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For American students abroad, coming home is greater shock

MIDDLEBURY, Vermont—For some Middlebury College students, the hardest part about studying abroad wasn’t adjusting to life in a foreign country.

It was coming home.

Brian Fink says the feeling hits him in the library—the palpable stress of his fellow students reminds him how much he misses the more contemplative pace at the French university where he studied last year.

Gale Berninghausen wonders if she’ll ever uncork the bottle of Spanish wine she’s saving for an occasion that reminds her of the lingering, talkative dinners she recalls from Madrid.

And Mary Hiebert feels it at unexpected moments. Once, she was out for coffee with her parents soon after returning from Ireland when she burst into tears.

“I had this vague sort of sadness,” Hiebert recalled. “I didn’t know what it was, or how to talk about it. I think it was a sense of loss.”

Many of the 160,000 American university-level students who study abroad each year set off well prepared with language and cultural training. Experts say they’re often less prepared for the jolt of coming home. What may strike friends as annoying disdain for the life they’ve returned to may actually reflect real depression.

“Reverse culture shock can be more difficult than the classic culture shock,” said Craig Storti, author of The Art of Coming Home, a guide for returning expatriates. “People actually resist fitting back into their home countries, because it symbolizes going back to ‘who I was.’ They’re so different, and they don’t want to endanger this new self, to compromise this richer person they’ve become.”

Returning Americans of all ages often find the pace of life harried, and their friends and families gratingly provincial. For students who have become accustomed to the more independent learning style typical of many foreign universities, their few remaining semesters back at American colleges can feel awkward and over-structured. Many are moving from a big, glamorous city back to a small town like Middlebury.

And these days especially, encountering anti-Americanism may well have shaken their political views.

A growing number of schools are expanding efforts to help returning students. Many, like Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, have dinners and discussions for former expatriates; some, including Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, offer “re-entry” courses.

But administrators admit they aren’t always sure how best to help.

“I think the field as a whole is struggling with this, to really pinpoint what it is students are feeling,” said Cori Filson, director of international programs at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, which is developing a course for study abroad students with a post-trip component.

At Middlebury—where more than half of the roughly 2,350 students spend time studying in another country—Fink, Berning­hausen and Hiebert were part of a group of students who gathered over lunch recently to talk about their experiences returning from a transformative year or semester abroad.

They discussed their frustration dealing with others who couldn’t understand how they’ve changed, or whose worldviews they feel are limited. They also acknowledged that their attitudes may have irritated friends and family.

Berninghausen admits that covering her dorm room with memorabilia from her Spanish trip alienated at least one friend. She’s tried to bite her tongue and not tell too many travel stories.

“They’re very excited about [their travels] and want an audience,” said Skidmore’s Filson. But friends who have stayed home “are kind of like, Let’s move on, because they haven’t shared that experience.”

David Macey, who oversees Middlebury’s off-campus study programs, says many difficulties are academic. Abroad, students commonly find a more independent curriculum and study style. When they return, a regime of assignments and quizzes can feel insulting.


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