An important discussion in every Orientation session for each semester’s new group of students is how to recognise and cope with culture shock. I blogged about the very topic in 2010 (“My First Culture Shock – Africa Style”). However, with our current groups nearly finished with their semester abroad, the other side of the coin is more relevant – “reverse” culture shock. In Orientation, I tell the students that everyone experiences culture shock differently. Some may feel overwhelming waves of newness around every corner in the first week, then feel completely at ease the rest of the semester, whilst others may not feel like anything is different until weeks into their international experience when something small (like trying a British marshmallow for the first time) may set it off. However, some students may not experience culture shock at all – until they touch down back in the States four months later. Seeing one’s home country through different eyes for the first time is a strange (and often unexpected) experience.
Stepping off the plane, into the airport, and back into the “normal” world would seemingly be a simple matter. But suddenly being surrounded by the native accent may be jarring. Cars look enormous. Free refills are a reason to get excited, and not just assumed. The clothes dryer works so quickly! People wear sneakers when they’re not at the gym. You can say “pants” without embarrassment. Don’t forget to tip! The shock of being shocked by “home comforts” can be more disjointing than being in an entirely new situation.
So how to prepare students for the possibility? Ideally, start the discussion early and ensure students are aware this may happen to them at the end of the semester. Friends and family will want to know they enjoyed the experience, but sharing a 64GB memory card’s worth of photos may be a bit more than anyone except Mom can handle. Memories that are hugely important to a student and their study abroad cohort will seem unimportant or boring to those who “weren’t there.”
Students should be reminded that the only people who can truly relate to their experience are the other members of their programme – and other study abroaders! Some universities have positions for study abroad alumni to promote programmes across campus or in study abroad fairs. This is a fantastic way to meet others in the same situation and students will have an audience keen to hear all about study abroad! Also, lead your students to resources for them to continue their international education – such as Fulbright, Peace Corps, BUNAC, or postgraduate opportunities. Even before going abroad again, encourage your students to take lessons learned whilst studying abroad into day-to-day life. Whether it’s mustering up the courage to go into that tiny Korean café and order an unrecognisable menu item or making the decision to take a Russian 101 language class as an elective, the confidence and adventurousness gained through study abroad can manifest itself in a myriad of ways back home. But hey, who doesn’t miss free coffee refills?!?