Reentry: The Rough and Ruthless Truth
When I landed in Buenos Aires, sweating from the inevitable humidity that plagues the city in the summer, I had only positive thoughts. I had been abroad before in high school, I spoke Spanish near fluently, I wasn’t shy, and I thought this semester was going to be easy and rewarding for me. Little did I know that it was going to be one of the hardest semesters of my life, specifically that it would change my post-study abroad life.
Study abroad is one of the most rewarding experiences in your life. It enriches you, not just on an academic level, but also on a personal level. It teaches you who you are, what you are comfortable with, and what you ultimately want in life.
Ironically, the hardest part about my study abroad was coming back to the States. Although I was excited to see family and friends, I dreaded leaving the city. I had grown to love the people, the places, and most importantly the food. Reluctantly, I got on a plane exactly six months after I had arrived, and after 24 hours, I was back in Wisconsin. Immediately upon returning to the States, I didn’t experience what many label “reverse culture shock.” I was just too busy. I was seeing everyone and everything I hadn’t seen in six months: family, friends, and my favorite sandwich shop. However, soon after returning to university, I felt alone all the time. Back in the daily grind of homework and work, I began to slip and felt lost. No one else understood what I was experiencing. I had reverse culture shock on the bus, going to classes, even picking up shampoo at Target. I hated everything and everybody, and I just wanted to go back to Buenos Aires. People didn’t understand when I tried to explain it to them; you are supposed to be happy to come home, but I really wasn’t. Others didn’t understand the personal connections I had made, and honestly, how could they?
Before you leave to study abroad, there are a lot of ways to prepare. You have support from others, including school and IFSA-Butler, but there was not a lot of support when I returned, particularly not from my school. My study away department only had one “return activity” a month, and they were always on Thursdays, the day that I work. I emailed the department and asked if there were any more events available, and they told me there was not. I was heartbroken. How was I going to ever process this alone?
There are other things you can do to combat reverse culture shock. What worked for me was surrounding myself with friends who cared about me and immersing myself in activities. I find I am saddest when I am just sitting on the couch, fooling around on the Internet because I have nothing to do. Talking with other friends who had studied abroad and being open about my feelings also helped me process my feelings. Slowly but surely, the shock of being able to buy a towel for less than ten dollars or using a drive-thru fades. After you return, you get used to your home again, just like you got used to where you studied abroad initially. This period of wonderment of the modern conveniences of the States doesn’t last long, but it is important because if affects our reentry process. You are essentially adjusting to your old life while being a completely new, different person.
Being part of the ambassador program with IFSA also really helped me overcome this transition period. Being able to discuss my experience and help inspire others to study abroad is a truly rewarding experience. First, to process your experience, it helps to talk about it. Being an ambassador, you talk about your study away semester a lot and people who understand and want to listen surround you! Also, being able to share the experience and get others excited about studying away alleviates some of the sadness.
Sometimes I still get sad, and that’s okay. Every once in awhile I text my close friends I made in Argentina about how much I miss them and we reminisce about walking downtown with our backpacks on our fronts to avoid pickpocketing. My advice to recent returnees is not to ignore your feelings or try to forget your experience. I laugh with my friends for hours thinking about the embarrassing things I said or did while I was abroad, but it is also not healthy to dwell too much on your semester. Although I ultimately plan to live abroad again, I don’t live abroad right now. Don’t forget to enjoy where you are in the present time. Appreciate the past, but don’t live in it.
Thyra Lindberg-Wysocki is a student at Macalaster College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Argentine Universities Program in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2016.