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ND, SMC plan to help abroad returnees

Megan O'Neil | Tuesday, December 7, 2004

The University counseling center will establish a support group starting next semester for students returning to campus after studying abroad. While participants often herald studying abroad as a transformative experience, the transition back to college life in the United States can be a challenge.Counseling center staff clinician Andrew Weis said the idea for the support group was developed earlier this semester but has made the most progress in the last few weeks.Weis, who will lead the group along with fellow staff clinician Swati Pitale, already counsels former abroad students one-on-one but believes the group setting will be beneficial. “The support group is really nice to share with people who had similar experiences and similar challenges,” Weis said. According to Weis, students often do not anticipate trouble returning to school back home. “It is common that students are surprised that readjusting to American and Notre Dame culture can be more difficult than adjusting to a foreign culture,” said Weis.Students develop different priorities abroad, said Weis, and grow comfortable with new cultural norms. Occasionally students hoping to continue living their adopted life styles in the United States are misunderstood by parents and friends. “People can be quite transformed by the experience,” Weis said, “and they are coming back here where there is maybe not as much adventure … or maybe not as much autonomy even.”Support group leaders intend to reach out to students as early as possible and make sure they are aware of the resources available to them, Weis said. Weis has already heard from several students currently abroad who are interested in participating when they return in January. “Our goal is to make it ongoing and contact students before they even get back to campus,” he said.Saint Mary’s also offers counseling to those struggling from reverse culture shock. While still abroad, students are provided with a newsletter instructing them on how to register for classes, arrange for their federal financial aid and apply for campus positions – all while thousands of miles away.The College also hosts several returnee events each semester and even offers a re-entry course called “Analysis of Study Abroad.” Saint Mary’s junior Lisa Grano, who spent last year studying in Rome, said she realized the transition back to the American environment would be difficult when her parents took her out to eat after picking her up at the airport. Nothing on the menu appealed to her.”It all just seemed like greasy American fast food,” Grano said. “I just felt the life style was so much more healthy over there.”Friends and family told her she had changed, and she herself felt older, Grano said, but everyone else back home didn’t appear to have changed at all. “It’s hard not to fall back into your patterns of dependency or stressing over things that seemed minuscule while you were abroad,” she said. Returning to campus wasn’t much easier. “It was really hard,” Grano said. “I felt like a freshman again, like not a part of the campus.”While in Italy, Grano said she found herself focused on absorbing the culture, catching the right trains and securing a bed in a hostel. She misses the freedom of being able to walk wherever she needed to go. “Now I live in the library at night and I used to walk the streets of Rome or go to a restaurant or go out and have a good time,” she said.