Re-Entry Reality: Emotional, Intense & Essential



It’s Re-Entry Reality Monday! Would you like to share your Re-Entry Reality? Contact me – I’d love to talk with you!


Gina Difino Photo

Gina Difino has pursued every opportunity she could to immerse herself in intercultural dialogue. She currently helps MBA students at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School find their intercultural dialogues in business through the Global Immersion Elective course, managing 4-6 courses to different destinations around the world every year. Find her at @GinaDifino.

Gina, where did you go abroad and what did you do there?

For the calendar year of 2002, I taught as a Grinnell Corps Teaching Fellow at St. Rodrigue High School in the Maseru District in Lesotho. Recently, I returned for the first time since I taught there to a very much similar community and a whole lot of optimism about the future.

When did the idea of re-entry get on your radar?

Oh, I read about re-entry in Robert Kohls’ Survival Kit for Overseas Living before I studied abroad in Senegal in 1999. That book was such a nice resource to help me track some of my cultural adjustment roller coaster to that of others. It was a great comfort and intellectual support.

I expected re-entry to be a milder culture shock than I experienced going abroad. In reality, it was much worse. My first re-entry was a very visceral emotional experience to the vast differences in the ways in which I lived with people differently in Senegal and at home, as well as in the ways I and the people around me thought about the ways we lived.

Re-entry can be very alienating and in some ways, my rebellious self enjoyed the alienation. But I don’t think it brought me and the people around me to share more about my experience. And that is the biggest loss in returning from abroad.

What was your re-entry experience like?

Re-entry into Lesotho, my home for a year in 2002, was bizarre and comforting. Getting around the city was pretty easy in spite of all the changes: lost baggage and few people to help, a SIM card at the airport to stick in my old cell phone, finding a new friend at the airport who had gone to St. Rodrigue High School and helped me find a taxi, 2-3 new large fancy shopping malls full of people at all times of the day.

Having lunch and a coffee with many locals and expats in a shiny new cafe chain owned by three Basotho women (an experience I have never had in Lesotho), buying a very affordable hour of internet (M10!) in the capital, and taking a souped up mini-bub with party lights are just a few changes that illustrate how there is a growing consumer class in Lesotho and growing middle class services to meet their needs.

Up at the school in the mountains and at my friend’s very middle class home, though, it was easy to see how much stays the same in spite of many of the changes. Much of the wealth coming into the country remains in the hands of the few, though many people are doing many jobs to try and access some of the wealth from the rise of the consumer. This is a great disappointment considering the massive development projects that Lesotho was undertaking in the early aughts to help build up the country economically through their resources.

Returning to the house I once lived in was great, though. The fresh mountain air, the friendly inquisitive people, old friends randomly showing up, and the new friends I made just by virtue of having a connection to this community. The students at the school are really excelling and everyone is incredibly proud to be there. It was strange to see the house rearranged and new people living in it (in a different way than I did), but the teachers and staff and students at the school were engaged and motivated and working on improving their lives.

In a selfish way, I wanted the community to miss me more, to see more physical artifacts of my having been there, but that is not really how that community works. Your welcome there is more of an indication that you have contributed than any physical artifact. It was such a nice experience to be a part of it again and feel like I could come back at any time and be welcomed.

What do you know *now* about re-entry that you wish you’d known earlier?

I wish I had known more folks returning when I did that would have been interested in sharing their experiences. I don’t know that it would have made my experience any less intense, but I think it might have helped me share more of it with others and be more open to strange, awful questions asking me to reduce my experience to a couple short words or photos.

I wish I knew that re-entry was an essential part of making my experience abroad a part of me wherever I went.

What tips do you have for others who are about to go through re-entry?

Find a way to process that experience with a journal or confidants who might know the emotional intensity of that experience. Avoid constant judgmental comparisons and seek to understand how and why you have come to feel so out of place in many places. Know that the time you take to do this will help you bring your experience from abroad more fully into your new life at “home”.

And…just for fun: If re-entry were a food what would it be? Why?

Oooh, the most difficult question! Re-entry is garlic (and coming from me, that is an extremely high compliment)! Occasionally, it separates you from people, but if you use it well, it becomes an essential part of the rest of the meal. It is good for you and delightful to eat. . . but not always on its own.

Thanks, Gina!


The Re-Entry Reality: Your Guide to Re-Launching Yourself After Being Abroad workbook and support is available! Half of each workbook purchase goes to help a high school student study abroad. Click here to check it out.