[Re-entry Diaries] Eyes Wide Open: A Tale of Returning Home from Abroad

By Hannah Sorila

Adjusting to a New Reality After Living Abroad

Imagine: You spend the most beautiful day outside in the sun doing your favorite activity, and when you begrudgingly have to go back inside, you have a hard time seeing when you step through the door because your eyes have not re-adjusted to the light. You blink your eyes, hoping to speed up the process, but you are left feeling uncomfortable even in a familiar setting.

Over time, your eyes slowly adjust and you are able to see what was left in the dark. However, now you see everything differently and in a new way based on your experiences outside. You miss the feeling of being in the sun, but you know that you have responsibilities to take care of, so you decide you have to move on.

This is an experience I know all too well, except instead of going outside, I experience this sensation each time I return from an international immersion experience.

South African house with mountains towering behind.
Adjusting to new experiences, new views, and new beauty in South Africa.

Things that were once so familiar, all of a sudden feel slightly out of reach.

Foods may taste a little different. Songs and TV shows may not have the same relevance. Friends may laugh at different jokes. Family may not know how to talk to you about your new experience.

School may feel like a place you don’t want to return to. Grocery stores may feel overwhelming. Roads may have new, unexpected potholes. You may even forget where you are driving while on a road you’ve driven a million times. 

These Feelings are Perfectly Normal

In fact, many returnees experience some sort of reverse culture shock or difficulty adjusting to coming back home. 

Relationships change. Interests change. Perspectives change. Not only for yourself, but for those around you as well. Life did not stop while you were gone, only to begin again once you returned.

Your friends continued to have adventures. Your professors continued to teach. Your family continued to celebrate. Coming to this realization is hard there is no denying that. But, this doesn’t have to mean the end of life as you know it.

A pathway going through the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil.
Experiencing the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil.

It just means that you have the opportunity to introduce your new self to your loved ones and to continue to learn even more about yourself and your experience as it relates to the life you once found so familiar.

Despite these feelings being normal, your international experience doesn’t have to be lost or forgotten once you return home.

You don’t have to fit back into the life you left behind. In fact, I have found that truly unpacking my international experiences allows for this transition to happen more smoothly, which also allows my growth to expand and thrive as I continue to carry each experience that has come before the next.

This life may feel different, but being abroad taught us that different doesn’t necessarily equate bad, right?

So, how have I unpacked my experiences, and what lessons have I learned along the way that can help you do the same?

My Return From Abroad

When I was a Junior at Providence College (“PC”), I spent two semesters studying abroad with SIT Study Abroad. My first semester was spent chasing summer in India, South Africa, and Brazil while studying Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care. My second semester was spent continuing my mental health research that began during my first semester and deepening my understanding of Global Health and Developmental Policy while in Switzerland. 

Each semester was challenging in it’s own way – whether it was culture shock, group dynamics, or simply spending so much time away from my family and friends. 

I expected my semesters abroad to be challenging. I felt prepared for those challenges, even. However, despite the best efforts of my study abroad programs to prepare me for coming back home, I was not prepared for the weight of that experience.

Travelers walking towards stairs that lead up to a statue of a man riding a horse.
Re-entry can feel like an uphill battle…

So, before I even stepped foot in Providence upon my return, I made a commitment to myself to be intentional about my time and energy.

If I had to make the best out of the situation to complete my Global Studies degree, I would do it on my terms.

I set forth following what made me come alive, which ultimately was all things international education. 

I began working for my study abroad office as a student worker. I volunteered as a Global Ambassador on campus where I shared my international experiences with many prospective study abroad students. I got more involved in the Global Studies department, and even co-facilitated a pre-study abroad course for sophomore Global Studies students who would be studying abroad the following year. I focused so much energy on talking about study abroad.

Still, Something Was Missing

I was fortunate to have a strong community of peers who also studied abroad within the Global Studies department, as well as supportive faculty and mentors.

Still, not many people from my immediate friend group spent any time away from campus while I was gone, so there were continued challenges of reconnecting with the life I left behind. I felt out of touch from the relationships I had built, and was constantly on the outside of inside jokes – or so it seemed. 

Beyond talking to my Global Studies community about my experiences, (which had its own limitations), I was able to take a Crossing Borders course which was aimed at helping returning study abroad students unpack their experiences. Sounds great, right?

Well, in some ways it was. But in other ways, I still felt like I was alone in my experience returning from such an intense program.

View from the stairs of a monument looking over Cape Town, South Africa
…but the views are great!

Many people in my class went to more traditional study abroad locations, so I had a hard time digging deep into my experiences. I felt like no one else could relate.

This continued challenge of having the resources, but none of them being *quite* right, prevented me from truly being able to do the unpacking I needed to do.

I still don’t feel like my experiences have been fully parsed through – and, to be completely honest, I feel like I missed my window on some of those experiences because memories fade over time.

Luckily, I have found more resources for supporting myself through the challenges of returning from abroad. Here are my best takeaways:

Lessons Learned About Re-entry:

Ultimately, your experience is going to be unique to you, but hopefully my experiences can help guide you towards a healthier, more vibrant re-entry experience.

  1. Listen to yourself – You know your experiences more intimately than anyone else. How you feel is valid. What you need is valid. Follow where your heart, head, and instincts lead. And reflect on where you are being called to.
  2. Journal – Take some time to write about your experiences. How did you feel while abroad and how do you feel now? What were some of the most challenging moments? What were some of the highlights? Did anything surprise you? What did you eat? What did you learn? Continue to do this as you process your experience. Re-entry can be a challenging time for students who have been abroad, so give yourself patience in the process and continue to reflect and unpack when you can. 
  3. Utilize the Re-Entry Roadmap – Now that you have written and reflected about your experiences, using the Re-Entry Roadmap can help you take your memories and put them into action in the following ways:
    1. Identify your emotions
    2. Reframe re-entry
    3. Unpack your re-entry backpack
    4. Find your Global Life Ingredients
    5. Create your Forward Launch!
  4. Talk with your peers – Your network of people who have shared this experience with you is an incredible resource. Of course, people may ask you how your trip was, but sometimes answering those questions don’t allow you to unpack your experience deeply enough. The people who shared this experience with you will understand how you are feeling in ways not many other people can. Talk to each other!
  5. Connect with a Re-entry Coach  – You do not have to navigate this experience alone; there are people who are ready to help you who have been in your shoes before! Working with a coach may allow you to work through the challenges you face as they come up, which is so important in the long run.

Lastly and Most Importantly

Give yourself grace. Re-entry can be messy and no two re-entry experiences will be the same. Even if you’ve traveled extensively before, or if this is your first time returning from abroad, you may find yourself faced with unexpected challenges. This is all part of the process. The more time you put into unpacking these experiences, the better you are setting yourself up for a successful future.

Note from Cate – be sure to listen to my podcast interview with Hannah here!