[Re-entry Diaries] How Processing Re-entry Gave Me a Global Life

by Madelyn Petrovich

What I Left Behind When I Returned Home From Being Abroad

As I boarded my flight back to North Carolina in 2014, I couldn’t help but think I was making a mistake. There was so much I’d miss about my little host town in Colombia; the uniformed school children playing evening soccer in the park, the street vendors selling fresh arepas and salpicón, the neighborhood’s honorary grandpa, who’d sit outside chatting up the passersby till dark.

A group of native Colombian school children with their teacher in the classroom.
My Students an I, after they surprised me with a “torta” for my birthday.

I finally felt like I was part of a community; people knew me here. I was “the teacher.” 

How could I leave all that behind?

Yet, as I took my seat on the plane, there was one thought that brought me relief; after months of stumbling through a new language, culture, and landscape, I was going home to a place I knew.

All my love for Colombia could not shake the fact that thoughts of sameness and comfort felt good.

Life Back Home Had Moved on Without Me 

However, when I got home and met up with my family and friends, I began to realize the familiarity I had traded my life abroad for no longer existed. I discovered that while I was gone, time in North Carolina had not stopped.

Life’s circumstances had changed my loved ones, just as being abroad had changed me. Conversations with old friends suddenly felt stilted and disconnected. 

It became apparent that my stories about Colombia were not as fun to listen to as they were to tell, so I stopped sharing them and internalized my thoughts.

I became withdrawn and overly critical of everything that did not fit into my newly adopted values. I didn’t recognize it back then, but I was experiencing some major symptoms of re-entry: I felt overwhelmingly isolated, bored, negative, and restless.

Abroad Felt Like the Only Place for Me 

How did I get over it? At first, I didn’t. In fact, I became the poster child of avoidance; I decided to move abroad again, and then again.

A young American girl in Toledo, Spain.
Toledo, Spain

Every time I’d return to the States for a wedding or holiday, the same uncomfortable feelings would well up, so I decided “abroad” must be the only place for me.

However, after a while, even being abroad seemed to lose its magic. As I moved into my late 20’s, I felt a strong urge to put down “roots” in my hometown, but how could I do this?

How could I give up my host cultures? Could I live a global life in Western North Carolina?

My “Ah-ha” Moment

My inner question began to shift from where could I go to feel fulfilled, to what do I need to feel fulfilled? This was my “ah-ha!” moment: I realized that, rather than tell people about what I had learned abroad, I needed to help others experience it for themselves. I don’t think I knew it then, but this realization was the first step I took towards processing my re-entry after being abroad.

Creating a Global Life at Home

I moved back to North Carolina and earned a master’s degree with a focus in International Studies. Later, I landed a job as a Study Abroad Advisor at the local university. When COVID-19 caused my Spring 2020 study abroad participants to be recalled early to the United States, I knew they would be experiencing reverse culture shock on a whole new level. 

Finding Small Planet Studio

This is when I discovered Dr. Brubaker’s work. I poured through the pages of Re-entry Roadmap, looking for any advice that would benefit my returning study abroad participants. 

A young American girl in the mountains of Cotopaxi, Ecuador.
Cotopaxi, Ecuador

However, as I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice how relevant the workbook’s information was for my own, rather dusty, re-entry experiences.

While I had grown a lot since that initial re-entry from Colombia, I realized I still had so much left to unpack!

With the help of Re-entry Roadmap, I was able to re-examine my time abroad and identify all the components I need to live a full and satisfying global life at home.

Naming these “global life ingredients”  has helped me to bridge the divide between my life abroad and my new life in North Carolina.  

Dedicating time to Re-entry Continues to Serve Me

The Re-entry Roadmap, along with Dr. Brubaker’s webinars, articles, and exercises, has inspired me to approach my re-entry from abroad in a mindful way. As I work through these materials, I continue to find value and meaning within my past experiences abroad.

Reincorporating my past experiences abroad into my daily life makes me feel like I am finally living a life that honors the people, places, and cultures I have loved and learned from. 

Unpacking  my re-entry has not only given me a new sense of inner peace, it has also helped me become a stronger advisor, and better resource for the institutions I work with. I am happy to say my re-entry experience is no longer working against me; now it is working for me!