The students from our 2015-2016 exchange student group have returned home to Austria, Germany, Italy, Thailand, Japan … countries the world over. Many think it will be easy to slide back into their old life.
For some, perhaps that will be true. Many students, however, are finding that their old life doesn’t exist. We’ve already heard from a few of them, students who have reached out to their host families or us, their coordinators, as the people who might understand. I don’t know that we can truly understand unless we’ve been in that position. But we all try to help when our students reach out to us.
Here’s our recent letter to one of our students.
Your host mom told us that things are tough for you right now. We wanted to follow up with some thoughts.
The first thing to know is that you are NOT alone. What you are feeling is very, very normal. A lot of people have gone through this kind of transition. We know that may not make you feel better right away…but we hope it helps.
Here a few suggestions about what might work for you to get used to life back home.
- Spend time with your friends back home. It will take time to get used to your friends again. We know that may not make sense to you at first. You’re thinking you’ve known them for years, what’s there to get used to? Think about this: you’ve had a different life from them for almost a year! You have had experiences they have not had; share them with your friends. They have had experiences you haven’t; ask them to share some of those experiences with you.
Maybe the first time you hang out with your long-time friends it feels awkward or different. That’s not a reason to stop — one time, two times, three times aren’t enough to get back into the “swing” of things. Just hang out and be patient. Think about how you felt at the beginning of the year here in the U.S.; you didn’t feel comfortable with people at school and you felt it was hard to make friends. We’re asking to you to remember that it took time. It’s going to take time again back home. In a way, you are getting to know your friends all over again.
- Spend time with your family (and maybe especially your parents!). This is kind of the same as with your friends. Try to remember that you’ve changed. When we told you the last time we talked before you went home that you had grown up during this past year, that you seemed a lot more confident — we weren’t just saying that to make you feel better. It’s 100% true. The thing is — your parents don’t quite know that yet. Of course you talked to them during the year and of course they can see some of it. Try to remember they’re your parents — and you are their child. For parents, our children are always our “kids.” They are never our “adults.”
So spend time with your mom and with your dad. Go for a hike with them, go to the grocery store with them, go on a bike ride. Even more importantly, talk to them about how you feel, including how you are feeling now. They need to hear from you about how your life here went. They also do need to hear how you feel you have changed. Start having those hard conversations — the ones we made you have with your host parents and with us all the time!
- Stay busy! Go for a run, take a walk, read a book. (Sounds like the same thing we suggested to you at the beginning of your exchange year, when you were just getting used to life here, doesn’t it?) Try to do things you normally used to do, but maybe not all at once. Maybe easing back into your “old” life would be less of a shock if you do it gradually.
- Stay in touch with friends and family from your exchange year. This isn’t a period of your life that suddenly ends just because you got on a plane. You have developed new friendships and relationships. Keep them. It might not make sense to contact everyone every day, but think about reaching out several times a month, once a month, or whenever the thought pops into your head. Post occasional comments on friends and host family Facebook pages. Send messages on WhatsApp. Did you and your host brother watch soccer games together? Text him when your favorite team is playing and ask if he is going to watch the game. Text your host mom periodically to just say hi. Text us sometimes, too!
Sending good thoughts and hugs,
Laura and Mark
Additional posts on this issue from our blog:
*Re-entry for the Parents Back Home
*Reverse Culture Shock: What Language Do You Dream In?
*Culture Shock Revisited
Photo credit: Aaron Burden
When I was in high school I did a year abroad in Japan and returning home was excruciatingly hard and it made it more difficult because no one really understood it. People thought I had an attitude problem but it was really that I was still a young kid struggling with getting used to a completely different life with different expectations than I had had of me the past year and from before leaving as well. Wish I had seen a blog like this back then!
One of the things I wish the exchange organizations could do a little bit better is “after the fact” support. Some have tried; the one I work for encourages students to become “ambassadors” for the program to help them stay in touch with others who have been abroad and have similar feelings, for example. I try to prepare the students I’ve worked with during a semester or academic year by beginning to talk to them about these issues early on, months before the end of the term. Of course, they’re teenagers, and don’t pay too much attention until it is getting close to the time they are returning home. But I hope I’m planting some good seeds.
Thanks for the positive feedback, too!