The challenge of returning from abroad

For many students, the spring semester feels like it will never, ever end. With one meager break to split up not only the battery of tests, essays, readings and events, but also the semester of allergies, mud and Valentine’s Day can be exhausting. But for a certain group of students, the spring semester poses a unique set of challenges.

Study abroaders, world travelers, that person you totally forgot about (oops!) because they were gone for a whole semester—whatever you want to call them—are faced with the difficulty of re-adjusting to life back on campus.

While acclimating to a new culture certainly comes with its own mountains to climb, mountains made of dusty archeological artefacts or scones depending on where you studied, many students returning from their experience abroad find that the final migration home takes the cake for discouragement and disillusionment.

I find myself in this category. Coming back feels difficult precisely because I didn’t expect it to be difficult. In fact, I didn’t think that much about coming back. Returning was simply the natural next step. Our collective tendency to not process that pesky coming-home portion of our adventure causes many of us to feel like we were caught unawares by how confusing coming home truly is.

Yet I think there is another reason why coming back home is difficult, and it has nothing to do with us comparing our home to our study abroad experience. As far as many students who have studied abroad think, there is no comparison between their school and their experience abroad. The two are far too different to be compared, and each can be appreciated for its own merit.

Returning is so difficult because other people compare. Don’t worry, I’m not pointing any fingers. Instead, I propose that the reason the people around us have a tendency to assume a comparison is taking place—and that they’re on the losing end of it— is because those who have wandered haven’t communicated our love for both home and travel well enough. So, if I may, I would like to clarify the study abroad experience for the friends, family, and peers of those who left and come back.

The arc of the study-abroad experience tends to go as follows:

First, the Pinterest phase: the anticipation of studying abroad makes it all seem too good to be true. As a result, mass pinning occurs. This fuels a bubbly excitement, which then spurs more pinning. The cycle continues.

Second, the study abroad phase: you’ve made it. You’re here. A common misconception that both people who study abroad and those who don’t make is the belief that life doesn’t go on when you’re separated. After the first three weeks in a foreign country, it becomes glaringly obvious that life goes on. You are not a new person because your environment is new. Yet you do grow, others grow, and your relationships change with you and without you.

And finally, the coming home phase: the mixture of culture shock and the ending of an era that you were never prepared to end causes an emotional whiplash. This is the phase I’m currently in, and many other students are in as well.

The difficulty of this phase lies in the intrusive idea that we shouldn’t be feeling these things in the first place. This shouldn’t be so hard. How can we feel culture shock in our own culture? Why would we want to go back to a place where we only spent a semester? Why is it so hard for us to feel content at home?

Unfortunately, these questions don’t stay in the subconscious. They seep out from our friends, family and professors. Communicated through the glazed eyes of a friend regretting their decision to ask: “how was your semester,” and the remarks from professors that breed comparisons between curricula is the question: “aren’t we good enough for you?” This comparison hurts everyone, because it’s unanswerable.

In the words of Donald Miller, a best selling Christian author, here is an alternative way of seeing your friend or family member’s experience: “Everybody has to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.” Those of us who leave don’t return home with a checklist and a pen looking for everything wrong without our home once we see the wide world. We come home asking only that you continue to live with us, hug us, cry with us, laugh with us, and at least a couple of times listen to us. I, for one, am so thankful that home continues to be home.


Nichols is a junior majoring in English education. She can be reached at NicholsAK@jbu.edu.