The challenges of returning from study abroad

Megan Palumbo, Mackenzie Dineen, & Avery Stankus – Co-editor-in-chief, Features Editor & 1851 Staff

Coming back to Lasell after a semester abroad is challenging. As soon as you adjust to new culture, language, sights, and cuisine, it is time to pack your bags and go home.

Many students struggle with what is called reverse culture shock, which is when someone returns home and has to reacclimate to their once familiar surroundings. The International Services Office now offers an entire web page dedicated to reverse culture shock and provides a multitude of resources for study abroad returnees thanks to Lasell alum Madeline Kenny, who researched and built the page last year.

According to the Director of International Services Sarah Driscoll, about 20-25% of each class at Lasell studies abroad, whether it be through academic programs or Shoulder-to-Shoulder programs. “We realized as students were coming back that there was more that we could do to help students process their experience,” said Driscoll.

The resource page breaks down reverse culture shock into the three main emotions a returnee may feel: euphoria, shock and adjustment. Additionally, it lists out the many challenges study abroad returnees face and how to cope with them. It also includes Global Ambassador testimonials, which can remind students that they are not the only one who feels this way.

Driscoll believes reflecting on your experiences through writing, talking about it and join- ing a group of like-minded people is important. “You might have experienced that your friends that didn’t study abroad can’t relate and maybe don’t want to hear your stories as often,” she said. “I think when you have had such a transformative experience, being able to talk about it and reflect on it is so important.” Under the ‘Getting Involved’ tab, there’s plenty of information on the Global Ambassador Program, International Welcome Program and clubs and organizations with an international focus.

Here are the stories of three 1851 Chronicle writers who studied abroad and what they experienced upon their return.

Megan Palumbo traveled to South Africa and studied at Stellenbosch University in the Fall of 2017. “Studying abroad in South Africa made me the strong individualist I am today. I went by my- self, threw my comfort zone out the window and kept an open mind. After living in Stellenbosch for almost five months, I came back feeling like a better, more confident version of myself. During my time in South Africa, I honestly felt like I was living in a fantasy. I was hiking mountains every weekend, drinking wine on weekdays, visiting wildlife sanctuaries, and not worrying about a busy schedule. It was a dream compared to the life I’ve built at Lasell. Leaving the U.S. was hard, as I was leaving my family and boyfriend, behind but coming back was even harder.

You almost expect the world to stop while you’re away, and then restart when you return. However, when I got back, everything had changed whether I wanted it to or not. I had to come down from a five-month high of adventure, falling back into my routine-driven life. I enjoyed being in communication classes again and seeing familiar faces walking down Woodland Road, but other areas of my life were crumbling. I fell into a whirlwind of anxiety. I was no longer on the lacrosse team, I had to juggle six courses with a job that had me working 7 to 8-hour shifts, and I was so busy I barely got to catch up with old friends. This took a toll on my mental health that I wish I addressed sooner. I was glad to go to South Africa on my own, but coming back, I wish I had at least one other person to reflect on memories and share emotions with. I was affected by reverse culture shock.”

Mackenzie Dineen moved to Florence, Italy and studied at Florence University of the Arts during Spring 2018. “From the moment my feet first kissed the red dirt of the Florence airstrip I felt at home – a sensation I had never experienced prior. Amongst the winding cobblestone roads and laughter of new friends I truly found myself. Independent and uninhibited, I roved wherever and whenever I pleased.

I often caught myself thinking ‘so this is what life really tastes like?’ For the first time in my life, I was in control of every decision I made, and nothing has made me happier. This newfound agency was like a drug – and I drained every last drop of it during my five months, but sometimes the comedown is worse than the high.

I spent most of my time in Florence dreading my departure. I flew back to Boston with a heavy yet optimistic heart. I admired the sunset over Boston and cried tears of joy when I was reunited with my partner and our cat. However, English sounded wrong and harsh, and American food tasted wrong – I had plans to keep my life running adventurously, but they all evaporated while commitments took their place.

My mental health took a nosedive. I longed for sunshine and was met with cold and snow. When the semester began, I fell apart. I didn’t recognize any of the faces on campus, or have time to participate in extracurriculars with friends because I was so busy trying to support myself, let alone rebuild my finances. It’s been a little over a year since I moved to Florence and most days I think back to what I might have been doing there, this time last year. I still struggle with feeling alienated. For the most part I’ve adapted back to American life, but there’s something missing.”

Avery Stankus also relocated to Italy and studied at Florence University of the Arts in the Fall of 2018. “I can’t imagine studying abroad anywhere other than Florence. This city transformed me to become the best version of myself. The four month experience taught me the importance of my own company and trying new things.

That first week in Italy felt surreal – I was eating gelato every day, having pizza for dinner on more nights than I’d like to admit, and I had met the best group of friends. I really was in the honeymoon phase. To this day I don’t know if I ever really had true culture shock when first arriving to Florence, this city could do no wrong. Every weekend was a new adventure. Sure my bank account was depleting, but I was checking places off of my mental bucket list.

I was in a state of euphoria during the four months. Any time I was reminded of my departure I’d push it to the back of my head. While this tactic worked for the first couple months, I could no longer ignore the fact it was nearing the end. That feeling of not knowing if or when I’d be back is what made the last few days much harder.

Coming back home was the real culture shock. Realizing life went on while I was away was a tough pill to swallow. I had gone from traveling and feeling on top of the world to feeling so blank. I went from walking anywhere and everywhere to 20-minute drives just to get coffee. Food portions were the size of my head. I could only eat a quarter of my meals.

I would get so critical of Americans, feeling like they were doing everything wrong as though an Italian lifestyle is the proper way to live. I have yet to drink a cappuccino since being back because I know it won’t meet my new coffee standards. The reverse culture shock hit harder than the initial culture shock and I was not prepared for this.

It’s been two months since I’ve been home and I feel as adjusted as I could get. I don’t think I could ever go back to pre-Italy Avery because that’s not me anymore. Florence is no longer just a city to me, it’s the group of friends I FaceTime monthly, the music I listened to as I walked to my apartment, the worn out shoes I wore everywhere and I can’t seem to throw out. Florence will forever be a part of me.”

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