Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

Re-Entry Mis-Advice Column

The advice column in my local newspaper recently had a letter that sought advice on re-entry. The advice-seeker – Pining in Rome – is a student studying in Italy and loving it. She’s entering her last few weeks on the program and is worried about her return home.

Pining’s main concerns are: all her friends will have left for their own study abroad programs, there will be no one with whom to speak Italian, and the foods and pastimes she’s been enjoying do not exist at home. She has fallen into despair and is concerned she will not be able to enjoy her remaining weeks in Italy.

Here is the advice given: recognize how fortunate you are to have this opportunity and experience, “try not to over-romanticize the experience” and see it for the short-term fun it was, know you can return whenever you can afford it, and “how well you adjust depends entirely on your attitude.”

Being someone who has dealt with re-entry more than once, I find the advice given to be dismissive and unknowledgeable of the effects of a study abroad experience and the return home on a person. It doesn’t take into account the emotional and the personal connections and change that can take place. Pining in Rome is treated like a silly college girl who thinks she found true love on spring break. It also belittles the re-entry process, which can be a very complex negotiation of emotions, expectations, and reality.

The advice is very ‘big picture.’ I am not against getting some perspective, but this advice comes from too great a distance to have any chance of being helpful to someone engaged in all-or-nothing thinking. The one good bit of advice is the suggestion that one’s attitude will go far in affecting the return.

My response to Pining would go something like this:

Dear Pining: I’m thrilled you’re having an amazing experience on your study abroad program. As you enter your final weeks, concerns about returning home are to be expected. Your home institution should have provided you with information about re-entry and I hope you read it, if not, please do so now. Don’t let all-or-nothing thinking take over. You are in rare company that ALL of your friends are also interested in studying abroad and will be on their own programs. If this is indeed true, returning will be like going abroad again in that you don’t know a lot or any other people and you need to put yourself out there. Also, you don’t need Italians to speak Italian. If your school doesn’t offer Italian classes, branch out and see if there are any language groups in the town’s community. As for your concern about specific foods and pastimes, well, they are what make Italy, Italy. But if you do your research and call upon your newly honed skill of stretching your comfort zone, you might just find similar items and activities closer than you thought. Read up on re-entry issues (there are resources out there), make a game plan on how you can marry your experience with home, and stay positive.

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

Reaching Slot Zuylen Castle

In the early weeks of my culture shock while in the Netherlands weekends were a fearful thing. I didn’t know too many people yet. My Dutch roommates were often out of town or busy doing their own things. Without school to get me out of the apartment and interacting with others I feared I’d spiral even further downward. I saw a weekend trapped inside my head, and, thus my apartment, as a failure in time usage while I had this opportunity.

I had come from a summer in Ireland where I was very quickly incorporated into a group and was assumed to partake in any weekend plan. In the Netherlands, things weren’t so instantaneous. With people spread out across an entire city it proved more challenging to make friends than living in the dorm-style environment in Dublin where everyone was at my fingertips.

The first weekend in Utrecht in which the school wasn’t sponsoring an event neared. I began to hear about other people’s plans. It frustrated me that I didn’t have any, and my brain translated the fact that I hadn’t been asked to join anyone meant that I was un-liked. And if I was un-liked then it would be a very long, lonely year of limited travel and experiences. It never occurred to me to figure out what I wanted to do and ask other people if they wanted to join me. Not when I was in victim mode.

Two girls I had hung out with a couple of times were discussing how they were going to check out Slot Zuylen Castle located not far from town. They were going to ride their bikes along the Vecht River. It sounded very idyllic to me. Just the sort of local exploring I’d have chosen if I had been thinking that way. The more they went on about it the more I wanted them to ask me to go too. I wasn’t outgoing enough (it would be rude I thought) to just ask if they’d mind a third.

Slot Zuylen Castle

Friday came and they were still planning on going the following morning, but no invitation followed. I was boiling inside to the point of screaming with my thoughts about a failed, unused weekend, being trapped in my apartment, the dread of not having plans and forcing myself to go outside, and feeling un-liked enough to not be asked to do anything by others. I no longer cared if I was being rude. To me, I’d sacrifice being rude to try and avoid the darkness that loomed in my head. So I blurted out, “Can I go with you guys?”

“Of course,” one girl said. “We would have asked you but we thought you had other plans when you didn’t express an interest in going.” I didn’t see that response coming. When she said this something sort of clicked inside my head. I was able to step back from my situation and I recognized how my dealing with culture shock had affected the way I was viewing the scenario. Without my cloud of fear and anxiety, simply saying, ‘Hey that sounds like fun. Mind if I join?’ wouldn’t have felt like a do-or-die, all-or-nothing event. It would have been normal.

