Before leaving for Dijon, France, to study abroad for a semester senior Megan Huszagh prepared for the culture shock she would experience while she was abroad. She learned about the customs, the country and what to expect from French people. But the harshest shock Huszagh said she experienced was the reverse culture shock that came when she returned to the United States, GW and her friends.
The biggest problem was figuring out where I fit in, Huszagh said.
When Huszagh returned to GW she found that her close group of friends had extended to include more people. Huszagh said she felt uncomfortable because she did not know all the new people and now she had to become friends with them while redefining her friendships with her original group of friends.
If a friend did not call I felt that they went out without me, Huszagh said. But usually it was that they just didn’t go out. I was constantly second-guessing everyday actions like phone calls.
Huszagh said it took her about one and a half months to feel comfortable with her group of friends again.
I just waited it out, Huszagh said. I wasn’t sure if I was justified in feeling left out so I did not really talk to my friends about how I felt. It was inevitable that things would change while I was gone and that my friends’ lives would go on without me, but when the reality hit it was the hardest thing to deal with.
Staff members at the GW Counseling Center and the Office for Study Abroad are aware of the effects of reverse culture shock, but there is no formal forum on campus for students who are experiencing readjustment issues. The Office for Study Abroad hosts a party at the beginning of the school year for all students who went abroad the previous year to meet and discuss their experiences. But beyond this one-time meeting, students are left with very few options.
Students do experience reverse culture shock and readjustment when they come back and we are aware of the problems that exists, said Debbie Gamponia, assistant director of the Office for Study Abroad. But we do not think students seek help from the study abroad office in this capacity.
The Office for Study Abroad offers students information about campus cultural groups for those who are seeking outlets to cultures they became familiar with overseas.
Students returning from studying abroad often feel like they have grown from their experiences, but are still treated like the same person they were before they left. This makes readjustment to a student’s home country even more difficult, said Jean Miller, assistant professor of communication.
Huszagh said she has encountered this obstacle first-hand.
I’ve kept my experience to myself for the most part because people here just wouldn’t understand, Huszagh said.
Miller suggests that students experiencing these problems should address their family and friends more directly, talking to them about how they feel they changed. Joining a student group that identifies with the culture the student studied is another option.
Senior Monica Kline spent all of last year in Osaka, Japan at Kansai University. After being back at GW for three weeks, Kline said it hard to fit back in with GW life.
It’s been hard to share my experiences, Kline said. I want to hear about everyone’s year and show them my pictures too but I don’t want to make it seem like I was the only one who did anything.
According to Cherian Verghese, staff psychologist at GW’s Counseling Center, the main problem study abroad students experience involves changed perceptions. Students see themselves, relationships and society differently from how they left it, making it difficult to find common ground with old friends. Sharing experiences with other students who have had the study abroad experience helps, Verghese said.
Verghese said he encourages students to get friends interested in sharing in their experiences and opening the lines of communication. He has attempted to form a support group for returning study abroad students in the past, but said there was little interest in the group.