Posted in Domestic Travels, Issues

Short Trip, Big Impact

Earlier this week I returned home from a 14-day trip to Wisconsin, a place I not too long ago lived and where I studied years before. Not only am I physically exhausted from the go go go of trying to see everyone, do everything, and be everywhere, but I am, much to my surprise, mentally exhausted. I had not anticipated that a nice reunion tour would, upon returning home, leave me with so much running through my brain, let alone have many of the same questions or thoughts I had when returning from studying abroad.

My reactions have run the gamut from playing the comparison game (“man, I hate the fact that the gas pumps in New York don’t lock. I wish they were more like Wisconsin’s”) to feeling more engaged with my surroundings, and more energized while away to feeling lost once back at home. Like returning from abroad, I am once again at a juncture: do I resume business as usual, do I go away again, or do I figure out how to incorporate the life I had elsewhere into the life I have at home to create a new way of going forward?

I recently read an article Cate Brubaker of wrote for Meet, Plan, Go!– a website for those interested in taking a career break to travel. ‘How to Make Processing Part of the Re-Entry Process’ discusses some of the issues people may face once they return from career breaks. (What she talks about applies to students returning from abroad, too.) Brubaker states that the reason people have a tough time readjusting to being home is not a lack of newness at home, but the fact that the travelers have changed and are themselves new.

Brubaker suggests that taking the time to sift through and process the emotions, thoughts, and questions that arise during this re-entry period will only be of benefit in deciding how to proceed with their lives. “Meeting this challenge head-on,” she writes, “is one of the best gifts you can give yourself because no matter what you decide to do in the future, you’ll bring your true self.”

When I returned from spending a semester in the Netherlands, I needed someone to tell me that what I was experiencing was typical and to guide me through such a process as Brubaker recommends. Instead, I sort of floundered around until I found a couple of activities that aided in my re-entry by combining my life abroad with my life in the US.

In an effort to avoid floundering this time, I plan on taking Brubaker’s advice, process what I’m feeling now and ask myself “which aspects of my travels made me feel the most alive, engaged, and empowered.” I am hoping that my answers to these questions will help me to manage the transition between the old me and the to-be-processed new me.

Perhaps I’ll pick up new hobbies or take a cooking class or start/join a community group. Perhaps it will be little changes in habits that are required for me to feel the balance of old and new. Perhaps I’ll decide to travel again. Whatever the outcome, I know I’ll have at least taken the time to find my way to it and know that it is right for me…until the next trip.

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

Welcome Home?

After my summer in Ireland I had no time to worry about any re-entry issues. Only a couple of weeks passed before I was off to the Netherlands. When I was getting ready to return from Utrecht, the greatness of the culture shock I experienced while there tricked my mind into thinking that I would be so happy to be home – that, surely, I wouldn’t face any re-entry difficulties.

And at first I was happy. I was reunited with my school friends and with my new friends from Ireland. There was a comfort with my Ireland friends. We could relive the fun memories from the summer, retell the same stories over and over and none of us would tire of hearing them. But I did notice that though we had all studied abroad, this group was more interested in our shared experience than in hearing the new tales I had to tell. At the time, though, I was okay with this. There was much I didn’t want to discuss.

None of them, I thought, could understand what I went through in Utrecht. I assumed they thought I had had a similar time in the Netherlands as I’d had in Ireland. I, however, was ashamed of what happened; I thought I had “failed” at studying abroad, and had an “unsuccessful” semester. I wasn’t eager to share these thoughts. I kept them in – something I would not recommend at all.

The school did not provide much support. There was a program debriefing but that seemed to focus more on the exchange program itself: what I thought was good, what I thought could be improved upon, what worked, what didn’t.

Then classes began. Sitting in my Dutch class I felt overwhelming pressure to have improved my skills while in the Motherland. Classmates would ask questions about the Netherlands and I was so far down my “failure” train of thought that I felt my answers – or lack there of – furthered my feelings of inadequacy. It was all too much for me to bear.

By the end of the first week of school I had dropped my Dutch class and found sanctuary in “Intro to Taoism,” if for nothing more than the topic felt thousands of miles away from anything Dutch. I also thought the philosophy might help me gain some perspective on all I was feeling.

There were two outlets that aided in my re-entry. The first came from being a disc jockey at the student radio station, WSUM-FM. Music is a great love of mine. I bought a few CDs and downloaded a lot more mp3s while abroad. I also had great many, happy, fun and joyous memories associated with the (new-to-me) music. Being in the DJ booth provided me with the audience I was missing in my friends to share my stories through music. It also allowed me the opportunity, by playing these songs, to let the great times I did have flood and eventually begin to wash away the negative moments I was holding on to so tightly.

The second outlet was participating in the BRIDGE Peer Mentor program through the school’s International Student Services office. My exchange program included a mentor and I found having Ludo, my Dutch mentor, to be invaluable. I wanted to do the same for students coming to my campus. I was paired up with a girl named Ro-Zanne from Malaysia. In addition to trying to aid her in every day functions of being in Madison, we took water aerobics classes, we carved her first Halloween pumpkins, and we went to campus dances. I really enjoyed this experience.

In all honesty, I still struggle with elements of what happened in the Netherlands and life once I returned. But that experience has pushed me, rather than hindered me, to try living abroad again (my valiant return abroad three years later for grad school!). I no longer feel I failed or that I had an unsuccessful semester. I’m amazed at all the awesome places I got to go, the cool people I got to meet, how much I learned about another culture, and about myself.