departing students receive information about it, including research and graphs charting students’ moods during the process of leaving and returning from study abroad, said Ned Quigley, associate director of the office.

Paige Hicks ’11, who just returned from a semester in Barcelona, said the OIP warned her departing group about re-entry shock, but they joked about it. She said when she first heard the term, she thinks she made a “that’s what she said” joke about it.

Hicks was more anxious about getting used to life in Spain and expected things to be the same back home, she said. The different academic environment and cultural lifestyle have been hard to shake, she said. She still has not gotten reaccustomed to having to eat dinner by 7:30 p.m.

For Evie Fowler ’11, who was also in Barcelona this fall, re-entry shock was “just as bad as the culture shock when you get there.” She is now always late and “can’t handle the Ratty,” she added.

But Nina Lauro ’11, who spent the fall in Rome said she expected more re-entry shock than she has experienced. “Home was just the same as it had ever been.” But coming back to Brown was “weird,” as was seeing the changes that had occurred in one semester, she said. In her Tae Kwon Do club, there were new members who felt established and viewed her as the new person.

As she got used to being away from home, Fowler said she began “realizing a lot of stuff” about herself.

Students may simply feel like different people when they return, OIP Director Kendall Brostuen said. While abroad, they have been “growing personally in a way that would be very, very difficult to duplicate on campus.” They now see the world through different eyes, he added.

Allison Schneider ’10, who spent last spring in Buenos Aires, Argentina, said she got in touch with a different part of herself during her semester away, and that it was difficult to integrate her study abroad side and her Brown side.  After a semester free from extracurricular commitment, she said she struggled to put in as much time as she had before she went abroad. She had to find a “balance” between “involvement and isolation,” she said.

Schneider’s experience with re-entry shock moved her to work as a peer advisor at the OIP, she said, adding that it allows her to share her experience with people who understand it.

These growing experiences can strain old friendships. Hicks said she tries hard to avoid over-sharing her stories from abroad with friends who did not go abroad so they don’t get sick of it.

The other returners agreed — Lauro said she is “glad to be able to share (her) feelings with other people who were abroad,” who understand what she’s going through.
Schneider said she had to realize that she doesn’t need to share her experience abroad with her old friends because they still share Brown. Even though she does not feel as at home at Brown as she used to, she said she has learned not to feel guilty or frustrated about that.

Even if re-entry is not a comfortable process, it demonstrates that a student is not in the same place he or she was before, Brostuen said. It is “an indication that something positive has happened,” he added.

Students who really struggle psychologically and emotionally with returning to Brown can speak to a dean, someone in the OIP or Psychological Services, Brostuen said, though he added there are usually not many people who reach that point.

The OIP also works to help students integrate their study abroad experiences with their life at Brown through collaborations with the Watson Institute for International Studies, the Swearer Center for Public Service and the Career Development Center, Quigley said.

These events can help show students how to use their time abroad to enhance their job and graduate school searches, as well as their remaining time at Brown, he added.

Students studying abroad generally take time to learn their new city and its culture, creating an intense bond. Fowler said four months abroad is definitely enough time that it can feel weird to come back. Her re-entry shock experience could “easily” be a combination of the usual reacculturation as well as her lingering love for Barcelona, she said. While she still loves Providence, it “feels a lot smaller,” she said. People can “outgrow” a city.

Lauro said she treated getting to know Rome like an extracurricular activity, a goal aided by the fact that her architectural history classes were usually spent walking around the city. She said she is coming to terms with the fact that she is not there anymore, although she added that she would love to return.

Hicks said her time abroad made her see herself living abroad in the future. While she said she valued her semester, by the end she was ready to return home.

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