Returning from abroad, seniors re-adjust

By Eleni Zimiles

After a year of rainy Europe, I landed back in the good ol’ U.S. of A on a day when the New York heat leaves you at a dead standstill. The first week back was a giddy frenzy of summer-soaked city days. I was energized by life back home-the fast walks, the scores of languages, the long nights on rooftops and street stoops with old friends and take-home Chinese family dinners. I often thought of my Spaniard friend. “Qué rico,” he used to say in Maastricht. “How rich this is.”

But the places you go never leave you, and my state of awe slowly turned into bewilderment. Northern Ireland and the Netherlands could no longer sit in the back of my mind, and every morning my room felt unfamiliar. I craved the lives I had found for myself abroad, the endless pots of tea, the Irish nostalgia and Dutch dive bars. I felt distanced from the relationships that were supposed to comfort me.

Having experienced little culture shock entering Europe, I didn’t seriously anticipate any re-entry difficulties coming back. So, one afternoon, when a friend,front porch said to me, “You know you’re going through reverse culture shock, right?” I was taken aback.

And so it goes. While juniors scramble to finish study abroad applications, and prepare for their journeys abroad, many seniors confront the challenges that arise with coming home.

Re-entry or reverse culture shock, according to the International Center’s website, is the adjustment process that takes place when one returns to their home culture. Reverse culture shock is often caused by, “a discrepancy between our expectations and reality,” generally resulting in varied levels of anxiety.

“There’s a big continuum of why people have a hard time integrating back,” said Mia Nosanow, a counselor at the Health and Wellness Center. “Every year [the counseling center] sees people who are coming back and having a hard time integrating, all in different ways.”

Symptoms can be anything from depression, to a change in goals or priorities, discomfort at recognizing Americans’ privileges, or restlessness.

One aspect of reverse culture shock that many students experience, depending on where they studied, is an immediate feeling of a quickened pace of everyday life.

“The pace is so different in countries such as Italy or Ecuador, people take time,” Nosanow said. “We’re just so sped up here and people who’ve been abroad really miss just having that slow pace to connect with other people.”

With the combination of a fast-paced culture and a commitment to friends, school and extracurriculars, students can easily become overwhelmed.

“Probably the most challenging thing [coming back] has been that a lot more people are demanding my attention and energy,” said Josh Porte ’09, who returned from London. “The social pressure of trying to reconnect with everyone all at once while adjusting to the new school year is pretty intense.”

Having such a personal character, transitions can often be lonely processes. Many times students have difficulties getting past the highlights of a trip, and expressing the multi-faceted layers of their experience.

“The hardest part of coming back was missing the everyday things that I unconsciously got really used to, like language, geography, routine,” said Liza Baer ’09, who studied in France. “And then, because no one shared that everyday experience with me, to feel unable to communicate that loss to anyone.”.

Readapting to Macalester daily life is also at times an invigorating and inspiring process. Coming back from abroad for their last year of college, seniors are pushing themselves to meaningfully engage with their surroundings at Macalester by reconnecting with friends or becoming involved again in organizations and activities at school or in the Cities, or even just taking it easy.

“Study abroad helps you to realize that college is a very particular and fleeting period in our lives,” said Anne Johnson ’09. “We’re not going to be here forever, and that makes you appreciate your time here a bit more.”

As I walk across the grass each day in front of the fresh new Leonard Center and bear witness to the summer turning into fall, a Thomas Wolfe title, “You Can’t Go Home Again,”often struts through my mind.

You are never the same person who left, and home is never the same place you departed from. While past selves and places can never truly and fully be recovered, our present selves are always in the making.

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