Sometimes Coming Home Is A Shock To Those Studying Abroad

Wisconsin State Journal
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Denise Thornton For the State Journal

As college students arrive home for the summer, many are returning to Wisconsin from classrooms around the world. Volatile international politics have not slowed the flow of students with an urge to see for themselves what they are reading in the newspaper.

“The number of our students going abroad is increasing,” said Joan Raducha, director of the UW-Madison International Studies Program. “From Madison we see about 1,500 students study abroad each year.”

“I studied abroad myself,” Raducha said. “I have children who have studied abroad, and it really is true that study abroad deepens who you are as an individual. You face yourself in a different sort of way when you are put into a foreign environment.

“Students who learn how to deal with diversity in the work force will also be more ready to deal with the global economy,” she added. “Bottom line, it is an enriching experience.”

Adjusting to new environments is a challenge, but surprisingly, many students find returning to the United States is harder. Few other countries can match our technological efficiencies, and daily life overseas often involves more person-to-person contact and a slower pace that is very easy to get used to. Returning students find family and friends have continued to grow in a life the student has temporarily stepped out of, and it can be very unnerving to find their old familiar life changed.

Finally, students come home with a wealth of experience to process, but find limited interest in their friends and families. People are interested, but not enough to allow students to rehash and process their experience completely. To accommodate the bumpy transition home, UW-Madison has added a Re-entry and Re-adjustment Program for returning international studies students to its Counseling and Consultation Services.

“They have a number of common issues,” said Alex Faris, co-facilitator of the group with Mariko Lin. “How to maintain friendships created abroad. How to integrate values they learned abroad with their U.S. values. We identified ways to keep the experience alive. One way is to find people who are interested in hearing about the student’s experience. So many people want a 30-second answer to ‘So, you were in Japan for a year. What was that like?’ ”

Thanh Kim, who studied in Beijing, China, from June to December last year, agreed.

“It was a shock, going over there,” Kim said. “Coming back was more of a shock. This was six months of my life, and people expect you to condense it into a couple of sentences. And there were so many new things here in Madison – new businesses, new bus stops, and new systems on the computers at work.”

Kim, an East Asian and international studies major, chose Chinese for her language and was eager to study in China, but the transition was tough.

“The cab driver’s Chinese was very different from what we learned in class. Local Beijing people are hard to understand. Seriously,” Kim said, “two years of Chinese is barely anything.”

She lived in an international-student dorm, which Kim described as “basically a hotel they rent to foreign students because we can afford it. Domestic students live in a room with six other girls and pay $80 for the entire year. We shared a room with one other person, had our own bathroom and room service every day for $300 a month.”

Kim said the constant poverty is something you have to ignore, but you can’t ignore the pollution. “The sky is always gray. I got headaches,” she said. “Living with the pollution in China is equivalent to smoking one to one-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day. They say after about six months, your lungs will be cleaned out again.”

Sara Kitzinger recently returned from Ecuador. “It feels good to be back in a way,” she said. “But I still miss my host family and the really close friends I made in Ecuador. I’m experiencing more culture shock to be back. I would like to mix the two worlds somehow.”

Majoring in Spanish and English, Kitzinger wanted to study in a Spanish-speaking country. “Ecuador had a wonderful price and a great program with a lot of freedom to explore on your own. I had a feeling about Ecuador,” said Kitzinger. “After being back and reflecting, I think the feeling was right.”

While Kitzinger was in Ecuador, the president was overthrown.

“The Madison program and the University in Ecuador would send us safety bulletins asking us to avoid protest demonstrations,” Kitzinger said. “But the worst thing that happened was a group of homeless children took my friend’s wallet.”

One of the differences Kitzinger noticed between the cultures was that everyone there seemed to have much more political awareness.

“People in Ecuador pay attention to what the rest of the world does more than people in the U.S. do,” Kitzinger observed. “My host family’s 6-year-old son knew about Bush. When the president was overthrown, I wrote a five-page report, which the editor of a Milwaukee paper said was very good, but decided not to print because he didn’t think his readers were interested in Ecuador.”

With a double major in international studies and global security and Russian language and civilization, Alisha Kirchoff was excited to spend an academic year in Vladimir, Russia, “but I’m still adjusting to being back,” Kirchoff said. “It’s weird because I never believed anyone when they said it’s harder to come home, but it’s far more difficult than I anticipated it would be. Although adjusting to Russia was difficult, once I felt I had a foot in both cultures, I felt very comfortable there.”

She added, “The Russians view the American people as fun-loving, but they feel we are spoiled, and we all live far beyond our means.”

Kirchoff hopes to work in Russia one day to help Russians deal with their many tangled legal issues. “In a fledgling democracy, there are a lot of issues to contend with from visas up to creating a consistent and clear practice of law through a legal code,” she said. “There is a lot of arbitrary enforcement, and even as a student, I could feel it.”

“A lot of people study abroad to view a culture outside their own and see all the things that are different, from how the bathroom is set up to how the political system works,” Kirchoff said, but what she values most is what she learned about her own country. “There are things I definitely took for granted.”

Political science major Andy Boegel has studied in both England and Ireland. He is also majoring in history and international studies and has a certificate in European studies.

“I really want to get my master’s abroad because I think in this new era of globalization, it would be an advantage to be educated somewhere outside the Midwest United States,” Boegel said. He completed a summer internship program in London in the House of Commons and went to Galway, Ireland, to work on a thesis on nationalist conflict.

“I studied in Yugoslavia and Spain, as well as Northern Ireland, and I drew some parallels on what causes nationalist identity to be exaggerated to the point where people will kill each other over it,” Boegel said. “Galway was a great place to go, but the research resources weren’t quite as good there. We have one of the best library systems imaginable here at UW.

“Ireland and England are very similar to us,” said Boegel. “I got into a comfort zone after the first month. You start developing habits. Even though I hated that everything was expensive, and I had to walk miles a day because I didn’t have a car, I started to enjoy what I had thought were annoyances. I became different while I was abroad, and when I came home, I felt forced back into old routines. I keep in touch with people over there, and I’m still listening to Irish music and watching soccer and paying attention to the BBC.”

Not every student who goes abroad is majoring in some variation of international studies. Raducha said both the Business and Engineering Colleges have international studies programs of their own. Engineering is offering a program this summer in France, where engineering students will be taking courses for their major, but seeing French engineering in operation.

Ryan Hertel took four months out of his engineering studies to participate in an Italian studies program in Florence, where 60 students from the UW and University of Michigan lived in a 16th-century villa.

“I’m majoring in mechanical engineering,” said Hertel. “I really wanted a different experience. Engineering is straightforward and set in the math and sciences, and I felt I was missing out on liberal arts. In Florence I took art history and European society, classes that, as an engineer, I normally wouldn’t have a chance to take.

“It took going to Italy to break out of my regimen and see a different view, and that’s going to make me a better engineer,” Hertel said. “There were more discussion classes rather than just sitting and listening. I’m used to analyzing engineering problems and looking for a solution, but these classes gave me a chance to express an opinion rather than find a set solution. It’s going to help me express my opinions and see other points of view and communicate. That’s an area engineers often lack.”

Like other students interviewed, Hertel said, “It was definitely more difficult to come back home than to go there. On the way back, you knew the experience was over. You start to get pulled back into our rush and fast pace. But you come back with a lot more confidence in yourself. Every time you go out there, you are unsure of the surroundings. You are always finding your way on your own, and you gain confidence in your decision-making through traveling.

“More than anything else in 50 years,” Hertel said. “I’ll remember this trip.”