As the plane made its final approach, tears welled up in my eyes. Once on the ground, a huge lump formed in my throat. I took a deep breath, slung my carry-on over my shoulder, and reminded myself that I could do difficult things.
After all, I’d just spent an entire year doing difficult things, like living with a German family I didn’t know and going to high school in a language I had to learn from scratch.
As I stepped off the plane and walked down the jet way to where my friends and family were waiting to take me “home,” I was so proud of all I’d done and who I’d become during my year abroad as a high school exchange student.
But I was also really, really scared.
What will my life be like now?
If I talk about Germany, will it sound like I’m bragging?
Will I ever go abroad again?
Soon after returning home, all I could think about was going abroad again. Friends and family got tired of hearing me talk about Germany. Even though I was going off to college, being back in the US and speaking my native language every day was SO boring. And even though people commented – usually in a positive way – about the new personal style I’d cultivated while living abroad, I felt like nobody at home could actually see the person I’d become.
I felt like everyone expected me to move on from my year abroad, stop talking about Germany, and get back to “real life” at home. But that was the last thing I wanted to do.
In college I majored in German so I could spend my junior year studying in Stuttgart, and then became an English teacher after graduation so I could spend another year abroad.
Going abroad again and again (and again) became my go-to re-entry coping strategy because going abroad is awesome and boarding an international flight is far more fun than staying “home” and trying to figure out if you still belong where your passport says you’re from.
Through it all, re-entry always seemed like a tough nut to crack. As both a returnee, and later as an international education professional, I bought into the common assumption that re-entry is something you just have to muddle through until the sad feelings fade or you can go abroad again.
Then I realized just how wrong that assumption is, and how deeply an unprocessed re-entry can affect you months or years down the road – which is what most of us experience because our study abroad, volunteer, service learning, and teach abroad programs just don’t have the bandwidth to guide returnees through the intentional and meaningful reflection we need.
You might be thinking, well, I just returned from my semester abroad and am already planning to teach abroad next year. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the future rather than continue to think about the past? Think about it this way….
Imagine you’re wearing a backpack. Now imagine how it would feel to have a rock magically added to that backpack every day in re-entry. At first, you don’t notice the rocks, and you actually get a little stronger carrying the extra weight around. But at some point, weeks, months, or even years down the road, your backpack fills up with so many rocks that you’re completely weighed down and unable to carry it any further. And by that time you’re not even sure where the rocks came from!
That’s what happens when returnees don’t intentionally reflect on their experiences abroad or process the grief, complex emotions, and identity issues that often surface in re-entry.
But don’t feel bad if you haven’t reflected as deeply as you’d like. The good news is that instead of accumulating re-entry rocks you can use them as stepping stones. With the right approach, every re-entry you experience can be a positive and growth-filled experience that launches you into even bigger and better things at home or abroad.
While I didn’t know how to make meaning of re-entry when I first went through it, I do now. That’s why I created the Re-entry Roadmap workbook and why I’m hosting a free “Re-thinking Re-entry: 5 Tips for Returnees” webinar on Tuesday, September 19. If you’ve been abroad, I invite you to join my webinar and learn how you can make re-entry a positive experience you’ll actually benefit from – and you might even win a free copy of my Re-entry Roadmap workbook!
How has re-entry or reverse culture shock impacted your life? What were the best coping strategies for you? Share them with us below!