Study Abroad Returnees Face Adjustment

Sarah Cornett

The beginning of this semester saw the return of roughly one third of the junior class who studied abroad last fall. Coming back from places all over the globe, many of these returning Whitties had life-changing and transformative experiences, embracing another culture while meeting new friends. For some of these students, their powerful experiences have made returning to Whitman less exciting, and some have experienced difficulty getting back into the routine of Walla Walla life. The transition can be a rough one, especially because the four-month-long period offered just enough time to completely adjust to living outside the United States.

“As soon as I was getting used to it, I came back,” said junior Julia Maxwell, who spent last semester at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “I made some really good friends there, and it’s so difficult to talk to them now.”

The adjustment back to Whitman can be difficult on multiple levels, because of both the academic and social transition. Most of these students have been away from Whitman since May 2012. This seven-month-long period makes it difficult to resume personal connections and get back into a class schedule, often one very different from the foreign university students attended while abroad.

“Changing my work habits has been a bit of a challenge,” said junior Nick Drake, who recently returned from the IES Beijing program. “The academic routine here is a bit different from what I experienced last semester.”

For Maxwell, the academic transition has been especially pronounced because of the large lecture style teaching method utilized at St. Andrews, as well as at many universities in the UK.

“It was a very individualized education,” she said. “You had to look at the syllabus and choose which books fit into the class, which ones you wanted to read.”

This model is very different from most Whitman classes, but she said it was still valuable for her.

“It was nice having prior experience at Whitman in small, discussion-based classes. It’s nice to now have two different educational backgrounds.”

The social transition can go beyond changing friend circles.  When many students return, their friends from their first two years at Whitman are often abroad themselves, increasing their separation time to almost to a year. Susan Holmes-Brick, director of off-campus studies, says she often sees the natural social changes in students.

“Socially, sometimes students change. Some see social injustices they maybe haven’t before, which could change their outlook on many different things.”

The return leaves many OCS students feeling less involved in things they were previously.

“There’s a feeling of isolation that friends from abroad are more important than Whitman,” said Drake.

Though this feeling is a natural one, getting back into a social routine can be difficult.

“I feel like it’s harder for me to connect with friends,” said Maxwell. “When I talk about last semester, it’s hard because they weren’t there, and I wasn’t here.”

Counselor Sharon Kaufman-Osborne described in an email some issues students returning from abroad can face.

“Reverse Culture Shock is the term used to describe the challenges that occasionally occur when someone returns from study abroad. Common reactions are boredom, restlessness, where previous routines can seem dull.”

Students can struggle to recount their experiences to peers and family from home.

“Often their peers and family say, ‘How was study abroad?’ This question feels like it trivializes the experiences they had because that question cannot be answered in a sentence or even 3 sentences,” Kaufman-Osborne said.

The most powerful thing for many students seems to be the different ways they view Whitman. For students like Drake, the return was eagerly anticipated.

“I really, really like Whitman.  If it was a shock, it was a pleasant one.”

The relative isolation of campus is put in perspective as many students have trouble adjusting to the relatively mellow Walla Walla culture.

“Now, I definitely realize that there’s a lot more out there,” said Maxwell.  “We’re missing so many things here. I never really noticed that there’s a lot we don’t have at Whitman and in Walla Walla.”

Escaping the Whitman bubble for one semester can leave some students disillusioned with campus life.

“Being abroad has put Whitman in perspective,” said Drake.

The cultural, social and academic transition is eased by the Office of Off-Campus Studies, which puts on a number of events for returning students to share their experiences and learn how to get back in the Whitman routine. These events are intended to provide support for students, and also an outlet to share stories. A “welcome back” dinner was held on Jan. 28 for returning students, and more than half of the returnees attended.

“We provided  a space for discussion. We asked questions like, ‘what was surprising?’  and ‘were there any special moments?'” said Holmes-Brick.

A welcome back luncheon, hosted Feb. 8, had facilitators from the counseling center. The OCS office is currently working on plans to begin an outreach program for local elementary schools in which students returning from abroad can share their experiences, bringing a new dimension to the classroom.

“Students can crystallize what they learned by sharing it with others,” said Susan Holmes-Brick.

Though the transition can be difficult, the growth many students experience is life-changing.

“Sometimes students feel called to address injustices they saw.  We try to talk about ways to address some of these issues in Walla Walla,” said Susan Holmes-Brick.

Students like Maxwell have plans to return.

“I’m going back over spring break,” she said.  “It will be nice to see my friends from St. Andrews again.”