The University of Iowa

Study Abroad – Averting Reverse Culture Shock Upon Returning Home

July 31st, 2009

By Haley Metcalf

When Sarah Hemmen arrived at the airport in California after her five month stay in Australia, she was annoyed that the $3.99 magazine required more than the $4 in her pocket.

The University of Iowa senior became accustomed to sales tax being included in prices while studying abroad in Sydney.

Hemmen is one of more than 1,200 University of Iowa students that study abroad each year, many of whom endure reverse culture shock on their return home. Adapting to a new culture can be harder for some students depending on individuality, responsibility and flexibility. But what many students studying abroad don’t realize is the difficulties of coming back to the United States.

Samantha Feldman, a UI junior, has studied in Seville and Barcelona, Spain. She explains that coming home can be the hardest part.

“I realized what it means to me to be American,” Feldman said. Being surrounded by a foreign culture, Feldman recognized the similarities and differences of American society. After her first visit to Spain, coming home from Barcelona was much easier. But it was still hard for her to adapt to a less exciting routine back in Iowa.

A seven-year University of Iowa Study Abroad Adviser, Elizabeth Wildenberg de Hernandez, shares that feeling. She explains enduring reverse culture shock after involvement with the Peace Corps in Guatemala. Upon her arrival back to the U.S. in 2000 she was stunned to hear that George W. Bush had been elected as president.

Hernandez also said, “The consumerism at the grocery store started to make me sick.” Smaller specialty shops were common in Guatemala, seeming more personal than the large super centers in America.

Rachel Todt, a study abroad peer adviser, is still dealing with reverse culture shock three months after her return from studying in Argentina for one year. “Students may expect everything to be exactly the same, but it’s not going to be,” she says, “It’s because the experience has changed you.”

Living as a scholar in a foreign environment exposes students to a new culture with different values, beliefs, and ways of living. Through conversation and observation students learn the norms of the culture and act acceptably. This experience changes personal perspectives on a variety of aspects of life. Students have new interests and may involve themselves with activities or groups of friends that are different from involvement before the trip.

Todt also described that after living in Argentina, she has a new perspective on the nightlife in Iowa City. During her study abroad she realized that going out to get ‘crazy drunk’ isn’t common for students in Argentina. A short time after her return she was surprised that observing the provocative style of dancing in the downtown bars of Iowa City made her uncomfortable.

The amount of time spent abroad is another factor in what the student experiences when they return home. Scholars that study for the summer may view the experience as an extended vacation, while students submerged in a foreign country for a semester or year may experience more culture shock symptoms when they get back.

Many students that live longer than six months in Greece, Italy, Spain, Africa, or any other foreign country, also experience disappointment in their abilities to share stories about their stay abroad. Wildenberg explains that family and friends ask questions, but their attention span often only allows short answers. Being away can also have both positive and negative effects on relationships. Several students explain that due to their new perspectives, relationships with friends and family change.

To help undergraduates adapt back to their lives in Iowa City, Study Abroad sends emails near the end of the semester to prepare students for their return home. Upon arrival in Iowa City, students are welcomed to a re-entry orientation where they are able to meet with others who have studied out of the country.

A guide for study abroad returnees published by Study Abroad covers many aspects of reverse culture shock to make students aware of the ‘roller coaster’ of good and bad days they may experience. An excerpt for marketing an international experience gives scholars advice on how to use their new knowledge and skills to secure jobs and internships. There are also numerous activities listed in which students can get involved such as events hosted by the UI International Programs, the Global Buddy Program and other international activities.

“The best way to deal with reverse culture shock is to think optimistically,” says Feldman. The UI junior explains that while many students are aware of the importance to research the program and country in which they will be studying, not many think to investigate the changes they may experience upon return to the US. Feldman advises, “Abroad you gain a sense of self. Make sure to bring that home and translate it into your new life.”