Re-Entry Reality Interview: Harder than Culture Shock

RR-InterviewIt’s Re-Entry Reality Monday! Each week leading up to our Re-Entry Reality event on March 12, I’ll post a re-entry podcast or blog interview. The goal of these interviews is to share a range of re-entry experiences.  

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


This week’s interview is with Carrie Niesen, SPS’s Re-Entry Reality Intern. Carrie has not only experienced re-entry, she wrote her Master’s Thesis about it! You’ll get to hear more about re-entry from Carrie in our March 12 Re-Entry Reality virtual event.

CNiesen Photoarrie, tell us a little about your experience(s) abroad.

My time abroad started when I was 18 with a high school trip to France.  It started with a tour of the south (including Rouen, Nice, Marseilles, and Tours), included a family stay in the suburbs of Paris, and ended with three days in Paris.  Needless to say, it’s where fell in love with cross-cultural communication.

Once in college, I double majored in Communication Studies and Spanish and loved the happy marriage of the two; I’ve always been curious how life makes sense to people all over the world.  Plus, these majors were perfect excuses to spend my summers abroad, including places like Granada, Spain, Córdoba, Argentina, and Quito, Ecuador.

During each experience, I lived with a host family, honed my Spanish skills, and soaked in as much culture as I could.  I made it a point to hang out with non-English speakers to increase my Spanish fluency, and had the most opportunity interning for the nonprofit, APADIM Córdoba, for individuals with developmental disabilities in Córdoba, Argentina.

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

The idea of re-entry got on my radar when I came back from my time abroad in Granada, Spain.  I went through a great deal of changes there—learning the language, navigating the country and cities independently, thinking quick on my feet, and planning trips.  I don’t think it ‘hit’ me when I came back from France since it was a mere two weeks and I was always with my teacher or a guide.

However, I certainly felt it like a tidal wave as soon as I stepped into my mom’s Grand Am as she picked me up from the O’Hare Airport.  It was intense enough that I just had to call a friend in Spain to converse in Spanish and let him know I landed safely in the U.S.  Not even a month later, I was already researching my next experience abroad and I knew I wanted to go to Argentina to challenge myself even more by interning.

How did you experience re-entry? Was it different than what you’d expected? 

Like most people, my  re-entry experience was absolutely unexpected.  Grocery stores were overwhelming, roads were massive, and I felt like I had been turned upside down.  I felt like I left part of my heart in Spain, Argentina, and Ecuador, and didn’t quite feel whole.

Each time I came back I knew I wasn’t returning to “business as usual”, but I wasn’t prepared for the struggles with adjustment (but I was prepared for going back to a regimented schedule with school, a new apartment, and connecting friends and family again).  I didn’t expect for it to be harder than the initial culture shock.

The biggest issue for me was the shift in friendships.  I found it difficult to connect with people that hadn’t been abroad before and I was shocked that my friends didn’t want to see my 3,247 pictures…it took awhile for me to realize that my friends and family had changed while I was abroad, too.

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

I wish I’d known it was going to smack me in the face!  It was much more difficult coming back than going to my host countries.  I came back feeling lost and wondering, “Well, now what?”  I also learned quickly to limit the “In Spain…” talk, too.

Often we focus on the logistics and aren’t as ready to handle the emotional and psychological changes that accompany such deep, long-lasting life changes.  I knew it was going to be life changing, but I didn’t anticipate the intensity of change.  I felt like it came full force without warning and having some heads up could have helped me mange it better.

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

The biggest tip I can give others that are about to go through re-entry is to expect the unexpected and learn to embrace the changes!  Use it as an opportunity to explore your values and beliefs.

I found it helpful to talk to people that were preparing to go abroad and provide social support during their experience.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to others who have gone through a similar experience (especially here at Small Planet Studio).

And, finally, just for fun…if re-entry where a food, what would it be?

Pineapple upside down cake…you know what you’re getting into when you’re making it, but you don’t always know what to expect when you flip it over!

Thanks for sharing your Re-Entry Reality with us, Carrie!


Missed last week’s podcast with Leslie Forman? Click here.
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your Re-Entry Reality? Click here.