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Transition to ND tough for abroad students

Justin Tardiff | Monday, January 23, 2006

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

For Notre Dame students returning from abroad, the transition back to South Bend from urban, culturally exciting cities like London often leaves them nostalgic for their host countries.

“I liked just about everything better about London,” said Molly Corcoran, a junior from Howard. “There was always something to do, but the people were laid back. We find everyone saying we wish we were back there.”

Since Corcoran has lived in the United States all her life, she said it was not especially difficult to re-adjust to living in America. However, she said one difference was that “driving and traffic take so much more time” than she spent in London, where students regularly walk or take public transportation.

For Corcoran, getting re-acclimated to Notre Dame’s parietals policy has also been difficult.

“The parietals, that’s a new thing. People are more involved in your life here,” she said.

Caroline Rycyna, a Pangborn junior who was abroad with Corcoran, said studying in London allowed her the chance to be more independent.

“It was one of the first opportunities to really be on my own,” she said. “I felt I got to know myself a lot better … have my own schedule and do what I wanted.”

She said having greater personal freedom and responsibility was especially attractive, and living close to male Notre Dame students seemed more realistic.

“I felt like they trusted us more … [it was] more like a real life experience. It worked; it felt more normal,” she said.

Rycyna said she misses all of the cultural opportunities available to her in London.

“London is a huge metropolis, and the center of so much,” she said. “In London, I could go see a play just because I felt like it. All the opportunities culturally … it’s hard not to have those.”

Both Rycyna and Corcoran said that they have re-connected with their London friends often, with students frequently planning get-togethers.

“I’ve already been to a few London parties,” Corcoran said, “and those are on-going.”

Rycyna said that she hopes to return to London, perhaps finding employment there after graduation.

“Going to a place like London and then coming back, it was almost painful knowing there was a place like that,” she said. “The fact that [I am] not there makes me sad … I feel like I met a lot of people I really connected with.”

Other students, especially those who return from less Westernized places, experience some transition difficulties and feel that students are not adequately informed about the on-campus support services.

Christine Donovan, a senior who graduated in December, studied abroad in Chile in Fall 2004, and spent last summer in Lima, Peru on an internship sponsored by the Kellogg Center. Donovan said the transition from Chile back to Notre Dame was made more difficult by what she perceived as a lack of on-campus support.

“Coming back from Chile was very difficult for me because I didn’t find very many resources to help me make the transition to being back in the U.S.,” she said. “I didn’t find a lot of things that were offered through the University at the time, which was very frustrating, not feeling like I had people who knew what I was feeling.”

Donovan said Chile was an enjoyable and different experience for her.

“Being down in Chile, it was the first time I had been in Latin America, and I really enjoyed that experience,” she said. “A lot of the people I met, and the contrast in culture, I really wanted to explore that more in Latin America.”

Donovan worked for an NGO (non-governmental organization) called COPRODELI while in Peru, which allowed her to work on a number of different projects, including healthcare and education. Donovan said she especially enjoyed the opportunity to work and live in a less well to do area.

“The idea of going back [to Latin America] and seeing … Peru, where things are a little more tenuous, and working with people who are not well off was very appealing to me,” she said, “both the part of me that wanted the adventure … and the part of me that is interested in social justice.”

Donovan said the transition from Peru back to America was difficult in that she had to re-adjust to the wide socioeconomic disparity she observed.

“Coming back from Peru, even just being inside a supermarket and having so many things [representing] the affluence of the United States, almost offended me,” she said. “It was hard for me to realize that I couldn’t simply reject American culture or American people because of the economy we live in. That was something that I really struggled with, making sure I wasn’t alienating the people around me.”

Despite some difficulties in re-adjusting to the United States, Donovan said she found it easier to get re-acclimated to Notre Dame, mostly because of a class she took taught by anthropology professor Greg Downey. The class, called Cultural Difference and Social Change, allowed her and other students who spent time in developing countries to talk about and process their experiences.

“Coming back from Peru was very different because I came back to Greg Downey’s class, which was wonderful,” she said. “It made me think about things I hadn’t previously considered about my experience, and he really pulled a lot out of me that I didn’t know was in there. It engaged both my rational and my emotional side.”

The course, Donovan said, was comprised of three components: learning about the economic life of developing countries and how U.S. trade laws and foreign aid affect these countries, discussing “success stories” made possible through the work of NGOs in developing countries, and giving student presentations on individual projects.

Donovan and another student co-authored “a handbook for student activism,” which Donovan said might be made available to other students as a resource through the International Studies Office. She said the project allowed her to help other students with their own transition difficulties.

“It gave me the chance to help other students realize that you are feeling things, you are frustrated about things, but you can do something about them,” she said.

Donovan said the chance to interact with other returning students – both inside and out of class – was perhaps the most helpful part of the course.

“It was a wonderful support structure to have so many people understand what I was feeling,” she said. “I felt like coming back from Chile, I had nothing but a few friends who would listen without any experience, and then coming back from Peru, I had an entire network of people who I could e-mail or call at any time.”

Donovan said since Downey has moved to Australia, the course is currently not being offered. She said the anthropology department has been unable to find a professor willing to take on the course, especially since it requires the supervision of so many independent research projects.

She said that despite some difficulties in getting used to America and Notre Dame, her experiences abroad and through Downey’s class have helped her to realize her passion for working in an NGO, something she considers as a possible career path after graduation.

“I grew up in a family where both of my parents worked in the non-profit world, and it’s very likely that I will go into domestic non-profit or international NGO work,” she said. “Going abroad continually pushes me in that direction … to be able to spend my life talking and giving and teaching and learning very much appeals to me, and I feel like I would be able to do that in NGO work.”