Many can attest to the underlying heartbroken feeling that often accompanies the return from a life-changing cultural exchange program. Sure, on the surface you are still somewhat riding the rollercoaster; you’re posting throwback pictures on your Instagram, handing out souvenirs to your friends and family you’ve reunited with, and relishing in the longer shower that you never could have taken in your host family’s house. However, as you settle back into your new normal, you can’t help but feel like something’s off.
I tend to relate this feeling of “Reverse Culture Shock” to the moments after you finish the last book in your favorite series. You had just turned the last page expecting for something to follow but all that is staring back at you is blank paper. So you close the book and sort of wander around in a daze, reminiscing the story that you have been a part of. What are you supposed to do now that it’s over?
While your program may have come to an end, that doesn’t mean you should forget about all that you’ve learned or the people you met along the way! When you have such a transformative experience, such as a cultural exchange program, it kickstarts a passion for learning that will continue the rest of your life!
After I returned from my program studying in Spain, I noticed that I began comparing my lifestyle in the United States with the lifestyle that I had just returned from experiencing in Spain. For example, during one of my first few days back home my mom and I went to the grocery store. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt as it was the end of August and pretty hot outside. As we entered the store, I started to shiver uncontrollably. The air conditioning in the store was so cold; I swear I could see my breath! While in Spain, I had gotten used to having almost no air conditioning, as many Europeans think of it as an unnecessary waste of energy. Although I do appreciate being able to escape the heat in summer, I think the United States may go a little overboard with the AirCon. These comparisons that I made upon returning home helped me to not only readjust but also to be more critical about my home country.
Here are some other ways your cultural exchange can help shape your next steps!
In the weeks that follow your return home, you’ll get SO MANY questions about your time abroad! Try not to get too offended when people refer to your program as a “trip” even though you had lived there for months. Many people often don’t realize that that can make your experience feel like it’s being belittled. What you can do is perhaps host a get-together and show friends and family pictures and talk about some stories or highlights of your time abroad! Through educating people on your host country and the people you met you could possibly unravel stereotypes about your host community. By hosting an event like this you are showing what this time abroad meant to you. It could even encourage them to think about planning their own cultural exchange experience!
After coming home from your program, there’s no doubt you’ll miss all of the people you met and friends you made. Make sure you stay in contact with them! Since I lived in a student residence for part of my program, I was able to meet people from all around the world! Because I’ve kept in contact with them I’ve been able to visit a few of them in their home countries! Last summer I visited my friend in the UK and we traveled to Ireland together! If I hadn’t have met her in Spain that trip would never have happened. Later this summer, my roommate from Spain is planning on coming to visit me in my city; it works both ways! Going abroad gives you chances to return abroad!
I don’t know about everyone else, but when I went abroad my first time, I knew it wouldn’t be my last. The main reason I went on a program during high school was to figure out if studying abroad in college was something I could be interested in. I’m happy to announce that I’ll be doing just that this upcoming fall and spring semester! My cultural exchange experience introduced me to so many amazing opportunities. It sparked a passion not just for learning about cultures but learning about becoming a global citizen. So for those of you that are finishing up a program or maybe have been done for a while but still have that unsettled “end of your book” feeling, I encourage you to look into a new adventure; a new book. You could try Teaching in a Homestay in Chile or Volunteer at a Dog Rescue in Thailand! Whatever you do, you’re bound to learn more about yourself and how you can connect people and planet through growing your cultural perspective!