Back from study abroad: Is the party over?

    Photo by the author.

    The term “reorientation” was thrown around a lot as I made my way back home from studying abroad in Ecuador.  However, I did not think I had changed that much and, because I had very clear expectations for what returning home would be like, I didn’t think I would have any problems readjusting.  But as more and more little things began to bother me, I had to wonder whether I was going to have to re-adapt to my own home after all.  All it took was an email from the study abroad office that listed the following “Top Ten Challenges of Reverse Culture Shock” for me to confirm my self-diagnosis and start worrying that I would always be slightly dissatisfied with my life back home.

    1. Boredom

    Northwestern biology classes aren’t on par with whale watching or hiking through tropic jungles.

    2.    “No one wants to hear about this”

    I came back from Ecuador armed with a day-by-day description of my trip and a PowerPoint presentation of over 1,000 pictures. To my disappointment, not many people were keen on hearing anything past the basic “my trip was great.” Whatever the reason, I felt hurt that people who I hadn’t seen in four months weren’t more interested in my adventures and didn’t seem to care how important the trip was for me.

    3.    It’s hard to explain

    My experience in Ecuador was a combination of so many factors – the culture, the atmosphere and the people. The diverse activities and new experiences from the trip are extremely hard to condense and relay to people back at NU.

    4.    Reverse homesickness

    When I was in Ecuador, I missed home. But now that I’m back, I miss the gorgeous view from my bedroom window and seeing my adorable homestay siblings.

    5.    Relationships have changed

    I imagined my roommates sitting on their thumbs for Fall Quarter, eagerly awaiting my return. But I was greeted with anecdotes of their many adventures and inside jokes with the apparently “awesome” subletters. Although I was happy they had such a good time, I felt replaced and left out.

    6.    People see the “wrong” changes

    People tend to focus their questions about my trip on how fluent I became at Spanish, but my change in social consciousness is not evident to many of my friends. Although this was an important element, I feel like I benefited more from learning about social and environmental justice than I did from learning about the language.

    7.    People misunderstand if I adopt elements of my host culture; they misinterpret my behavior

    I was a straight-up carnivore before Ecuador. Although I haven’t adopted strict vegetarianism — who can resist Chicken Shack — I am trying to save meat for special occasions and have stopped buying meat from the grocery store, a change that has confused some people.

    8.    Feelings of alienation; seeing home with critical eyes

    After living in a country where everyone is expected to show up fifteen minutes late, I had forgotten the importance of punctuality in America. This high-stress culture is a change of pace from a society where people don’t take themselves so seriously. In addition, the stressful life typical of a Northwestern student returned instantly upon my arrival at O’Hare; the general impatience at the airport was contagious. Back on campus, the competitive environment gave me a perpetual feeling of necessity — the need to do homework or go to a meeting.

    9.    Inability to apply new knowledge and skills

    Learning to identify tropical plant and fish species was a wonderful experience. But practically, those skills are not going to help me on any Developmental Biology midterms or finals.

    10.  Fear of losing the experience, like storing it away in a souvenir box that we only occasionally look at.

    Already, Ecuador seems like a distant memory. I’ve been immersed in NU life and planning for my future that I don’t have the time to sort through all my pictures from the trip or relive my experiences.

    The more ways I found that the list applied to my life, the more I realized that I should have paid more attention to those reorientation seminars in the last week of my study abroad program.  But I was curious to see how well it applied to my friends’ experiences with adapting back to life at Northwestern.  As it turned out, one of them had also been feeling more stressed and another had the same angst after hearing so much about the amazing sub-letters.  I immediately felt comforted that my feelings were not just a result of my being ridiculous or self-centered. Reverse culture shock was (and still is) a real thing for my friends and me, and while it is by no means a bad thing (in fact it is a good sign that we had fulfilling and influential study abroad experiences), understanding the reality of it went a long way to making the process a lot easier.

    Spelling of title fixed. Thanks to commenter Tatiana for pointing out the error.


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