On that bike ride to the castle I was thrilled to see a snapshot of the countryside. I encountered my first windmill up close, saw sheep, and saw how the farmers direct and contain the plentiful water supply. Experiencing firsthand a taste of the extensive bike network out of the main cities was cool too. It seemed like something every country should have.

This freak-out, then blurt-out, and resultant positive response was the first step in breaking with my shock. It helped me to see whatever situation I found myself in more than one way. All was no longer doom and gloom. I still had a ways to go but having made that first step was everything.

Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

TAKING OFF — Chapter One: Pre-Departure

I was at home in Upstate New York nervously awaiting the start of the single most terrifying thing I’d done to date. I was days away from flying over the ocean to Ireland for the summer on my first study abroad trip. Waiting is bad. Waiting means time. And time is a catalyst for nerves and doubts.

Courtesy of

My mind was on how everyone else at the pre-departure meeting had some familial or personal connection to Ireland. I didn’t (**see note). Dublin was just a back-up plan in case I didn’t get into my year-long program in the fall. My lack of affiliation to the destination made my reason for going to Ireland seem less legitimate and made me feel a fake.

My mind was also on how everyone else was going to get a head start on making friends and I’d be left out. Because I attended school in Wisconsin, the flight to Dublin was a group booking from Chicago to Newark to Dublin. Those flying together on the Chicago to Newark leg would, I thought, already have gone through the awkward introductions, initial assessments, and be well on their way to making fast friends. And I had missed out because I wasn’t from the Midwest.

Images of smiling, laughing faces clustered in small groups of three or four all looking at me, the lone new girl, who oddly wasn’t there in Chicago filled my head. And I say oddly because of a response to a question about Newark I sent to the group email list which said something to the effect of “Why does [whatever I asked about] matter? Everyone’s coming from Chicago.”

The immediate dismissal I felt from this response further enhanced my growing doubts about this undertaking. My defenses were heightened. I began to generalize from the actions of one person. I thought these people to be close-minded for not considering that not everyone was from the Midwest. I thought those who studied abroad were open-minded and interested in learning about others different from themselves.

In the days leading up to my departure I, therefore, had summarily illegitimized myself and my place on the trip, decided I wouldn’t make friends because of one missed flight segment, and had amped up my defenses so much that the accuser was actually one of the accused in the case of close-mindedness. I was off to a stellar start.

Author: Ncmattj at en.wikipedia

At last, the day arrived to fly to Dublin. The waiting was finally over. Or so I thought. My parents were sitting with me at the gate. We were informed that the flight was being delayed due to the Chicago flight being behind schedule as our group was a majority of the flight to Dublin.

More waiting.

Being an overnight flight with a late departure time (that was again further delayed [insert angry, annoyed, fearful, defensive sigh]), the concourse was relatively empty. The quiet offered little in distraction. My mind continued to buzz with doubts and fears and wanting it all to be over.

Oh, I’d still go to Ireland. I wanted to skip over all of the stuff like making friends, and figuring out how the basics worked at my home for the next eight weeks. I wanted to be at the point where I’m in Dublin with friends feeling settled, and I know how to work the shower and toilet. But that stuff, I knew, was a part of what studying abroad was all about.

I began to notice that the silence was no longer so silent. There was a humming sound down the corridor. It grew louder and louder until the source arrived at the gate and my fears were confirmed. A large group of late-teens, early twenty-somethings led by a guy in a Wisconsin hockey jersey were chattering away with each other. See – they did make those initial bonds that could develop into friendships – and I missed out. My self-preservation kicked in immediately and tried to salve my ego by criticizing the fact that the leader was clearly not aware that it wasn’t cool to wear US team jerseys in Europe.

Courtesy of

But both of these defeatist thoughts were quickly shoved aside by the tumultuous upheaval taking place in my stomach. This was the time. It had finally arrived. Time to kiss and hug my parents goodbye. Time to disengage from their safety net and join the group led by the boy in the hockey jersey. Time to take that proverbial leap. Time to see if I had what it took to accomplish a huge personal goal – studying abroad.

I stood up from my seat and something clicked. My skin prickled and my vision focused. All I could hear was my breathing. Calm came over me and I finally and truly felt ready – ready to take on whatever awaited me. The dichotomy of a ‘them versus me’ was gone; we were now an us. No one had a leg up on anyone else. And I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, some of the nerves would come back later but at that moment, as I walked towards the gate, I was never more present in a moment and never more ready.

**Note: My parents informed me after I returned that my maternal great-grandmother was from Ireland.