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Abroad returnees readjust to ND

Joe Trombello | Friday, January 20, 2006

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series exploring how students make the transition back to Notre Dame from studying abroad.

“Expect life to be different,” reads a sentence in the London Program’s orientation handbook given to students before their semester abroad. For many Notre Dame students, cultural and linguistic differences can make re-entry into the United States – and especially into the Notre Dame community – difficult after spending a summer, semester or year abroad.Terri Bays, associate director of the London Program – Notre Dame’s largest study-abroad program, with more than 130 students each semester – said information provided through the orientation handbook and orientation sessions helps students become aware of the differences they will experience in London.”We do prepare people … for differences in legal issues … cultural differences … in some ways how to stand back and observe,” she said. “[We try] to take the edge off of it [getting adjusted to living in London] … to make the process as smooth as possible so they can focus on the social issues.”Bays said the preparation is not confined to campus, as London Program students also receive a separation orientation once they arrive in London.”They address some of these [cultural] issues, along with safety issues, and are given a walking tour of the neighborhood,” she said.Students live together in four or six-person flats, and although specific rooms are single-sex, the entire building houses both male and female students. As a result, Bays said students can have an especially difficult time transitioning back to living on-campus in Notre Dame’s single-sex dorms.”The experience with parietals, living in flats, cooking for themselves … and gender relationships are very different,” Bays said. “Relationships between males and females is more collegial [in London], and they see each other as hallmates.”Bays said moving from an urban city like London to a smaller city like South Bend can be “especially disorienting,” as can differences between classes in London and those at Notre Dame.

Support services offeredBays said both the London Program and the International Studies Office schedule meetings with returning students to gain feedback and provide a forum for students to talk about their experiences abroad. Anne Hayes, program coordinator for the study abroad programs in Toledo, Spain; Santiago, Chile; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil said she met Wednesday evening with her students returning from Spain and will meet early next week with her students from Chile and Brazil. “Every program has debriefing sessions,” Hayes said. “[We also] have an evaluation sent out to students [returning from abroad] … There is a new question this year asking about re-entry and what services students would like to see provided.”Hayes said she is currently working on a handbook with articles to assist students with the transition from America to their host country and vice-versa and that the Office of International Studies does “as much as we can” to help students facing re-entry difficulties.However, Hayes said that the Office of International Studies, its program coordinators in particular, might not be the first resource that students who need to talk about re-entry difficulties use upon their return.”It’s hard because students are at different levels,” she said. “Some want to process [their experience abroad] … and some get back into their life at Notre Dame and don’t have as much time or energy to process.”Hayes said Campus Ministry plans a Mass and a dinner for all returnees and International Studies Program staff, which will occur Monday. She also said the International Studies Program holds an annual photo contest that presents returnees with a forum to share their experiences through photography.For students contemplating careers overseas, Hayes said the Helen Kellogg Institute, in conjunction with several other departments on campus, is organizing an International Career Workshop to be held Feb. 11 in the Hesburgh Center.Bays said she recently sent London Program returnees an e-mail that mentioned these resources and events, and the London Program’s tea also serves as a debriefing opportunity to “get students back together to activate social support groups – their friends.””We have a debriefing for students [on] Parliamentary internships, experiential learning projects and volunteer opportunities,” she said. “A side purpose of it is getting students back together to talk about their experiences and difficulties. [Debriefing] is partially to get feedback but also an opportunity for students to get together so they are not alone.”While the London Program used to hold even more events for returning students, such as teas for Junior Parents Weekend and graduation and trips to Actors from the London Stage productions, Bays said budget cuts have meant the elimination of these opportunities.Bays said some students have also joined a student advisory council, a group that helps in recruiting London Program students but also meets to talk about their experiences while in London and offer feedback and support.”We offer students a lot of opportunities to talk,” she said.But transition difficulties may be indicators of positive change. Both Bays and Hayes stressed that facing transition difficulties often means students have experienced significant personal growth abroad.”Getting people to acknowledge when they are having problems is a sign of emotional maturity,” Bays said. “They are not the person they were before … Re-entry problems can be a sign of emotional health. There was an investment made.”Hayes, who studied abroad during her years at Notre Dame, said it can be difficult for a student to re-acclimate him or herself to living in America.”I think that the culture shock when you are coming back can be just as great [as when you go],” Hayes said. “Generally, if you have integrated yourself to a host culture, you see things through a different set of eyes … It’s only natural to experience some re-entry shock upon your return.”

Counseling Center steps inSwati Pitale, staff psychologist at the University Counseling Center, said the Center used to provide a weekly support groups for students returning from abroad, but that they are not currently being offered.”It’s not that we are not interested in possibly pursuing this in the future, but it had more to do with the schedules for students. We started the support group as soon as students re-entered the Notre Dame community from being abroad, and there is something about wrapping your brain around that,” she said. “I think there is something about starting that group at that time that students are more focused on more important things. By the time that a student realizes we have a support group, they’ve found ways to manage.”Pitale said the group may begin again in the future and that more information needs to be known about when students feel would be the best time for a group to begin.”Initially when students get back to Notre Dame, there are so many things on their plate that they aren’t even thinking about it [the support group],” she said. “It’s really two to three weeks, a month into their time here, when to get back in the routine they realize … something feels different.”However, students facing re-entry issues have occasionally been seen through the Counseling Center via individual counseling sessions, Pitale said. The number and intensity of sessions varies based on the individual.”It’s based on the individual and has this individual traveled in the past, has this individual moved around a lot when they’ve grown up?” she said. “The great thing about the Counseling Center is that we see a spectrum of issues, from mild to severe. If [someone] has a history of depression or anxiety, then re-entry difficulties can exacerbate some of that stuff.”Pitale said students sometimes discuss difficulties in communicating with friends or family who have not been abroad, as well as some identity confusion as a result of their new experiences.”Frustration with cultural values or norms, when you have gone abroad to an environment that is … in some ways diametrically opposite to where you are now, you are going to note that,” Pitale said. “What I note more is relationships with family and friends, having friends not understanding fully what your experience has been … Sometimes feeling a disconnect with family and friends and finding a way to negotiate them [is part of counseling].”Pitale stressed that students don’t need to feel like they are facing severe problems before coming to the Counseling Center.”It’s a continuum and we see everybody, and everybody is welcome,” she said. “You don’t need to have severe psychopathology to come here. You can just be having a tough time and needing someone to work through it [with].”She also emphasized that seeing students with re-entry difficulties absolutely does not strain staff time or resources.And experiencing difficulties re-transitioning to Notre Dame is perfectly normal, Pitale said.”I almost worry about people when they don’t have a reaction to coming back, when everything feels just fine,” she said. “It is expected that there will be re-entry difficulties.”

Contact Joe Trombello at jtrombel@nd.edu