Coming home can be hard after a semester abroad


by Megan Quick

Leaving Simpson to study in Argentina last February was hard for Kayla Bergan. Coming home to America was even harder.

Bergan and many of the hundreds of Simpson College students who study abroad bring back more than pictures and memories. They come home with mixed emotions, readjustments and reverse culture shock. Bergan is one of many Simpson students who’ve experienced this reverse culture shock firsthand.

Studying abroad requires adjustment upon arriving in another country, as well as adjusting after returning home, said Jay Wilkinson, Simpson College’s international education coordinator.

Experiencing culture shock upon arriving in a foreign country is expected. From language to the unwritten rules of cultures, everything takes some getting used to.

“The culture norms for interacting with individuals can be very different from what you’re used to,” Wilkinson said.

But after adjusting to these differences in another country, students often experience the same effects after coming home. Wilkinson identifies this struggle as reverse culture shock, and it’s something most people don’t realize.

“Reverse culture shock is after you’ve spent time and you’ve done some adjusting and are used to having things be a different way,” Wilkinson said. “Then you come back to your home culture and it’s different and it can be hard to get used to that fact.”

Every student is different and the effects of reverse culture shock differ individually. After enjoying their study abroad location, some students come back not liking U.S. culture as much as they used to. Others are relieved to be back home.

Coming home from Argentina, Bergan had gotten used to being laidback and had to adjust back into a schedule. After adjusting to being in Argentina, returning home was difficult for her.

“I’m so used to being on a time schedule and not being late,” Bergan said. “Going there, if you’re going to meet someone at 7, they might not show up until 7:30, but they’re not late. That’s just their concept of time.”

Senior Susan Leslie also spent her time in Argentina last spring, agreeing that the two different senses of time made returning more challenging.

“You adapt over the four months and then you come back and nothing’s changed here, so you have to adapt back.” Leslie said. “Jumping back into having stuff scheduled all the time after having more free time in Argentina was different.”

Apart from adjusting time-wise, a student’s emotional adjustment can be even harder. Senior Terry Hodge says he felt confused after returning from his own experience abroad.

“When you come back, it’s interesting because you find that you’ve changed a lot when everything around you — your friends, your family — haven’t really changed,” Hodge said. “Everything has gone on without you and to be inserted back into that can be strange.”

Hodge traveled to Tahiti this past spring through Simpson, and he completed an internship in France this past summer.

“Somehow they see you as how you left, but you don’t feel that way, you feel a lot different and you feel changed somehow. It’s interesting trying to deal with that,” Hodge said. “You just get used to where you were and then you come back all the sudden and you’re confused.”

Bergan sometimes gets homesick for Argentina and her host family, she said.

“It was really hard to show my emotion because people would misread it,” Bergan said. “It made me sad, because I was sad and my family could understand that sometimes, but it made me feel bad. I didn’t want them to feel like I wasn’t happy to see them.”

A big challenge for students who’ve been abroad is the finding other people with whom they can talk about their experiences. Wilkinson says it’s very common for students who studied abroad to come back and want to tell people about their experiences.

But they often find that only a few people honestly want to hear more than a one-sentence answer.

“For a majority of students this is a life-changing experience for them, and they get the sense that people don’t care,” Wilkinson said.

To help students combat this experience, Wilkinson holds gatherings for the different study-abroad groups to allow students to talk and share what they feel.

“It really helps to talk about it with people that were on the trip,” Bergan said. “Friends who stayed here aren’t really going to understand some of the things that we went through.”

Bergan, Hodge and Leslie all described their experience as very positive, and all agree they would study abroad again and encourage anyone to do it.

“Simpson has great opportunities for students, so I’m definitely very happy to talk with students if they have questions about study abroad,” Wilkinson said. “It makes students more aware of the world around them, they have a greater appreciation for things outside of their current situation and setting.”

Simpson’s Study Abroad Fair is Wednesday, Sep. 19, for anyone interested in learning more about May term travels or semester-long travel courses.