Preparation and Managing Coming Home
Compiled by Dr. Bruce LaBrack. School of International Studies, University of the Pacific for use by the Institute of International Education, San Francisco. Aspire Newsletter, Spring 1996. Also a part of the SIT Study Abroad Toolkit.
World wide re-entry has its own set of special social and psychological adjustments which can be facilitated by being aware of the re-entry process and following some advice from those who have already returned. The following list is compiled from many sources, but all of the tips come from returnees who offer these ideas in the hope of making your re-entry easier for you and for those at home.
• Prepare for an adjustment process. The more you consider your alternatives, think about what is to come, and know about how returning home is both similar to and different from going abroad, the easier the transition will be. Anticipating is useful. As one psychologist put it, "Worrying helps."
• Allow yourself time. Re-entry is a process that will take time, just like adjusting to a new foreign culture. Give yourself time to relax and reflect upon what is going on around you, how you are reacting to it, and what you might like to change. Give yourself permission to ease into the transition.
• Understand that the familiar will seem different. You will have changed, home has changed, and you will be seeing familiar people, places, and behaviors from new perspectives. Some things will seem strange, perhaps even unsettling. Expect to have some new emotional and psychological reactions to being home. Everyone does.
• Expect to have a bit of "cultural catching up" to do. Some linguistic, social, political, economic, entertainment and current event topics will be unfamiliar to you as new programs, slang, and even governmental forms own culture. (Note: most returnees report that major insights into themselves and their home countries occur during re-entry).
• Reserve judgments. Just as you had to keep an open mind when first encountering the culture of a new foreign country, try to resist the natural impulse to make snap decisions and judgments about people and behaviors once back home. Mood swings are common at first and your most valuable and valid analysis of events is likely to take place after allowing sometime for thorough reflection.
• Respond thoughtfully and slowly. Quick answers and impulsive reactions often characterize returnees. Frustration, disorientation, and boredom in the returnee can lead to behavior that is incomprehensible to family and friends. Take some time to rehearse what you want to say and how you will respond to predictable questions and situations; prepare to greet those that are less predictable with a calm, thoughtful approach.
• Cultivate sensibility. Showing an interest in what others have been doing while you have been on your adventure overseas is the surest way to reestablish rapport. Much frustration in returnees stems from what is perceived as disinterest by others in their experience and lack of opportunity to express their feelings and tell their stories. Being as a good a listener as a talker is a key ingredient in mutual sharing.
• Beware of comparisons. Making comparisons between cultures and nations is natural, particularly after residence abroad; however, a person must be careful not to be seen as too critical of home or too lavish in praise of things foreign. A balance of good and bad features is probably more accurate and certainly less threatening to others. The tendency to be an "instant expert" is to be avoided at all costs.
• Remain flexible. Keeping as many options open as possible is an essential aspect of a successful return home. Attempting to re-socialize totally into old patterns and networks can be difficult, but remaining aloof is isolating and counterproductive. What you want to achieve is a balance between maintaining earlier patterns and enhancing your social and intellectual life with new friends and interests.
• Seek support networks. There are lots of people back home who have gone through their own re-entry and understand a returnees concerns — academic faculty, exchange students, international development staff, diplomatic corps, military personnel, church officials, and businessmen and women. University study-abroad and foreign student offices are just a few of the places where returnees can seek others who can offer support and country-specific advice.