Amy Pendoley ’07 knew living in Spain for a year would be hard. She grew up in a New Hampshire town of just 2,000 people and had never traveled outside the country—not even to Canada. But she was surprised when coming home proved even harder.
“I expected going to Spain would be a major culture shock, but the truth of the matter is that, after a year of living and more or less establishing a life in Salamanca, it was even more of a shock to come home,” she said. “People forget that when you’re there for ten months you establish another life. I couldn’t tell you how many times I cried because I missed it so much. No one prepared me for that.”
While the concept of culture shock abroad is familiar, readjusting to life at home is often more difficult, and Colby students are not immune. Though research on reentry shock has been around since the 1960s, it’s only in the last few years that programs for returning students have become common. In February Colby introduced a new dinner event for these students to help them understand their new perspective and share their insights with people who can grasp what they’re going through.
Colby is a national leader in study abroad. According to Open Doors, an annual survey done by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of U.S. students that study in a foreign country has doubled in the past eight years. Colby ranked fifth in IIE’s 2006 list of the top 20 baccalaureate institutions with the highest percentage of study-abroad participation. Roughly two thirds of all Colby students spend a semester or more abroad, going to such varied places as Ghana, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, and Madagascar. Even with so many venturing off Mayflower Hill, many students feel their difficulty transitioning back is unusual.
Students feel unprepared for the difficulty of reintegrating mostly because they don’t expect it, research shows. A 1984 study at Arizona State University found that students put effort into acclimating to their host culture but assume that returning to the familiar home environment will be easy. Many Colby students don’t realize that they have internalized new ways of thinking and living, and they say they don’t feel as if they fit into the life they left behind.
Director of Off-Campus Study James Citron has spent his career studying the transition from a foreign country to life back at home. He has found that readapting leaves some students feeling disconnected. “They have to renegotiate every relationship in their lives,” Citron said. “They experience life on another culture’s terms, and when they’re back home they realize that all the things they took for granted as universal truths aren’t necessarily that way.”
The students who are most successful at adapting to a host culture are often the ones for whom reentry is the most challenging. A 2002 study by the College of Staten Island tracked the experiences of recent college graduates who spent at least a year in Japan and found that the more the graduates became emotionally attached to their sojourn culture, the less prepared they were for the transition home.
Adapting to another culture can inspire students to look at themselves from a new perspective. Michael “Smokey” Collins ’08 spent a semester in the hills of Kalimpong, West Bengal, India, where few people spoke English—and he knew nothing of Nepali, the regional language. The chemistry major had to acclimate fast. On his first day there, he participated in a religious holiday ceremony, receiving the tika, as the Hindu forehead mark is known in the region.
Though he found it difficult at first, the California native soon surprised himself. “You get into a rhythm that feels totally natural, and eventually you just get really comfortable,” he said.