What to do when home feels foreign

Three Linfield College students discuss reverse culture shock after returning from studying abroad for a semester.

Jesus Perez-Romero (front row, second from the left) studied in Vienna, Austria, during fall 2017.

Sometimes, coming home is harder than traveling across the world.

For many returning students, home feels more foreign than the foreign country they visited.

When students who have studied abroad are asked about their experiences, the responses vary, calling their time abroad unique, challenging, fun, cultural and amazing.

But one response seems to always be the same — “you have to do it.”

The study abroad experience is invaluable, and a majority of Linfield College students take advantage of the opportunity. According to Matthew Hiller, assistant director of international programs at Linfield, about 70 percent of Linfield students study abroad. These students understand the value of living and learning in another culture.

Linfield students prepare extensively for their journey overseas, learning about the culture, language and history of their destination. They also prepare for the transition back to college life. Reverse culture shock, the emotional and psychological effects experienced after returning home after prolonged time spent in a different culture, is frequently experienced by students who have been abroad.

“When you’re going abroad you’re expecting the culture shock. You’re expecting things to be different. You’re expecting to have to open your mind to new ideas,” says Hiller. “Whereas when you’re coming back home you think you know what to expect, but your morals and your ideals may have changed. So you’re thinking about things from a different perspective when you return.”

Linfield helps students ease back into life on campus through reentry sessions, leadership opportunities, clubs and online resources.

“Reentry culture shock is harder,” says Heather McNutt-Kaestner, a mass communication and communication arts double major and Spanish minor, who studied in Ecuador during the 2017 fall semester. “With the initial culture shock of arriving, I’m expecting it, I know it’s going to be different, I know it’s going to be exciting, sometimes awesome, sometimes weird. It’s something to adjust to.

Heather McNutt-Kaestner in Ecuador while studying abroad in 2017.

“You think you know, since you’ve lived in the U.S. your whole life, that it’s going to be easy as pie to go back, so reentry is more shocking,” she says. “Linfield recognizes that, which is really great.”

McNutt-Kaestner explains how even small things were difficult when she arrived back on campus. From remembering how to pay for food to replying to retail workers in English, readjusting took time.

Linfield’s International Programs Office holds reentry sessions each semester for students who are returning from a semester or year abroad. The sessions focus on three main areas — overall experiences, how to get involved on campus and how to integrate experiences moving forward.

Students are encouraged to verbalize their experiences and challenged to question what they’ve learned.

“It’s funny how our experiences were so drastically different. Ecuador is not like England, it’s not like Germany. But the culture shock that we’re all going through right now is the same,” says McNutt-Kaestner.

Jesus Perez-Romero, a bio-chemistry major who studied abroad in Vienna, Austria during the 2017 fall semester, shared a similar story.

Jesus Perez-Romero sporting his KSLC (Linfield’s college radio station) in Vienna, Austria.

“It was helpful to regroup with everyone who went abroad and talk about our experiences,” he says. “It was especially nice seeing how everyone was missing being abroad.”

During the reentry session, students are provided with resources to remain involved with cultural activities on campus and are taught how to highlight their experiences for job or graduate school applications.

Students are also encouraged to stay connected with their friends and host families, stay up-to-date on news and continue using the language from their study abroad locations.

“It’s weird that everything’s in English. I wasn’t expecting that when I came back,” says Luca Mallon, who spent the entire 2016–17 school year studying in France. “Where’s the French? When I came back here it was like everything was foreign. It still is.”

View of the Vieux Port de Marseille from the Fort St. Jean — courtesy of Luca Mallon, who studied abroad in France.

Mallon, a French and international business major, attended a French American immersion school before coming to Linfield, and is fluent in French. He has incorporated the language into his life at Linfield, for example, keeping his phone in French.

Another tactic that these three students used to help their transition was to stick to a schedule. Whether that meant going to the gym every day, jumping back into sports at Linfield or specifically scheduling their schoolwork each day, having structure helped them ease back.

Although McNutt-Kaestner, Perez-Romero and Mallon studied abroad in different countries and experienced different cultures, they all cited a common reverse culture shock — America’s fast-paced lifestyle. From not taking the time to properly catch up with friends to a more rigorous and grade-driven school environment to not truly enjoying sit-down meals, this part of the American culture was difficult to adjust to.

“In France, when you decide to meet somebody for lunch, it’s an open-ended time frame,” says Mallon. “You meet for lunch and then you go out and do something after. People can more easily call somebody and say ‘let’s go do something right now.’ Here it tends to be ‘oh, but you didn’t tell me two days before.’ In France you’re able to do things more freely.”

Tips for reentry include keeping an open mind and making a plan, says McNutt-Kaestner.

Heather McNutt-Kaestner while studying abroad in Ecuador.

“It’s important to focus on what your needs are first and not feel too flustered by everyone who wants to catch up with you,” she adds. “Making a game plan allows you to get excited about coming back, not overwhelmed.”

Although the transition can be challenging, most agree time abroad is life changing — for the better. From gaining confidence and lifelong friendships, to finding a second home in the world, study abroad is something students carry with them forever.