The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Return hard for abroad students

Jennifer Metz | Tuesday, January 30, 2007

For students who study abroad, returning to the familiar campuses of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s means seeing old friends and professors and walking familiar paths to old classroom buildings. But for some students, returning from abroad can cause a reverse culture shock and lead to feelings of alienation and frustration rather than comfort.

To help students deal with the stress of returning to school, the University Counseling Center offers counseling sessions for returnees, said Staff Psychologist Dr. Wendy Settle.

“Many times readjustment can be even more challenging that the initial culture shock when studying abroad, because it can take you by surprise,” Settle said.

Re-entry shock begins with disengagement as the mind shifts toward home, then turns into euphoria as the student gets more excited about going home, Settle said. The student may feel frustrated and alienated from his peers but can then begin a gradual readjustment and start to feel less unsettled by his surroundings.

Claudia Kselman, director of the Office of International Studies (OIS) at Notre Dame said students should consult the Counseling Center if they experience severe reverse culture shock that impedes their normal daily functions.

“Otherwise, they should eat and sleep well, exercise, get involved with campus activities and get together with their friends from the program and others,” Kselman said.

Kselman also advised students to come to OIS returnee sessions organized by program, where they can talk about their transition back to campus as well as their semester abroad.

“The staff of [OIS] is happy to talk with returnees individually as well,” Kselman said.

Junior Liz Howard returned this semester from the Notre Dame Toledo program. She didn’t experience reverse culture shock, but said she didn’t experience culture shock to begin with in Spain.

“I had an amazing experience, but it’s very comfortable to be back on campus,” Howard said.

Notre Dame junior Erin O’Shea studied in London in the fall. She said she attended a London reunion.

“It was nice to see people. It wasn’t a formal reception, just a tea party,” she said.

Dr. Elaine Meyer-Lee, director of the Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership at Saint Mary’s said most students do experience “at least a little bit of reverse culture shock upon returning to [the College].”

She strongly encouraged returning students to take advantage of the opportunities the College provides to process their experience because many feel a little disconnected from their old friends who have not studied abroad.

“A very few find it deeply stressful emotionally, and these we refer to our counseling center, who have skills in supporting these students and collaborate with us in doing so,” she said.

Saint Mary’s offers a range of programming to support students’ re-entry once they are back. There was a general returnee event to welcome all those returning to campus and help them make their transition from abroad. Further get-togethers will be facilitated as desired, Meyer-Lee said.

Readjusting to campus life

One reason for feelings of frustration upon return could be the students’ residence situation. Some returning students aren’t able to return to their dorms and either switch to a different dorm or move off campus.

Howard did not have a problem in securing a room in Cavanaugh Hall upon her return, but knew people in her program who had to switch dorms or move off campus.

The Notre Dame Office of Residential Life and Housing did not respond to Observer phone calls on this issue.

At Saint Mary’s, all students who wish to live on campus for spring semester have guaranteed housing, said Meyer-Lee.

“We at Saint Mary’s do everything we can to make the logistical aspects of their transition smooth and welcoming,” she said.

Students who study abroad in the fall have the opportunity to pick their own rooms in advance during the spring housing process and those studying abroad in the spring are able to participate in the process for next year via proxy, Meyer-Lee said.

Academic opportunities

For students who want an academic opportunity to reflect in-depth on and articulate their learning while abroad, and how it relates to their education and intercultural experience, Saint Mary’s offers a re-entry course entitled “Analysis of Study Abroad Learning.”

“Many schools have realized recently the importance of integrating this powerful education experience rather than letting it be sort of a surreal memory in a vacuum for students, and are interested in starting such courses,” Meyer-Lee said.

The Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership has presented on this course nationally and written a chapter on it in a book on study abroad curricular integration. The College is also starting a list serve for interactive discussions of key issues for this course.

Spirituality after study abroad

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart held a welcome-back liturgy last Tuesday for all those returning from abroad. O’Shea, a member of the Folk Choir, found it very helpful.

“[The liturgy] was just another way for abroad students to get back into their spiritual core here,” she said. “The sermon spoke well to the different emotions you feel when coming back.

It has been hard for her to be away from close friends for so long, but O’Shea believes her time abroad was a worthwhile experience – one she recommends to all.

“There’s a different dynamic on campus now … you have to find your place again … it was definitely a transition,” O’Shea said. “I don’t recognize some of the faces [on campus]. But I see [new] faces, my friends from abroad. … You can’t expect things to.”